Thursday, March 22, 2007

Richard Engel: Another Screenplay Lost



I was listening to an interview with Richard Engel, the amazing NBC reporter who's been covering Iraq for years, and my first thought was, "Well, there goes another screenplay down the drain." Especially when the interviewer said, "You just decided to move to Cairo and ended up a big-time journalist? Nobody does that."

See, my brother and I wrote a script about his days in the international journalism business called, "Covering It." His career began when his girlfriend at the time went from Minnesota to study in Cairo. He followed her there with minimal funds, eventually landing a video news job with a British company called Visnews. Richard Engel also got his start when he went to Cairo as a freelancer taking only 2 grand with him.

My brother eventually moved up, roaming the world including a stint in Baghdad prior to the Gulf War. Richard snuck into Iraq prior to this war with 20 grand taped to his leg, and began freelancing for ABC. My brother's company of Visnews was eventually gobbled up by Reuters with some connection with NBC. Richard Engel started working for NBC, too, bringing some of the most compelling coverage of the war to the NBC Nightly News.

It seems like just yesterday that my Mom called up and said to watch David on the NBC Nightly News. I asked what he was doing and she said, "He's running from the South African police and they are trying to trip him." Sure enough, he showed up running with a TV camera in tow across a square in the days before Nelson Mandela was released from prison. There were police chasing him, and trying to trip him. He made it safely to a huge crowd of protesters.

It was one of the more powerful shots ever of the risks of being a video journalist. In fact, it was included in a CNN Special called, "Dying to Tell the Story" and since the shot was used in the promo, it was on TV around the world dozens of times.

Of course, Richard has us on the dramatic, horrible war footage, having spent the last 4 years in Iraq. He mentioned that so far, 3 of his hotel rooms have been damaged badly by the violence. Then, they transferred him to Lebanon just before war broke out there last summer. He has a shot of a bullet coming into his room. My brother's "bullet in the hotel room" story was in Afghanistan. But David has some ridiculously scary footage from a hotel lobby in Thailand that shows live gunfire and ends with soldiers coming in and beating the people with rifle butts.

Richard also has us by filming a video dairy which was turned into a special on MSNBC last night. He had a little camera and filmed his own personal observations as well as the gruesome stuff you can't see on TV because if the American public saw it, they'd be even more against the war. The TV special last night did show one guy yelling at the camera as he held up someone's severed hand.

Sadly, Engel's piece also documented the breakup of his marriage while all this went on. It's no surprise, really. He became more and more isolated during this exposure to the horrors of war, and that's one of the things that happens. My brother called me after seeing a car bombing in Kurdistan one time and frankly, I worried that his head had been cooked. It's tough when you have to rush to see the horrible things and video-tape them. Another time my brother was video-taping a suffering child near Mt. Pinatuba in the Philippines and the child died while he was filming. So this is a brutal business, and the number of these journalists who've been killed is staggering.

Fortunately, my brother's wife went along on the journey and they had kids in Cairo, London, South Africa, and the Philippines. There were extraordinary scenes from so many countreis, all tucked neatly into the screeplay: Talking with Mother Theresa in Egypt, or sitting in a garden in South Africa with Nelson Mandela the day after his release from prison. There were also bad scenes for David like missing his daughter's graduation because he was being detained by the Chinese police.

However so much of the story is the same: The incredible bonds with your workers from the local population. The hassles and dangers of getting the story and then getting it out so the whole world can watch. Incidentally, some of David's colleagues are still mentioned in the news. He flew into Bagdhad with Mo Amin and John Simpson. I just saw John Simpson on the BBC website and the late Mo Amin is still remembered as the legendary photo journalist who broke the Ethiopian famine story back in the "We Are the World" days.

Of course, one way we've got Richard Engel's script - if he ever writes one - is that he still needs a happy ending. Fortunately, for David and his worrying family, he got out after the hand-over of Hong Kong and is now chilling in Minnesota. It's funny. I still remember the time my Mom had enough and called Reuters Television in London to check on David's safety in Iraq. Those were exciting times, but I'm glad they're over.

The screenplay, "Covering It" is still pretty great, but it would have been a very expensive movie with lots of location shots. Richard Engel has us on that, too. Ever notice how every place in Iraq looks the same? Oh well, it's not going to happen now. Nope, if anything you'll be seeing the Richard Engel story. Now there's an idea for a screenplay. Of course, if he's waiting for the war in Iraq to stop, he might not get a happy ending for a long, long time.

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how do I do what they did?

 
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