Fresh from a screening at the 58th Krakow Film Festival in Poland, Hernan Zin’s film brings powerful, thought-provoking documentary filmmaking to cineastes worldwide.
Zin pulls no punches: for many young men (and not so young) war is one great adrenaline rush. The extreme youth of the American soldiers (18, 20, 23 years old) manning a mortar position in Afghanistan in the film’s opening sequences, as well as the laconic, droll way in which they revel in their unit’s record-scoring use of mortar rounds (2,180 in four months), is immediately arresting.
The setting resembles more a nocturnal summer camp than lethal warfare: wearing shorts and T-shirts and lounging on camp beds, they smoke and joke and occasionally lob a slender bomb designed to kill and main into the night sky.
The film is viewed and framed from the perspective of war correspondents – many of which share that same enthusiasm for combat of the young soldiers. «In war, in a week, you have a condensed life,» Zin says in voice-over. «There is ecstasy, there is fear, there is ethical commitment, there is empathy, but you are not denying the essence of life, which is that everything is arbitrary and ephemeral. That’s very attractive.»
It is a pivotal statement for a film that emerged from Zin’s only personal tragedy: in 2012 he suffered an accident in Afghanistan that changed his life forever. The incident triggered the release of traumas that had been building up over 20 years as a war correspondent.
«A tribute to those who risk their lives for the world to be informed.» – Hernan Zin
Searching for answers as a way out of depression, loneliness and self-destructive behaviours, Zin began to talk to other journalists to discover what impact observing war and suffering had had on them. The result is what Zin claims to be «the first documentary film ever made about the trauma in war reporters.»
The truth of war
Dubbing it a «brutal and torn portrait of war» he says it is «a tribute to those who risk their lives for the world to be informed.»
It’s a moot point whether the world surely knows enough of the suffering war brings, or indeed the degree to which war reporting has become as much a part of the global entertainment industry as Hollywood (where sanitised Technicolor violence is a major, perhaps key ingredient of its multi-billion dollar business plan).
But the prominent Spanish war reporters who open up for Zin’s camera, sharing their worst nightmares, affords a glimpse into the world of those who make a living from observing the dying of others, cloaked in the moral certitude that the are defending the old adage that the first casualty of war is truth.
«We go to war in search of adventures, but we return with a case full of bodies,» Spanish journalist and novelist Arturo Pérez Reverte
Zin states that he deliberately opens the film with images of the young, callow soldiers because it is obvious «they don’t know they price they are going to pay» – just as he did not when he set out on the path to become a war correspondent. «We go to war in search of adventures, but we return with a case full of bodies,» he says, quoting Spanish journalist and novelist Arturo Pérez Reverte.
Spanish photojournalists who were kidnapped trying to enter Syria from Turkey and ended up being held hostage for 10 months, talk about survivor guilt – this was after American journalist James Foley had been beheaded by ISIS and there was a risk they would be killed too.
«No story or report is worth the suffering caused to my family,» one of the trio says, sat against a blackened background, face to camera.
A painful film
This is not an easy film to watch: Zin forces viewers to confront the pain and unease – what is left «dead inside» as he puts it, of those who choose to chronicle the evil afoot in the world today.
Zin and the others he interviews are the lucky ones: they have lived to tell the tale. Not all do. Julio Fuentes, an acclaimed Spanish war correspondent was killed in an ambush in Afghanistan in 2001 and the grainy footage of his young wife receiving his body at the Pakistan border is a reminder that, as another correspondent remarks, «bombs and bullets don’t care who you are».
The journalists and photographers Zin speaks to don’t flinch from describing the moral compromises they make – knowing the suffering their job causes families back home. But they are all adamant that telling the truth of war is a courageous decision and one that must be done.
«The hope behind filming people during those moments [of unbearable suffering] is for the world to react and that is stops all this senselessness.»
After more than half a century of modern war reporting it is still a hope that the journalists in Dying to Tell fervently support: «Retelling what other people are like is essential to reach a common understanding,» one seasoned reporter remarks.
But, in the end, if one survives as a war correspondent, there has to be a reckoning.
«I have lived in big cities. I lived in Calcutta. I lived in Buenos Aires. And now I need to live in nature,» Zin says. «I can’t cope with the crowds. I feel overwhelmed; they trigger an alert inside of me that I associate with the trauma, the pain.»
And, as one of his colleagues says: «Often we journalists think it is obscene to talk about our pain. But there is no small pain and that pain is like gas – in the end it occupies every space.»