The concept of “public intellectual” never enjoyed the status in the United States that it’s long had elsewhere. We can label a Noam Chomsky, Betty Friedan or Henry Louis Gates as such, but even they’re not venerated the way a David Suzuki has been in Canada or Richard Dawkins is in Britain.
France, of course, flatters itself on making genuine celebrities out of such figures. Bernard-Henri Lévy has been so famous for so long — a near constant presence in French media, public affairs and life — that he’s referred to just by his initials — BHL.
He’s not just an academic, not just a specialist in one field. BHL is a citizen of the world of ideas and in France, often serves as the conscience of the country, a figure who weighs in on ethical and social concerns and calls attention to humanity’s moral responsibilities to others.
That’s the role highlighted by “The Will To See,” a documentary Lévy co-directed to use his globe-trotting life as observer –“bearing witness” to the world’s conflicts to call attention to humanitarian crises and “bad actors” on the world stage.
Lévy does so often under assignment to the famed French magazine “Paris Match,” but he’s not exactly a journalist. His essays read like the carefully composed words of his voice-over narrations in the film, musings on the state of inhumanity and the plight of the weak. And he doesn’t just travel — often in what appear to be diplomatic convoys — a Frenchman in a suit in Nigeria or Kurdistan, Ukraine or wherever men with guns are imposing their will on others. He intervenes, arranges meetings and gives speeches celebrating liberty and the struggle for it in long-embattled (pre-current Russian invasion) Kiev and in newly-liberated Tripoli, proclaiming France’s and his admiration for people who struggle against oppressors.
“I remember Rwanda,” he narrates (in French with English subtitles). “I remember Darfur…I remember Cambodia.”
He started doing this as a young man, inspired by writer, leftist and public intellectual André Malraux’s call for the international community to intervene or at least focus its eyes on civil-war, poverty and cyclone-stricken Bangladesh back in 1971. He revisits Bangladesh and Afghanistan, and even Lisbon (which had its own revolution which he observed in 1974).
Returning to Somalia, even with lots of protection, doesn’t turn out to be a good idea. In Nigeria he details Boko Harum’s Islamo-fascist efforts to “wipe out Christianity” in that corner of Africa. In Afghanistan, he was there just before the West pulled out, lamenting the fate of a local woman he hired for a magazine he started in Kabul after the US and its allies liberated the city from the Taliban.
Lévy is particularly taken with the plight of the Iraqi Kurds, who have a hard time answering his questions about who their biggest threat is — ISIS, whom they have been fighting, or “Erdogan,” the Turkish ruler who turned on them with the West more or less permitting an alleged ally to slaughter a valued partner in the fight against Islamic terrorism.
He hears stories of massacres and meets an African village’s sole survivor, revisits the infamous Baba Yar Holocaust massacre site, shows us the armed thugs of this corner of the world or that one preying on and “ethnic cleansing” the unarmed, and notes drolly, “Isn’t war grand?”
All that said, I came away from the film with mixed feelings about the man. His compassion is unquestionable, but his methods have a patronizing, self-aggrandizing “show the flag” effect. A French Jewish intellectual telling homeless, broke young Muslim refugees that “Christians, Muslims and Jews are brothers,” when he’s in a designer suit and they’re in donated clothes is painfully tone deaf. They’re too in need of help and too polite to roll their eyes at that.
He complains about COVID lockdowns and is downright contemptuous handing out face masks in Lesbos, Greece, where the “there is no COVID” he says, noting that the kids will make theatrical masks out of them.
He stops by Gaza, highlights his lifelong support for Israel “which was born the same year as I,” and dismissively declares “But I don’t want to deal with Hamas,” and abruptly leaves. WTH BHL? The optics on that are just awful, suggesting his compassion not only has limits, but that they can be tribal.
A film that has a whiff of ego trip about it lets the guy show off his own petard, and lets us see him hoist himself by it.
Still, even if he’s only bringing these global trouble spots to the French and only hoping that “we do something” about it, he’s doing some good, one supposes. And as he notes of Somalia, “the world forgets” about these places after a while, even though the conflicts burn on and the tide of refugees ebbs and flows, even though most of us have lost “The Will to See.”
Rating: unrated, images of massacres, victims of war
Cast: Bernard-Henri Lévy
Credits: Directed by Bernard-Henri Lévy and Marc Roussel. A Cohen Media Group release.
Running time: 1:38