Anne-Laure Bonnel, war documentarist
Transcription of a debate about Donbass, Nagorno-Karabakh, and other wars.
This is the transcription (translated by me from French to English) of a recent debate on April 6, 2022, for a French TV show, with documentarist Anne-Laure Bonnel, director of the war documentaries “Donbass, 8 years of war” (2016, English subtitles), and “Silence dans le Haut-Karabakh” (2020, French only). The original French transmission can be seen here. I apologize for any possible mistakes, French people love to talk over each other and sometimes it was hard to hear… I've been interested in Anne-Laure Bonnel's work since I saw a video of her in Donbass, and then I watched her documentary. This is a debate with her presented at the French show “Touchez pas mon poste", some kind of sensationalist, trashy talk show which is not that great, but the things she says are interesting nevertheless.
PRESENTER: You say that you refuse to be called a journalist, why?
ALB: So, a little nuance--
PRESENTER: It starts well.
ALB: Because everything is a question of nuance. It's not a question of hierarchy, it's good, or not good, it's that I don't do news, I go to the field and make documentaries. Like Paul Moreira, he calls himself a documentarist. My job is to make documentaries. It's different from being a journalist.
PRESENTER: For you, journalists, are good, or do they create misinformation--
ALB: Not at all, there is this great guy who [crosstalk]. There is Renaud Girard, for example, who knows well how to express things, he's covering there now since I got back, and I'm going to be very honest with you, I turned off my TV, because I didn't want to see the news, because when you come home from three weeks of bombings, having seen shredded bodies all over, there's blood, it stinks, it's violent, we were shot at, we received death threats.
At some point you just need silence, only silence. And especially, to get away from people.
Really, I don't sleep much, I said, at this moment I can't sleep [crosstalk]. You know, one does not come out unscathed from a conflict, and I think that all those who cover it, feel the same. So that's why I turned off my TV, it's that the noise... still sensitizes my ears a little.
PRESENTER: In 2014, pro-Russian separatists declare the independence of Donbass, Ukrainian territory where the inhabitants are mainly Russian-speaking, the Ukrainian army and the separatists start a war. You were in the Donbass, how many times?
ALB: Three times.
PRESENTER: Three times.
ALB: But if I may say something, because I see there's not much time, I would just ask you, once, Cyril, a favour, I came here yesterday, I could not express myself, I would like just, because the time is short, just to be able to express myself on some things I could not say, to say them now, and afterwards I can answer all your questions, as I said yesterday to your team.
ALB: Thanks so much. So before talking about this conflict, that is a disaster, a butchery, I will never endorse a war, I did not endorse it in Nagorno-Karabakh, I did not endorse it anywhere, neither in Yemen, anywhere.
But to understand this conflict, and Sergey, I would like to come back to this, because I listened to one of your interviews with that young man that I didn't quite understand, but what you need to know and what I would have asked, is why, since 2014, there were "bugs". "Bugs", all I want to say, "bugs". On December 2, 2014--
ALB: What I mean is Russian and American interferences. You said, in the area which has been bombarded for eight years, Donetst and Lugansk, there were Russians, but there were also Americans, and I have proof.
I would just like to state it. Colleagues have spoken about it, but it was not released. This investigative work was done beforehand.
So I continue. On December 2, 2014, Natalie Jaresko, an American national, is placed as Finance Minister of the Ukraine. The Ukraine granted her the Ukrainian nationality on the day of her inauguration. The Ukraine also benefited from the assistance of the American government through the visit to the Ukraine of the CIA director John Brennan, in April 2014. I invite you to fact-check all that.
So the problem of Ukraine, Mr. Sergey, is that the US and Russia were there since the beginning, and also NATO was there, we know there were military trainings since 2014, also Russian instructors, I'm not here to take the Russians side, I am not anti-Ukraine, or pro-Russian, or anti-Zelensky, or anti-Kiev. or anti-Russian, I'm here simply to balance this debate because it is leading to a butchery, and a terrible butchery, war is awful. When you live it, when you see bodies torn to pieces, but all of the Ukraine is in pieces.
And we have to say that the responsible are not the civilians, but they are the ones who pay the price. It's the government there. It's the government there, and the United States that were not playing fair.
Is that you find normal, or can we even imagine, that the French appointed an American as Minister of Finance? Would that be possible? And even someone who was the CEO of a private company.
SERGEY JIRNOV [Former KGB spy]: So what are you saying?
ALB: [crosstalk] Simply that the Russians and the Americans... I think it's clear [crosstalk]
PRESENTER: What is the cause of that war for you?
ALB: I think there are geopolitical and energy issues, also the Ukraine is badly located, it is like a buffer zone, between, uh, the Eurasian continent and Europe. And today I have the feeling, but it could be just me, that we are witnessing a showdown between new alliances that are particularly worrying, Russia, China, India, versus Europe or the West, and that can end very badly. I don't think one makes war for charity. Unfortunately. And I'm sorry for the victims, because I know. Because I filmed the victims, I filmed them in many countries, and for a few months I was, I was in Nagorno-Karabakh, and I can tell you that it was so savage there, I still can't sleep now.
