That’s the only thing I can say with any authority, having
hardly laid eyes on the man, let alone spoken to him, despite spending sixdays in a former Soviet republic trying
to track him down at a genocide memorial.
It’s absurd, the lengths to which journalists will go for a
few minutes with an A-list celebrity, but the reality is even stranger: I am
now convinced he’s a genius.
Armenia’s not the easiest place to get to, especially if
you’re starting from Johannesburg, South Africa, where I now live after some 15
years of work covering the kinds of things that inspire genocide memorials.
It’s about 24 hours of travel each way, all to get to a place that I haven’t
thought much about in years. One of my first jobs in journalism involved a lot
of stories about Armenia’s post-Soviet border conflict with Azerbaijan, which
recently flared again. At least 45 people died in four days of fighting in early April. When Putin
has to call up your country to tell you to chill out, you know you’re in bad
The thing about countries with a legacy of conflicts is that
even though I know better, I arrive expecting brutalist buildings, gray skies
and unhappy people.
But Yerevan, the capital city, is the opposite of brutal. It’s
ringed by snow-capped mountains and dissected by broad boulevards connecting
open plazas with dancing water fountains. The city’s statues and parks are
dedicated to composers, painters and writers. Public art appears surprisingly,
often playfully, as you walk between smoke-filled cafes that stay open late.
It’s a distant and unusual place to go to see someone who’s
not exactly media-shy. In April, Clooney was on the cover of Esquire, where he spoke passionately about Syrian refugees, Trump and the rise of Islamaphobia. He appeared on Meet the Press to talk about the
“obscene” amount of money spent in elections and why his $15 million fundraiser
for Democrats deserved to be protested. He’s also logged time this last year
alone promoting Tomorrowland, Our Brand Is Crisis, Hail, Caesar! and the upcoming Money Monster. All that while smiling
and attempting to redirect red carpet interview questions about his wife, lawyer Amal Clooney, away from personal questions and back to her work getting
people out of jail.
Do I really have anything to ask him that hasn’t been asked
a million times before? Or even asked in the last month?
Actually, yes. I want to ask how he does it. How does he
navigate the intersection of celebrity and humanitarianism so well, when others
stumble despite the best of intentions?
I’ve covered Madonna in Malawi, Angelina Jolie’s adoptions
and Oprah Winfrey’s school in South Africa, but often only because something went wrong.
Despite their money, fame and goodwill, it took all three of those women a lot
of work to get things right. Then there’s another tier of celebs who engage in
poverty porn: parachuting in, posing for photos with hungry kids, and flying
Clooney comes in to get stuff done and makes it look
effortless. His visits to Darfur, for one, were followed up with solid lobbying.
Not On Our Watch, the group he started with Matt Damon and Brad Pitt, earnestly
advocated for Zimbabwe and Myanmar, two countries whose strife I have spent
years reporting on and in. Frankly, Clooney and his friends probably got more
attention for that than my 10 years of work documenting Zimbabwe’s collapse and
Myanmar’s upheavals combined.
But on this trip, I’m really just trying to talk to Clooney,
who is part of the Selection Committee for the the first annual Aurora Prize
for Awakening Humanity. I arrived late Thursday, a good 24 hours early, to get
the lay of the land. An army of press people and volunteers had everything set
up in a very nice hotel for dozens of journalists, many of whom (like me) were
flown in by the organizers of the Aurora Prize. It’s sort of a cross between a
Nobel Peace Prize, a Hollywood awards ceremony, and a policy shop. The $1.1
million award -- given in a highly produced, televised ceremony with a dance
number, musical guests, and scripted banter -- honors a humanitarian who regularly
risks their own life to save others. There are also panel talks, meetings with
lawmakers from around the world, and several actual Nobel laureates in
It wasn’t until Saturday morning that I realized Clooney was going to a series of events that I was not accredited for and had
no means of monitoring.
I found some remarks from one event with Clooney -- in
English! -- on the Armenian news agency. He was talking about how viewers get
desensitized to violence in media coverage.
“Three days ago, 500 people were reported to have been
killed in a shipwreck, and then you switch the channel and continue to watch
other news. We have to change the effect of news and movies,” he said.
“We have to speak about people who risked their lives to
save others. We have to speak about concrete events, not about numbers, because
when we look in the eyes of people, the situation changes.”
But I still had nothing directly from him.
The good news: Everyone wants to talk about Clooney. The
bad: No one wants to be quoted about him. Which is odd, because of the dozens
and dozens of people who sat in those talks and meetings alongside him, not a
single person was anything less than glowing. Academics, artists, volunteers,
linguists, students – everyone said they were struck by his sincerity, his intelligence,
and most particularly by the sense that his attention was absolutely focused on
the person he was talking to. Everyone who met him, likes him. They just
wouldn’t say so on the record.
So, following Clooney’s urging, I scheduled some interviews
with people who are trying to change the world.
Kulea came from northern Kenya, where she works to prevent child marriages
and genital mutilation. Four days prior, she had rescued an 8-year-old girl.
Father Bernard Kinvi, a finalist for the prize, runs a Catholic mission in the Central African
Republic, where he protected 1,500 people (mostly Muslim women and
children) from a rebellion that erupted in 2013. We have a mutual friend,
another journalist, Krista Larson from AP, who despite the dangers, spent weeks in the country and wrote about a little girl who was disabled by polio and left in a forest. She'd been separated from her family during the chaos, with no way of finding them. After hearing her story, Father Bernard agreed to take custody of the girl.
Angling for a solid, quotable quote about Clooney, I asked
Father Bernard if the media attention helped his work. He said yes: Krista’s
mother, inspired by the story, organized a fundraiser at Regina Elementary in
Iowa City, where she teaches. They raised nearly 2,000 euros, which he used to
buy wheelchairs for the disabled children he’s now raising. He changed lives
with 2,000 euros. A million dollars could change his entire world.
