In 1930, author and soldier Ernst Jünger wrote «there is no war without photography», and compared «shooting» a motif to shooting a person. It takes the “same form of intelligence” to locate an enemy with a weapon as it takes to photograph “grand historical events in great detail.”
Award-winning film 1,000 times good night by Erik Poppe saw its Norwegian premier at its Film from South festival. War photographer Rebecca (Juliette Binoche) is unable to choose between family and career. Her charming Dublin-based family – husband and two young daughters – miss her, want her back home, worries about her. At the same time, her eldest daughter’s age-old fear that the mother will die in a war zone is such that she sometimes wishes her dead. The husband screams that she reeks of death and wants to throw her out of the house. Will she give up her profession or is her destiny following the camera to conflicts around the world?
Poppe’s production keeps to the conventional narrative form using one main character: The traditional drama is initiated by an event (the Kabul explosion), followed by ensuing confusion in the form of scenes featuring smaller climaxes and crossroads (convalescence, staying at home, reconciliation, just one final trip), and building up to a great pinnacle as the main character enters the other side – transformed or wiser. In this sense, it is a film aimed at the wider public structured in three parts consisting of estimation-confrontation-solution, including its subsequent resolution.
Complicated world. John Christian Rosenlund, Poppe’s cinematographer, deserves accolade for his unique photographic work – focus, colours and perspective charge the story and make the content real. The emotive film score seems, however, counterproductive. It is as if you want to cover your ears due to the excessive strings and keyboards – the audience is instructed to “feel!” along with the emotions expressed in the drama. Why did Poppe not put his trust into his and Rosenlund’s atmospheric images and the expressive faces of his accomplished actors?
Simultaneously, it is an reasonable business demand that the private investors (one fifth) expected to profit from a 41 million film. The exciting topics surrounding war photographers make us overlook some of the errors of the details: As in the scene where an injured Rebecca, in the dusty aftermath of an explosion, barely able to look up yet still manages to snap a couple of crystal clear shots before fainting – without even dusting off the lens. Unique events most often require narration in order to be understood.
Another perspective is found in the Morgenbladet newspaper where Ulrik Eriksen – who deemed much of the film “unclear” – pull paradoxes out from his logical sandpit: Including Rebecca’s profiteering from images of other people’s misery which affords her a luxurious lifestyle, or that photographing a suicide bomber makes her an accomplice. His conclusion – that “the film itself is ill-conceived”, seems like the eager black and white views of to a journalist safely ensconced away from the conflict areas. In a more complex world, it is not necessary to live in the slum to be able to depict violence, nor to think that averting a suicide attack would alter the conflicts.
Both Poppe and his hired helper – war photographer Zoriah Miller – have been to battle zones. The latter spent almost 15 years behind the camera in conflict areas, whilst Poppe worked actively as a war reporter in the 1980s and recently returned to war zones alongside, among others, the Norwegian Refugee Council. These experiences have probably lent the film some of its gravitas. Over the space of a couple of months prior to the filming, Poppe asked Miller to instruct Binoche in the daily life of a war photographer. In fact, several of Miller’s stills feature in the final film.
Post traumatic disorders. According to Poppe himself, he was not good enough and so, quit – he also mentioned the strain of being away from his loved ones. However, his female main character, in the film described as being in the world top five, is unable to desist: Rebecca states that she has to withstand the dangers due to her anger. She wants people to react to all the violence, to choke on their morning coffee.
War photographers risk their lives too: Le Monde Diplomatique was, at their tenth anniversary in October alongside Oslo Documentary Cinema, visited by Vaughan Smith. He spent several decades as a war photographer in areas including Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. Along with Miller, Poppe and others, he believes – or believed – that pictures can help change the world, or, after a while, end the suffering of the vulnerable. Vaughan Smith notes in his blog Reporting from the world’s deadliest places: «If you are challenged every single day, life seems bigger.” He wrote, for ages, from Afghanistan where he stayed with the Army. Similarly to Miller, he entered Bagdad during the Gulf War in 1991. Dressed in Army fatigues, he pretended to be enlisted in order to photograph as independently as possible. Miller, who was enlisted, was brazen enough to photograph dead US soldiers, but was stopped when he became known.