When you see living people having their throats cut, you don't sleep, believe me, Cyril, you don't sleep.
So what I mean is, it's that, there are things that go beyond, beyond just this war, there are other issues behind it. there are other issues, and now we are plunged into a conflict under an American subservience, that since 2014 is not very clean, not very clean, and I regret that we don't have a [PM Dominique] De Villepin, like in 2003, to say, yes, it's unacceptable what's happening.
Even if we can't find other means to stop this conflict, but the Minsk Agreements, after 8 years, could have avoided this butchery?
PRESENTER: [crosstalk] Wagner, that, how can you explain that?
ALB: How do I explain it, it's very simple. I discuss a lot with, in general my sources are French generals, and besides that there are American sources and NGOs, I don't see any Russians, OK?.
ALB: Okay, thank you. So how can I explain, to do investigative work, in a war zone, Sergey, it takes a long time, it's slow and we don't know what's going on. Mr. Gomart, the former director of a French military think tank, he explained to me that, for Bosnia, to find [evidence of] war crimes, it took more than 6 years. So for the moment I say caution, be careful of the media, because you know-- I want to say [crosstalk], I say, watch out, because we are running straight into a wall.
PRESENTER: A little digression about this, there is also a massacre in Mali, about three days ago and I would like that we talked about it a little more on the media-- because there were a lot of civilians massacred in Mali, I think that we should also move quickly for Mali because it's very worrying, and we don't talk about it, we can't compare to the media war in the Ukraine, but we have to talk about--
ALB: Allow me to say that there are no hierarchies for me [crosstalk]
PRESENTER: We need to talk about everything, it is important. Sergey, when we hear from your side that Anne-Laure, she says here that... That what she, you complain, it's that, that the European media say that Russians are always to blame, for you they are not to blame?
ALB: No, no, listen to what I have just said, the blame is shared, what I reproach the media---
SERGEY: The Americans and the Russians, it's that?
SOMEONE ELSE IN TABLE: And the Ukrainians also, the Ukrainians.. [crosstalk]
ALB: Sure, the Minsk agreements were not respected. I sent you videos. I remind you all the same that even if there was or not Russian influence at Donetsk and Lugansk, a president who, with combat helicopters, shoots point-blank on its own people, that right there is a war crime.
I informed French intelligence in 2014, there is a war crime there. There were bodies shredded, a woman still talking, with no legs. You have seen these images.
Is that normal? I am not defending anyone, I am the first to say that the Russians share a responsibility, I am open about it.
SERGEY: You are saying it tonight.
ALB: And I said it before, and if people had done their work, I mean Libération [newspaper], thank you, Libération. I announce to you that I am suing for defamation, because all that they said is false. Everything, everything, everything. Know that if you read the articles that I put on Twitter, I also accused the Ukraine of being corrupt, and even Yanukovich, I never defended him, but that was never put in the media.
It's as if they did everything to discredit my words, and to make my work, which is neutral, to be passed over in silence.
Just know one last thing, Sergey, in 2015, I left with an Ukrainian woman of French origin. This dossier, you ask me if it concerns you, and no it doesn't, I wouldn't dare do that to you, I still have professional ethics, but you know, the person who accompanied me, and that's not related to, the French Army is not involved, but it's to answer the accusations by Benoît Viktine, who said, oh, this young woman must have been hired by the Russian Ministry.
SERGEY: Well that's what we heard.
ALB: Well, then look with whom I went there, sir. Sergey, sorry. I went with a former member of the French Army, so I think that in terms of information, the French army knows how to do their job. So you can look, you can fact-check.
PRESENTER: We are not here to do your trial.
ALB: It's not a trial but it's normal to make things clear, because Vitkine said that I had been manipulated, but it's false.
PRESENTER: Excuse me, we are not on the social media. On social media, on Libération, it's all very nice, but here we are an hour of time and [inaudible].
ALB: OK, so now I answer to the questions.
PRESENTER: Ok, it's good, you have specified your positions, and that's fine. Sergey. About what Anne-Laure said.
SERGEY: Already, at most, if you had said that for eight years, we might not be here studying your story. Because in fact it is absolutely unclear from what I saw in the media, you clearly show that you are pro-Russian, that you are manipulated by the Russians, you work for the Russians, and you accuse the Ukrainians. You spoke of 13,000 dead in the conflict, and you presented that as 13,000 dead produced by the Ukrainians, when it's both sides, and--
ALB: Mister, allow me, I never said that, and all the viewers that saw my YouTube channel…
SERGEY: [crosstalk] Listen to me.
ALB: Please, I recorded my talk with newspapers Libération, Le Monde, I told them everything you say, and they wrote things which contradicted everything I said, that's why I'm suing for defamation, listen to that again, and it's a shame that--
PRESENTER: Ok, we want to talk about the situation now in Russia, and you want to have your view, we're not here to say if it's pro-Russian or not, we want to know what's happening, and what's your view.
