War Photography on Screen

May 21, 2024 by David Butow –

Video interview link with five war photographers at the bottom of this page….

As if the political tension in the United States couldn’t get any higher, this spring a new movie depicting a full-scale, near-future civil war in the country is filling theaters and drawing good reviews. The film, “Civil War”, directed by Englishman Alex Garland, (“The Beach”, “Ex Machina”), imagines that the country is ruled by a quasi-dictator serving his third term as president. The opposing side is comprised of a well-organized and equipped army of rebels (called the “Western Alliance”), that is on the move to Washington, D.C. to remove him from power.

The main point of the movie is, I think, to force audiences to confront the possibility, however remote, that something like this could actually happen. The U.S., despite illusions of “exceptionalism,” is fundamentally no different from any other empire that can break down and/or break apart. This is big stuff, but the POV of this terrible scenario is told through the narrow experiences of a group of four journalists, principally two still photographers played by Kirsten Dunst and Cailee Spaeny.

It’s rare that photojournalists are the main protagonists in a film, they’re usually quirky side characters like Dennis Hopper’s idiosyncratic portrayal of a half-crazed Vietnam War photographer in “Apocalypse Now.” But putting them in the center of the plot requires detail of their working habits, and more importantly, into the emotional and ethical challenges they face as they make their way through one violent situation after another. The whole raison d’être of them being there is questioned. Are they after the thrill or some greater good? What is the role of journalistic observers in conflict? I can’t say those questions are deeply examined but they are certainly put up on the metaphorical blackboard (or video projector if you prefer).

If you haven’t seen the film but might go, be aware there is a lot of violence depicted, sometimes rather realistically and without the heavy music and other mood overlays we’re used to in Hollywood movies. I found this starkness jarring but effective. Another thing I thought the film did rather well was show how quickly things can happen, often when you’re not expecting them, and also how chaos and semi-normalcy can exist in proximities much closer than you might expect.

Conversely, I thought there were some things about the journalists the filmmakers definitely got wrong, but how many movies have as main characters lawyers, doctors, cops or soldiers? I imagine that people in those professions, who are used to being depicted on screen, don’t usually overanalyze every misleading detail. But the photojournalistic community, never shy about taking itself seriously, and with a rare spotlight on its profession, has had a lot to say about “Civil War.”

The best commentary I’ve seen is in the video here. It features a thoughtful interview with several photojournalists including Lynsey Addario, Peter van Agmatel, Ron Haviv and John Moore. These four have about as much experience covering conflicts as any photographers working today, and they are all highly intelligent and deeply reflective about those experiences. In addition, the photographer Mohamed Al Masri, with the assistance of a translator, speaks from Gaza, describing the specific dangers and challenges with covering that war.

They’ll tell you what they thought of the movie, but more important, how they think about the role of the press, and what it is really like to witness, record and communicate terrible acts of violence.

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