The journalist grandson of Luis Buñuel talks about the great auteur and his own struggle with a reductionist news culture.
In the Buñuel vein: Diego Luis Buñuel
Let's get this out of the way first. Diego Luis Buñuel is annoyingly good-looking and charming. Worse, he seems like a nice bloke and even has the grace to appear faintly embarrassed when his attention is drawn to the thousands of (mainly) female fans who flutter around him on the internet. But only faintly. As a child of the modern media and a grandson of one of cinema's most celebrated directors, he understands fully not only the need to engage with tomorrow's viewers/readers/subscribers, but also the power of personality and image in doing so.
These are two concepts neatly bundled together in the series Don't Tell My Mother, now airing in Arabic on the National Geographic Abu Dhabi channel, and summed up in a comment by Mary, one fan on the Facebook discussion topic "Diego Buñuel is too sexy for this topic to go un-started", who says: "First you look at his report coz he is cute and then you learn interesting things." Quite. It is, says the 34-year-old Buñuel during a recent visit to Dubai, "bizarre, and yet then again very enjoyable, because the reality of the comments that are made - except for the few, you know, 'You're so cute, blah blah' - is that I am engaging young people in looking at their world in a different way".
The idea for the show grew out of an office joke when Buñuel was working as a reporter for the French television news agency CAPA. "Don't tell my mother I am in Afghanistan," he would tell colleagues as he headed off to the latest trouble spot. His mother's fear of such places, he realised, was created largely by the one-dimensional agenda of the evening news channels, and he wanted to tell the world a different story.
"My mother would be freaking out watching CNN or the BBC whenever I was in the field. I would go to the Congo and she would see a mass of rapes and murders, which is true, but it is not the only thing. That represents one per cent or less of the population and that means we know nothing about 99 per cent of the country." Four years after the September 11 attacks and as the veteran of a working tour of the world's trouble spots, "I was tired of doing all the 'if it bleeds, it leads' stories. I would see these other stories around me and call the newsroom and they would say: 'Are you crazy? Just do the story with the bearded guys.'"
In 2006, at the age of 31, he pitched his vision to National Geographic and got the chance to tell those other, human stories behind the headlines in such places as Colombia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. His audience, he says, is the young disconnected. "They are not people who read The New York Times. This is the Facebook, video-game, 15-to-35 generation that I think is lost because of this constant entertainment drivel that's on every screen we have.
"My goal is to show them that there is a world out there that is open and not a scary place; if you show them there are a lot of exciting places and interesting people to meet, you can touch them and give them hope that our world can change." The son of two film directors and the grandson of the surrealist filmmaker and Oscar-winner Luis Buñuel, his own childhood, he concedes, was "very privileged". There were "always interesting people at the table", including the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin, Umberto Eco and George Cukor, though this had its downside.
"I was a very solitary kid for many years, because I grew up in this adult world that was fascinating," he says. "For me the discussion at the table, even if I didn't understand half of it, was so much more interesting than the drivel at school." But among the actors, thinkers and directors who passed through his parents' salon in Paris, there were also foreign correspondents, big names from papers such as The New York Times and the Washington Post, and, in the house of surrealism, a seed of realism was sown.
"I was 14 and they'd tell me about Lebanon, about Vietnam ... I grew up in a world of fiction and suddenly I had these guys telling me crazy stories, but it was reality. It really got me interested in finding out exactly what reality was." At one point, it had been accepted that the young Buñuel would go into the family business. "Yes, that was the planned career: actor. I thought I would be in the movies at one point. So did my parents. But I wanted to be in journalism."
Leaving Paris, he enrolled at Northwestern University just outside Chicago to study journalism and political science. After graduating in 1997, the first of his many internships was with the Times Picayune in New Orleans, where he worked the crime beat: "It was really interesting, very wild; a lot of murders- my first interaction with the brutality of real life." After experience on newspapers including the San Francisco Examiner, St Louis Post-Dispatch, Miami Herald and Chicago Tribune, he landed a job in Miami where, as a crime reporter on the Sun Sentinel, his fluency in Spanish came in handy.
And then, one day in 2000, the telephone rang. "It's the French army calling, saying 'You're drafted'," he explains. "I said, 'Are you joking?' They weren't. It was the last year of national service in France. "I could have got out of it but I decided to do it for the experience," says Buñuel. With the rank of corporal, he was sent to Bosnia to work with Nato's media affairs division. "It was interesting to see how the military played the media; it gave me a very good insight."