Marguerite Barankitse, who likes to be called Maggy, came
from Burundi. When her country’s civil war started, and her Hutu neighbors were
threatened with death, she hid them in her home because as a Tutsi she thought
they would be safe. When they were discovered, she was forced to watch their
executions, and then her home was burned down.
Last year, when Burundi’s president decided to run for a
third term -- in defiance of the peace deal brokered by Nelson Mandela – she
spoke out against the new violence. Her center, Maison Shalom, was forced to
close. She fled to Rwanda, along with 250,000 others from Burundi. Now she cares
for the refugees.
I have pages of stories like this. None of them are about
Clooney. But it’s OK, because he’s having a press conference on Sunday, just
before he returns home.
Sunday is the anniversary of the Armenian genocide.
Thousands and thousands of residents trek up a hillside on the edge of town to
lay flowers at an eternal flame in remembrance of the 1.5 million who died 101
years prior. Kim
Kardashian West tweets about having made that trip last year with her sister and
I look all over for Clooney, but no luck. Later I see
footage of him with the president and the patriarch of the Armenian church.
Clooney spoke to Armenian TV, but not the hordes of foreign correspondents.
Hours later, during the award ceremony that evening,
he spoke for four minutes and 38 seconds.
He invoked the legacy of his own Irish ancestors who fled
the potato famine and depended on helping hands to settle in their new country.
“If we are to survive as a people, we can’t simply look
away, not from the people of Syria, or South Sudan, or the Congo. We call them
refugees, but they are people just like you and me,” Clooney said. “You stand
right in front of them and when you look them in deep in their eyes, you might
very well see an Irish potato farmer. You might see a young Armenian girl named
Aurora trying to get home. “
“We have all been given this gift of humanity at some time in
our history. Tonight’s award celebrates heroism and bravery far beyond what
most of us could do in a lifetime. Much further beyond. And our nominees didn’t
graduate from some hero school. They were just everyday people who saw a need
and who did something about it, something extraordinary.”
I heard him say this, but hardly saw him. While he was on
stage at the Karen Demirchyan Sports and Concerts Complex, I was typing on my
laptop in a seat with dozens of other journalists in the audience. And as soon
as the ceremony was done, we all dashed across the theater to a curtained-off
room to wait for his press conference to start.
He doesn’t show up.
Instead, Maggy arrives, even more radiant after receiving
the Aurora Prize, confident of the good this money will do for her work and the
other organizations that she’s going to support with the million-dollar prize. Since
I can’t ask Clooney my question, I ask her about the International Criminal
Court, which she wants to investigate Burundi’s president.
“I have no hatred for the president. On the contrary, I only
have compassion. And I’d like to turn to the international community. There
must be negotiations. I’m convinced he will understand, and if he doesn’t
understand, the ICC will do something, because he is a criminal.” She says
she’s so sure because if the Court doesn’t act, she’ll go to The Hague and
protest in the streets until they do. I believe her.
After three days, I have not a single original quote from
Clooney, who I’m supposed to write about. And now, we’re told, he’s left
On the fourth day, I turn to a trusted trope, vox pop: the
person on the street interview. Someone
in Yerevan will tell me something about him.
Yerevan’s market is partially under construction, and being
a Monday, it’s quiet. Most of it is full of tourist tchotchkes, especially pomegranates
-- in wood, paintings, embroidered on tablecloths.
But in one corner, slightly set off from the stalls, are
tables of exquisite silverware, much of it intricately designed filament work. On
napkin rings, flowers bloom from silver lace. Tiny lockets shaped like Bibles
unclasp to reveal the Lord’s Prayer, in three languages and three different
alphabets. Not tourist stuff.
Levon Keoshgerian is a silversmith from Aleppo. Last year, he
finally fled Syria’s war with his 75-year-old mother. He keeps an envelope of
photos showing what used to be his store there. A beautiful shop of silver
platters and jewelry, the sort of place you go to buy wedding or baptismal
His family is Armenian, but his grandfather lived in what is
now Turkey, under the Ottoman Empire. In a black and white photo, his
grandfather sits in front of his shop in Turkey, where he sold rugs. When the
genocide began, he escaped to Aleppo to keep his family safe. Two generations
later, his family are refugees again.
Everyone in this tiny corner of the market fled Aleppo. Their
phones are full of pictures of bombed-out churches, collapsed buildings, broken
families. Because they’re ethnic Armenians, they received some government
support to relocate, but this is not a rich country. They’re all skilled, and
smart, and working to make a living, which they can do because a little country
with few resources and its own troubles gave them a chance.
We talk for hours, but I still don’t have any quotes about
As I’m writing on Monday night, a bus explodes on a road near
the genocide memorial, where we’d all been the day before. A colleague reports back that he found a finger blown down the block. It
appears to be a criminal act rather than terrorist.
Before the trip, I’d emailed Jill Thompson, who’s the
director at Mpendulo Savings, an
organization in South Africa that aims to ease the impact of HIV and
unemployment on vulnerable families. She talked about the doubled-edged sword
celebrities bring to charities.
“It can bring much-needed attention to difficult issues that
charities are trying to address,” she said. But, she added, “the issue can
become trivialized in the eyes of the public if the celeb hasn't done their
homework and/or lets his or her ego take over.”
Clooney, she said, “is low-key and keeps the focus on the
issue and not on himself.”
And that, I now realize, is his genius. Clooney doesn’t want us to talk about him. He wants us
to talk about people saving lives. He wants us to think about Krista’s mom
raising money in Iowa and how we can all help. By stiffing the media, he got me
to do what he wanted without saying a word.
Or at least I think that’s what he did. What do I know? I’ve
never met the guy.