My very first thoughts after viewing Under Fire: Journalists in Combat were of the 2010 Academy Award winner for Best Picture, The Hurt Locker. I slumped back in my chair, glob smacked with epiphany and thought, “Oh, now I get it.” If you are like me, part of the one percent that was enthralled by Kathryn Bigelow’s gripping drama, but not completely satisfied with the end, you must see its intrinsic companion piece, the skillfully crafted and profoundly poignant documentary Under Fire: Journalists in Combat.
Sudan. Somalia. Iraq. Kosovo. Angola. Afghanistan. Lebanon. Nigeria. Kuwait. Bosnia. Sierra Leone. Chechnya. Iraq. El Salvador. Libya. Pakistan. Zimbabwe. Ivory Coast. All of these places are (or were) notorious hot beds of civil war, military upheaval and war-torn conflict. The Devil’s playground. And where these brave journalists go to work everyday.
Under Fire ventures to explore the human cost to one’s soul and psyche to bear witness rather than act when faced with atrocity. The film is packed with award winning journalists from across the globe that share their stories with detail and candor – much like the images they mine from conflicts around the world - in hopes of spreading a better understanding, raise awareness and revealing the truth. In a wide array voices and perspectives, Under Fire also attempts to examine the temperament of the journalist who covered the combat beat. Is it a call to service likened to that of Dr. King or Mother Teresa? Or is it simple the personality type that is drawn to the constant adrenaline fix; the war junkie?
Combat cinematographer Jon Steele (Author, War Junkie) sheds light on how being eminent danger can be addictive as well as seductive. BBC Correspondent and BAFTA winner Jeremy Bowen shares how the direct actions of a journalist can be as deadly as the customary inaction of journalists whose job is to observe and report. The Sunday Times UK’s Christina Lamb (Author, Small Wars Permitting, British Press Foreign Correspondent of the Year Award winner) speaks to the reality that the peril to war correspondents makes no distinction for gender and laments the fact that most people simply do not understand what they do. Former AP Bureau Chief in West Africa Ian Stewart is the portrait of the physical and psychological effects of covering war. Being shot in the head seconds after watching a colleague be murdered beside him, coupled with a chronic case of PTSD certainly calls to question if he has actually survived his experiences abroad.
Los Angeles Times journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Watson (Author, War Lives: A Journey into the Heart of War) recounts the absolute necessity and the utter regret at his now iconic photographs during the Black Hawk Down incident, The First Battle of Mogadishu (1993). In contrast, Reuter’s photojournalist Finbarr O’Reilly (Winner: World Press Photo of the Year) saddles up for another assignment. Despite having lost a handful of colleagues in the combat zones of the world, O’Reilly is still doing it, armed only with his camera and the philosophy that… “You sort of resign yourself to the fact that you’re probably going to get hurt and just hope that it isn’t too badly when it happens.”
Whether these men and women deserve disdain or sympathy for their chosen profession is a question that director Martyn Burke keeps fluid and present. In the spirit of all great documentaries, Burke clearly wants the audience to decide for themselves. With the exception of the interview with Finbarr O’Reilly, the interviews are conducted against a black background, providing the opportunity to superimpose the speaker which the archive footage, placing them back in time, back in the conflict, visually. It is an effective editorial choice. A judicious and eclectic soundtrack, from adagios to driving synth rock, drive and pace the piece quite well.
Under Fire does more than let the gruesome image of war speak for themselves. The film allows its audience a glimpse into the mind and soul of the storytellers shortly before the infamous moments are captured in film; and the disturbing, long term residual effects on those same lives in the months and years that follow. This film makes a credible argument that journalists themselves are in fact a new kind of solider for a new age; and the casualties to this new class of warrior are just as real, just as devastating, and grossly under-acknowledged.
Under Fire: Journalists in Combat opens in limited release in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, November 11, 2011.