Journalism and truth telling in wartime

by Rob Okun

Brent Renaud. Marina Ovsyannikova. One a US filmmaker killed by Russian troops on March 13 while working on a documentary about refugees. The other, an editor-producer on Russian state TV’s Channel One who dramatically interrupted a news broadcast to hold aloft a sign denouncing Putin’s war. She was immediately arrested.

Renaud’s senseless killing one day and Ovsyannikova’s brave action the next, unintentionally have forged a link between journalism and wartime truth telling that cannot be overstated.

An award-winning social issue documentarian, Renaud was noted for blending “compassion and reportorial legwork.” He and his brother Craig made emotionally layered films about people’s big struggles and small triumphs. Until March 14, Ovsyannikova was a pawn in Russia’s propaganda war against reality.

Renaud was in Ukraine filming a segment for a multipart series about refugees around the world called Tipping Point. Ovsyannikova’s tipping point came the next day, 19 days into Putin’s war. Using Channel One’s platform, she broadcast truth to power nationwide. Rushing behind the newscaster, she brandished a sign in English and Russian: “NO WAR. Stop the war. Don’t believe propaganda. They are lying to you here.”

Renaud made films focusing on migration during perilous times, a recurring theme for him, the New York Times reported. He and his brother’s extensive catalogue of work illuminates social inequities. Ovsyannikova has only one, seconds-long “film” credit.

Describing her act of conscience, Ovsyannikova admitted she felt ashamed to have spread Kremlin disinformation for so long. She urged Russians to demonstrate against the war, declaring:

“What is happening now in Ukraine is a crime, and Russia is the aggressor country. The responsibility for that aggression lies on the conscience of only one man, and that man is Vladimir Putin … [T]he next 10 generations of our descendants will not wash away the shame of this fratricidal war.”

Ovsyannikova has neither Renaud’s vast experience as a documentarian nor his extensive film credits. And, unlike Darnella Frazier, the then-17-year-old who was a witness when she recorded George Floyd being murdered, Ovsyannikova was both producer and actor in her seconds-long antiwar video. But if we only see her as a guerilla theater actor, we’re missing the point. What she did was courageous frontline wartime reporting — in Russia on live television!

The president of Ukraine knows something about filmmaking. During his address to Congress March 16, Zelensky also was a journalist and executive producer of a powerful two-minute film depicting Ukrainian cities before and after Putin’s invasion. A montage of children playing in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odesa and elsewhere, followed by missiles destroying apartment buildings.

Congressmembers sat rapt as the scene switched between before-and-after images of Putin’s unconscionable assault. Then it cut to first responders aiding victims; children sobbing; bodies lying in the street; others lowered into a trench. No graves. A documentary about the war in real time; Brent Renaud probably would have approved. I hope the Academy Awards acknowledges it.

But how many Russians saw it — brainwashed to believe the war is a “special military operation,” and Ukraine’s Jewish president part of a Nazi cabal.

“Recovering” Channel One propagandist Marina Ovsyannikova was interrogated for 14 hours, found guilty of flouting protest laws, and fined 30,000 roubles (about $280). A law that took effect March 4 bans actions like hers and she faces a possible prison sentence of up to 15 years. She fears for her safety.

Ovsyannikova didn’t produce a heart-wrenching video like the one President Zelensky screened. She only had seconds to report to her Russian sisters and brothers. Zelensky noticed. “I am grateful to those Russians who do not stop trying to convey the truth,” especially appreciating “the woman who entered the studio of Channel One with a poster against the war.”

If he had been Ukrainian, murdered US journalist Brent Renaud might have made the video Congress saw. If he had been Russian, perhaps he would have produced an antiwar short like Marina Ovsyannikova’s. Either way, we need more citizens to expand the meaning of journalism in a time of war.

Rob Okun (rob@voicemalemagazine.org), syndicated by PeaceVoice, has worked as a daily newspaper reporter, and editor of several magazines, including the antisexist publication Voice Male. He writes about politics and culture.