Sunday, February 19, 2012

Documentary Channel: "War Photographer"

As part of their "Weekend with Oscar"programming from February 23-26, Documentary Channel will show War Photographer, a brilliant film about the work of photographer James Nachtwey.

Directed by Christian Frei, this 2001 film (it was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Documentary Feature) was partially inspired by a quote from famed combat photographer Robert Capa, who said that "if your pictures aren't good enough, you aren't close enough." Both Nachtwey and Frei subscribe to that theory as we see in the scenes of human loss amidst the tragedies of war. Frei's camera is often literally over the shoulder of Nachtwey (it is close enough for us to see the readout on his camera as to shutter speed and ISO), as when he is photographing a grieving mother who is crying for the loss of one of her sons. At first, we the audience almost feel like voyeurs; should we really be watching this up close? Shouldn't this woman have the right to feel her terrible loss in privacy, without both a still cameraman and a movie maker filming her agony?

That was a bit of a problem for me, but later on Nachtwey explains his technique, saying that it is all about complicity. "A stranger with a camera gives them (those who are caught in war's crossfire) a voice in the outside world." Nachtwey explains that if it were a random act of violence during normal times, taking images of the suffering would be unthinkable, but that "these photos are OK during war."

Given that remark, it is clear that Nachtwey believes he is performing an important, indeed critical role. One look at his finest work is evidence of that, especially the photos of the undernourished in Africa. Most of us have seen similar photos in the past, but few have the heart-wrenching nature of an adult man who look as though he barely has any strength, crawling on all fours. You see this photo and you want to look away; given this personal reaction, clearly the photographer has performed his job brilliantly.

Frei interviews several magazine editors who have worked with Nachtwey for years; their comments on the man and his work are major strengths of this film. Hans-Herman Klare, editor of Stern magazine in Germany, talks of Nachtwey as being "a remakably uncynical person." He looks at this man's photos, declaring that these images are "beyond my understanding." The shocking photos from Rwanda inspire Klare to say that the refugees are "taking the express elevator to hell." Christine Breustedt, editor-in-chief of GEO Saisson magazine in Hamburg, remarks that Nachtwey has "a library of suffering in his head."

The filmmaker lets Nachtwey share his thoughts; at one point in the film, he says that he looks on his photos "as a form of communication." Thinking about the public reaction to the real life horrors of his images, the photographer is critical of how is work is viewed. "Society has become more obsessed with celebrity and entertainment and fashion. Advertisers don't want their products displayed next to human tragedy." Nachtwey said this a decade ago; one wonders how he would feel about this today!

While Nachtwey is first and foremost a photographer who puts himself in harm's way on the front lines of combat, he does shoot images of the impoverished as well. One of the most moving sequences in the film is when Frei follows Nachtwey in Indonesia, as he takes photos of a poor family who literally lives on the gravel between train tracks; express trains pass by only a foot or so from their "home." The father of one family has only one arm and one leg and we see him enduring his everyday life, such as taking his children to a nearby river to bathe or standing on his one crutch in traffic begging for any money he can get for food. This man never complains and Nachtwey captures him in the most effective way he can with his camera - as well as his years of experience. This sequence is not only a tribute to what Nachtwey does, it's also a testament to the inner strength of the human spirit.

There have been a number of political documentaries made over the past decade in which the filmmakers (on both sides of the ideological fence) have taken clips and assembled them to fit their argument. These works may be cleverly made, but they often lack honesty. War Photographer on the other hand takes a simple and clear path by showing us visions of the madness in our world, as captured by one of this generation's finest photographers. This is a powerful and stirring documentary that is a masterwork.

War Photographer will be shown on Documentary Channel on February 23 at 8:00 PM EST.

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