The Psychology of Compassion

How many people today google "genocide," "holocaust" or "rape camp"? With changing journalism comes a changing agenda. Yet New York Times Reporter Nicholas Kristof, single-handedly, is still pushing stories of genocide and women’s inequality to the front pages. When filmmaker … Read More

By / September 23, 2009

How many people today google "genocide," "holocaust" or "rape camp"? With changing journalism comes a changing agenda. Yet New York Times Reporter Nicholas Kristof, single-handedly, is still pushing stories of genocide and women’s inequality to the front pages.

When filmmaker Eric Daniel Metzgar set out to follow Kristof on his stories, he realized this film is as much about the art of journalism as it is about compassion, and suffering. He let the story tell itself which led the audience to meet people in the greatest suffering, in the deepest anger, and with the saddest stories. And that is what Kristof wanted, because one person’s story can provoke compassion and maybe bring the issues alive.

Today, it is unbelievable to think how we got here. There are 5.4 million dead in Africa’s genocide over the past five years, and 1.4 currently misplaced in Eastern Congo alone. Twenty two militias are in battle in the region, in a place with absolute no law and order. Rape is not a crime, in fact it is what militia do during battle. In this case, it’s a battle that never ends or clocks out. Kristof has written 60 columns addressing the genocide alone.

"If it’s happening every day, it should be written about every day," said one journalist in Reporter. "Imagine, during the Holocaust, saying ‘Oh, there was 20 stories written about the extermination of the Jews. It’s redundant.’"

One way to fight the genocide is with militia and guns, said Kristof. Another is with notebooks and pens. "And that’s what I do," he said, bringing two students with him – Leona Won and Will Okun – to travel as eyewitnesses in the Congo.

The Congo

The Congo is a land where 22 militias are at constant battle especially among the most fierce, the Hutus and Tutsis. After fleeing the Rwandan genocide, the Hutus fled to the Congo reliving a same kind of fate there.

Kristof and the crew spent, at one point, time with Nkunda – a warlord on the side of the Tutsis – where they got to see their church and even stayed for dinner. "We love G-d too much," said one militia.

After attempts to fight peacefully, Nkunda formed a rebel militia. "In Africa, we have no human rights. Only strong rights," Nkunda said. "I’m not a warlord. I’m a liberator."

They all believe they are liberators, as told in the film. All trying to create order, and justice, in their own way through murdering and raping others.

"It was unbelievably eerie to eat with people who caused so much suffering in the Congo. But it was the best meal we had since we got there," Metzgar said.

The Writing Process

It was said that if it were not for Nicholas Kristof, the world would not know of Darfur. Kristof was the first to put it on the map, and continues to push the agenda. He has covered women’s issues including sex trafficking for almost a decade now. His work has been acclaimed with two Pulitzer awards. How does Kristof get us to care?


Kristof has a habit of reading the psychology of compassion. He has learned that people are far more compassionate when they see one girl in need on a television screen, or hear of one death, than when they see or hear of even two people. Then it becomes a statistic; then our minds lack the ability to comprehend.

Kristof’s art is in telling the story of one person to bring systemic change for all. That one person is who Kristof calls his "Rokia," the person whose story can illuminate the massive conflict. Everyone warranted a column, Kristof said. But he was still seeking the saddest story, even though saddest stories exist whether he writes them or not, Metzgar said while capturing the hunt for Kristof’s Rokia.

Take that one person’s story and multiply it by 4 million – and then you have a fuller story of what’s really taking place. Kristoff is famed for his piece "Save the Darfur Puppy." If people are unmoved by the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of humans, maybe they will care about a puppy, he decided.

The film incorporated beautiful still snapshots taken by student Will Okun to coincide with the stories, and luckily, student Leona Won knew medicine enough to help a 40 year old woman, under 80 pounds, get to a hospital to find out her infections were incurable. Kristof interviewed that woman who could barely speak on the way there.

How Do We Help?

Actress Mia Farrow, now involved with UNICEF, said Kristof’s column on Darfur "Tore me apart and rearranged me." Hearing about what is going on, seeing it, reading it rearranges most of us, for deep down we are unbearably human. Some issues are too great to deal with. What is it that we can possibly do? Building a school, as said in the film, isn’t helpful when militia return and burn it down. Giving instructions to the people isn’t helpful. But, Kristof says, we can listen more and speak up more.

Ruth Messinger, President of American Jewish World Service who hosted the film premiere at HBO Studios, sat on panel after the premiere alongside Eric Metzgar and Nicholas Kristof. What can we do? She said we can read newspapers more and keep journalism alive. We can start and continue to talk about these issues. We can get involved in organizations that help keep this agenda front and center and continue to write to our leaders that we want to see action.

As a journalist who is most passionate of all about the 60 to 100 million young girls and women missing to the sex trade — girls who die in their early 20s to AIDS or get their eyes gauzed for being resistant — Kristof tends to break his journalistic boundaries and even "buys" girls in order to return them to their homes. This model of what we can do says we can do anything; that we should do anything in our power.

"I think this is true compassion," Metzgar said in the conclusion of the film referring to Kristof’s desire to create change by telling these stories. "If Nick didn’t think he could do this, he’d probably given up by now."

During the Q&A session that concluded the premiere, Kristof said he likes traveling light. He prefers not to make plans and instead maneuvers around in as much secrecy as possible to prevent any likeliness for kidnap. Not only did he bring two students with him this time, but a camera crew is "really not my style," he said. With all the gear that was brought, Kristoff joked he was tempted to hand over the crew to General Nkunda. But ultimately, Kristoff said, "I care about the story. If Eric can do that [bring alive this story], then I’m willing to have on an extra twenty boxes of supplies."

The event was sponsored by American Jewish World Service Global Circle. For more information about the Global Circle, please visit For more information about Reporter, please visit



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