Vaughan Smith filmed the documentary Shooting Robert King (2009) himself, during which he follows war photography colleague Robert King through three war zones – Bosnia in 1993, Chechnya in 1997 and Iraq in 2007. Initially, in Bosnia, King expresses naivety: «What am I really doing here?» Then, in Chechnya he appears high on the terrors, sex and excitement of war, but after a while returns home suffering post traumatic disorder. He starts a family, and after Iraq, opts to stay home. Similarly to Poppe and Smith (who has five children).
The value of the image. What do you do at home? Ten years ago, Smith founded London’s Frontline Club, which weekly reports on events and problems on the front line via documentaries, books and debates. He also teaches unschooled reporters and photographers in the type of precautions needed prior to setting off for conflict areas. But, is it worth it, to expose oneself and others by photographing in the vicinity of death? In the film, we hear Rebecca’s daughter, after her mother just about survived capturing a Kabul suicide bomber on film: “Was it worth it – the picture?”
“The weight of the words, the shock of the images” goes an old Paris Match slogan.
In a world boasting an annual 10,500 billion weapons market, of which 450 billion is used for corruption and bribes alone, it is naive to believe that an image will change anything. Pointing out a hell is not the same as rescuing someone from it, or a recipe on how to limit the horrors of war. To show misery could just as all much fuel today’s global security industry which is supposed to keep ‘the others’ away from us. However, there is always hope: The example from 1,000 times good night depicts a refugee camp, where a local militia is wreaking havoc, but thanks to Rebecca’s heroic pictures published in international media, the site receives military protection.
A Nikon-wielding Ninja. War photographer as profession is very alfa male – some of the most famous include James Nachtwey, Alex Majoli and Sebastião Salgado. Despite this, Poppe opts for a women in his film. Another well-known female war photographer was France’s Alexandra Boulat, who did not live beyond Rebecca’s age in the film. For 18 years, her images appeared on the pages of Paris Match, Time Magazine and The Guardian. She started her career as war photographer documenting the Balkans war in 1989, for Sipa Press. Later, she detailed brutal scenes in Rwanda, Afghanistan, Israel-Palestine and Lebanon. The female many claimed lived on nicotin and adrenalin, crawled the tunnels of Gaza, trailed the Taliban in Afghanistan, and documented Bagdad immediately before its 2003 invasion. However, as she explained to her The Guardian colleague Jan McGirk, her journeys into hell were not motivated by international awards. She wanted to show human bravery and folly. Boulat focused on civilians, not the weapon-clad fighters threatening them. She was less interested in portraying the bloodied moments than the consequences of war and bloodthirst. In Afghanistan, she was called “a Nikon-wielding Ninja»; the way she melted into the war backdrop. Clearly unafraid of dangers. She also trained and seduced photography students at Smith’s Frontline Club in London, with her pictures. In addition, Boulat experimented with transmitting sound from Israel’s numerous checkpoints, and by video recording Palestinian rappers from the West Bank. Unlike Rebecca in the film, she did not have a husband and children pulling her back towards safety. Her last few years were spent in Ramallah together with Palestinian film maker Issa Freij. Bullets did not get her, instead she died in 2007 from acute cerebral haemorrhage. She managed to get to a hospital, but died during a coma aged 45. Will Freij’s next film be a portrayal of a female war photographer which intimately follows the tireless work of this dedicated woman? Akin to a modern version of Christian Frei’s award-winning documentary on James Nachtwey, War Photographer (2001)?
Reporting drones. Many war reporters perish in the line of duty. However, in the future, they may not have to get so close to the war zones. The Frontline Club offers a seminar entitled “Drone Journalism, The Future of News Gathering?” – indicating that drone reporting is the latest trend. Drones are today produced in 75 countries. At a safe distance, it is possible to navigate small drones to ‘shoot’ the violence. The idea of tiny drones buzzing about was already introduced in 1957, in Ernst Jünger’s sci fi book The Glass Bees.
“The weight of the words, the shock of the images” goes an old Paris Match slogan. Wherefrom is this fascination with war, why are we attracted to images of death and mutilation? “The desire for images of bodies in pain seems to be as great as the desire for pictures of nude bodies,” writes Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others. Since its inception in 1839, the camera has been intimate with death. The interest in images – that a picture is worth a thousand words – seems to be more evocative than a thousand times good night.