When he had served his time, his job was still waiting in Florida, but by now love was calling in Paris, in the shape of a Croatian girlfriend. His first thought was to re-enter print journalism, "but my spelling in French is not very good, so I started in TV at the CAPA news agency. That's where I learnt my trade as a TV journalist". Then fate stepped in. In the aftermath of September 11, thanks to his American passport, he was on the first flight out of France to land in New York. "I realised there and then that things were going to start happening rapidly. Anything that happened after 9/11, I was in it; Afghanistan, then the invasion of Iraq."
In 2003, following French opposition to the invasion of Iraq and the resurrection of the Simpsons taunt, "cheese-eating surrender monkeys", being a French reporter was "a real challenge if you wanted to be embedded in the US Marines", says Buñuel. But, "after working like hell for three weeks in Kuwait" and having the good luck to run into a US officer he had met in 2001 at ground zero in New York, he bagged a seat on a convoy bound for Baghdad. His CAPA cameraman was not so lucky and so, after an overnight crash-course in filming, Buñuel found himself hefting his own hardware and following in his grandfather's footsteps in a way neither could have envisaged.
Did the Marines give him a hard time? "Of course. And having been a soldier in the French army didn't help much." By 2004, his work unearthing feature stories that dug deeper than the average news segment was attracting attention and he had become not only the teller of stories, but the subject of a few. According to a review in the Los Angeles Times in May 2004, he was responsible for "some of this year's most memorable reporting from Iraq".
As a man who uses a camera to focus attention on the realities of the world, the irony of the juxtaposition with his famous surrealist grandfather is not lost on him. Yet both he and Buñuel senior, the auteur of such classics as Belle de Jour (1967) and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), share humour as a stock in trade. "He used humour to criticise religion, hypocrisy, the bourgeoisie and so forth in a surreal environment; I use humour to criticise dictatorship, violence and oppression in hyper-real situations. So in a way we both took humour as a sword to fight against things that hurt people."
He remembers his grandfather, who died in 1983, when Diego was eight years old: "Unfortunately, that is too young; when you have a guy of that calibre in your family you wish that he were around a little longer. That will be the tragedy of my life." And, as his famous forebear sought to break out of the straitjacket of cinematic tradition, so Buñuel rejects the protocols of traditional TV news, seeking to re-engage with viewers and help them to identify with the people behind the clichés.
"In this media culture of good guys and bad guys," he says, "you can't be subtle, you have to be black and white. But the world is grey. "What is Afghanistan? It's burkas, Taliban and opium. What is Colombia? Cocaine, kidnappings and Farc. The world has been reduced to three basic ideas per country. Media coverage, instead of opening us to the world, has closed us off and has frightened us more than reassured us."
His job, he says, "is to try to find unusual small stories that tell of a bigger picture", to bypass the formats that govern so much of the news and deaden the sensitivities of so many of the people who watch it. "For example, in Baghdad, I can go film another car bombing, but we've seen a million of them and, as Stalin said, a million deaths is a statistic. So how do you bring it down to a level so that people in their homes in the West can understand the realities?"
Buñuel's answer was to tell the story by pointing his lens not at shattered bodies, but at the unclaimed clothes left behind in a Baghdad dry-cleaner's. It makes for a haunting image, "an entire room filled with clothes - the clothes of children, women, men, clerics; people who have never come back to get them. So in going to the dry-cleaner's you understand what death is all about in Iraq. "That is my job: to try to bring harsh realities back to a level that you can understand and feel for. To help people to understand the hopes, and plight or successes of other people in a more innovative way than just saying, 'Today, a thousand people died and it was terrible.' Yes, it was terrible, but if that is the only thing you have to say about it then you're not saying anything."
The bad news for Buñuel's young female fan base is that more than a year ago he married his girlfriend, Maggie Kim, a Korean-born rock musician who grew up in New York. ("He has a wife?" writes Isabella on Facebook. "That sucks.") The good news is that, despite having fathered a daughter - Dae, now seven months old - he has no plans to stop visiting the world's most dangerous places, and telling the humanising stories of the people who live there.
"On the contrary," he says, "having a child I want to show her the place she has arrived in: the world." Don't Tell My Mother- I'm in Congo is on National Geographic Abu Dhabi at 10pm on March 19.