WOMAN ON ROUND TABLE: First of all, it's good to hear you, when we look at your work we see how you can't sleep, because I have seen your documentary on Nagorno-Karabakh, and it's very traumatic, everyone has to see it, because it's about the horrors of war. That said, I hear you, Ok, very well, the conflict, the geopolitics, who's to blame. Today, concretely, there is Russia that invaded Ukraine. There are four million refugees. There are mass graves, abuses, horrible scenes. I don't know who did what, but overall, it's a horror. Concretely, how do we do? That is to say, do you agree, do you think Putin should stop? You mentioned the Minsk Agreements, the cease-fire, but the Ukrainian people are sovereign, there are 44 million people in Ukraine that want, who voted for Zelensky, 73% in the second round, and they do not want to be under Putin's yoke. So what do we tell them, "well, it's like that"? See what I mean?
ALB: So I don't do politics, but personally, what I think is that we have to try diplomacy, to listen again to Védrine and Villepin who talked about it and who are much more informed than I am, to put back on the table people who try to find solutions, to say, "this is not acceptable", I agree, and I say it.
WOMAN: But, how to do it?
ALB: You have to listen to the specialists. Hubert Védrine is a specialist. De Villepin is a specialist, Renaud Girard is a specialist,
WOMAN: And Ukrainian people are not the specialists in their own fate?
ALB: Yes, but how can you say [crosstak, inaudible]. You have to make diplomacy work, because you know that when diplomacy doesn't work anymore, then the cannons command.
PRESENTER: But diplomacy has never worked with Putin. He never wanted it. [crosstalk]. But in Donetsk and Lugansk, it was a problem between Ukrainians and Ukrainians.
ALB: Excuse me, but if we had not had a De Villepin, we could say that diplomacy [crosstalk]
PRESENTER: We are off topic.
WOMAN: Do you criticize the Russian intervention on Ukraine?
ALB: Listen, I condemned the bombings [crosstalk], obviously, and I condemn all bombardments, and the— [crosstalk]
WOMAN: Putin is a dictator or not, in your opinion?
ALB: It's an authoritarian regime, clearly.
SERGEY: You talked about the American who was appointed minister in the Ukrainian government. Is that you find it normal that in 2004, Putin comes to Ukraine, a sovereign country, to propose them their president, Yanukovich, and say, here, you must vote for this person, and I, the president of a neighbour country, I bring you this person, elect him.
ALB: I don't find anything normal in the world today. There are few things I find normal. [crosstalk] But when I give interviews, they are cut, edited out.
SERGEY: But you have your channel, you have your blog.
ALB: So now I have to correct everything? I'm not going to [crosstalk]
SERGEY: In Donbass and Lugansk, it's not the Ukrainians against Ukrainians. It's the Russians, it's the Russians! Yetkin is an officer of the FSB. The Minister of Defense in Donetsk is an officer from the FSB. From 1996 to— [crosstalk]
ALB: There were American officers, since 2014, there were also American instructors…
SERGEY: It was the Russians!
ALB: …Americans training Azov. The Americans and the Russians want the war [crosstalk]. I want to say, there are the Russians, and the Americans, we need to say that the Americans are there— [crosstalk]
MAN IN ROUND TABLE: I have a question about Bucha. We saw the images, the world is horrified about Bucha. There are humanitarian organizations, Human Rights Watch, who say there are apparent war crimes in areas controlled by Russians, like Bucha. And you tell us all the time that one needs expertise, that it takes years, we must investigate...
ALB: Remember Timisoara [crosstalk]. Mister, we need investigations. You may not like it, but it's the reality.
SERGEY: Bucha is Russia's responsibility, that's what shocks Anne-Laure Bonnel!
ALB: This is absolutely not what I said...
MAN: You said it will take years to find out. That's how you continue to remove Putin's blame! [crosstalk]
ALB: No, what I said... Is that, in times of war, lies and propaganda and rumours are what's most harmful.
MAN: So the Bucha massacre is a rumour?
ALB: I didn't say that, I... Listen...
MAN: Do you recognize Russian--
ALB: You keep changing my words, so I prefer not to answer you.
MAN: There you go.
PRESENTER: So, do you have any last words to say?
ALB: I hope, and I am sorry for the pain for all Ukrainians. What's happening is a disaster. No war is clean. All wars are massacres, and I condemn them, and all my work, be it in Nagorno-Karabakh, Syria, and in Russia, in the Donbass, and Yemen, and Libya, I could spend all my time denouncing abuses, I'm against that. I've always been on the side of the civilians. I am, I've been against the first Yellow Vests, who went to the Champs Elysées to protest, and destroyed-- [crosstalk, inaudible]
ALB: But I am explaining to you, what interests me is the civilians. Only the civilians. Because while everyone is fighting, the jet setters, all the people with money have already left. In all wars this happens, but tomorrow, it can happen to all of us.