Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Working in Hell

"What was really frightening is that the soldiers I was with were quite clearly scared. They'd never been under fire before. I realized that I had been under fire more than any of these soldiers." 
Christina Lamb, foreign correspondent, Sunday Times, London

I will say this as simply as I can - Under Fire: Journalists in Combat is a brilliant documentary, a film that gives us remarkable insight into the individuals that deal with war on an everyday basis and how they deal with it during and after the atrocities. It is a film that anyone who needs to understand what is going on in the world needs to see.

What makes this work so special is the ease in which director Martyn Burke organizes this film, basically interviews with about a dozen journalists - reporters, videographers and still photographers - who have covered wars around the world over the past twenty or so years. Burke films these individuals against a simple black background, opting at times to display video or photographs behind the reporters, underlining their tales. 

As we listen to these journalists speak of their experiences, we are mesmerized by the intensity of their lives during their time spent in combat. Director Burke realizes there's no need to interview family members or anyone else here, as the stories told by these reporters are what make this such an absorbing film experience. In fact the only person we view in this documentary who is not a combat reporter is a psychiatrist, Dr. Anthony Feinstein, the producer of the film, who helps these individuals deal with their reactions to the madness they witness.

The remembrances of these men (Ms. Lamb is only one woman reporter that is interviewed) are chilling. Jon Steele, a videographer from ITN in London, speaks of the high he gets during his work in combat. "You're never feel as alive as when you're staring death in the face." He adds that war journalists are like "prophets of death and suffering. Like most prophets, we don't end up that well."

Ian Stewart, a reporter from the Associated Press, recalls the incident in which a bullet entered his brain (we also see the x-ray); he is still alive to talk about that moment, while his driver was killed. Several journalists in this film discuss particular incidents in which children or fellow reporters were killed, simply because they stopped in the wrong place for just a split second. The surviving reporters admit feeling a sense of responsibility for these deaths.

A section of the film deals with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a condition that almost all of these journalists endure upon their return. Several tell us that they cannot embrace their spouses as they need to be by themselves; alienation is a common symptom of PTSD. Other speak of nightmares they experience, although Chris Hedges, formerly a reporter for the New York Times says that these moments "are not nightmares. They're a revisitation of trauma - much worse than a nightmare."

Burke ends the film with a lengthy reminiscence by Canadian photojournalist Paul Watson, who has worked for the Los Angeles Times and the Toronto Star. He recalls the story of how he took a photo of one of the most brutal incidents of the war in Somalia in 1993, when the mostly naked body of a dead American soldier was being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. The photo earned Watson a Pulitzer Prize in 1994, but it has haunted him ever since, as he believes he had something to do with the desecration of this solider, an action (the desecration of a corpse) that he believes is as evil a thing that any human can do. He tells us how he tried to reach the mother of this soldier soon after the photo was published and the consequences of that experience. He explains why he had to take that photo (I will not give this detail away), but admits that he has never quite gotten over that day. "I don't feel like I'm a good person anymore," he frankly states. 

Early in the film, titles tell us that only two journalists were killed covering World War I, but that over the past two decades, almost 900 reporters and cameramen have died while in combat. The success of this film is that director Burke sits back and lets these people tell their stories simply and matter of factly; there's no embellishing needed to make this work. That these reporters would take the time to relive these horrific experiences in their lives is a testament to their inner strength.

Under Fire: Journalists in Combat will be shown on Documentary Channel at 8:00 PM EDT on Saturday, August 11.

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