Under Fire: Journalists in Combat takes a look at the lives of those who bring you the harrowing photos and footage of war that you see in newspapers, on television and on the Internet. It's a fascinating and powerful documentary that also delves in to the hearts and minds of the very human beings who put themselves at risk to capture the images that inform and shape our views of conflict areas around the world.
Filmmaker Martyn Burke directs, writes and produces the documentary, which covers the psychological implication of being a journalist in a war zone, the risks involved, the impact on families and personal relationships and the mental and physical toll it can take.
"You accept that something is going to happen and you sort of resign yourself that you're probably gonna get hurt. You just hope it isn't too badly when it happens," says Finbarr O'Reilly, a photojournalist for Reuters who has spent a career covering wars in such places as Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and more.
O'Reilly is one of the many journalists interviewed in the film, all with their own views on and opinions about their job, and each differently impacted psychologically by what they've seen and experienced while on assignment.
The interviews themselves in Under Fire take on a therapy session feel. They are soul baring and in some cases, very emotional. That's probably because the film is also produced by Dr. Anthony Feinstein, currently a professor of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto. This combination of filmmaker and doctor with the Burke/Feinstein team makes for a unique combination in letting the viewer see the journalists in their most vulnerable state as they discuss the topics asked of them.
Never more has the subject of war-covering journalists been more topical than today. In World War I, only two journalists were killed in a war where 16 million died. During WWII, 63 journalists were killed. In the past two decades, that number is close to 1000 and today, those working in the field are viewed as targets by the enemy, subject to kidnapping, torture and beheadings.
Their death toll is high enough that St. Brides Church on Fleet St. in London has a journalists' altar. Meanwhile, Washington D.C.'s Newseum has a Journalists' Memorial. It's enough for employers to step in and provide help as news organizations like Thomson Reuters have hotlines for reporters to call to get counseling for things like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
It was this hotline that O'Reilly called to be put in touch with a psychiatrist for help. The documentary shows his split screen remote phone sessions as O'Reilly calls in from his various worldwide locations. The film also uses O'Reilly's own footage as he turns the camera on himself, talks directly to it from war zones, explaining where he is and what's going on around him. The guy has seen a sergeant get shot and killed, snipers getting blown up when stepping on landmines and having close colleagues in the field die on assignments. On the surface he seems fine, but he knows that on the inside, he is not.
"Your mind starts to play tricks on you and you start to think too much," O'Reilly confesses. "And you don't want to think too much out here... "
O'Reilly is not an adrenaline junkie, but many of the other journalists interviewed admit they are addicted to the rush that war provides them. John Steele, cameraman for ITN London, says, "you never feel as alive as when you're staring death in the face" and that "when you survive, you feel invincible, but going back to (normal) life is crash."
Normal life is a problem for many of the men. O'Reilly can't maintain a serious relationship and finds that "everything seems trivial at social gatherings" now that he's seen what he's seen. Steele, meanwhile, says when he is off the job, "day to day living is agonizing" and he can't wait to get the next assignment so he can get on a plane to "find the next rush."
These conversations bring to mind the scene in The Hurt Locker where Jeremy Renner's character returns home to his wife and daughter from war and walks aimlessly through the supermarket, lost and unable to relate to anything or anyone. Soon after, he goes back overseas to war, choosing to be there, instead of home.
"There is some terrible love of it which pulls you back to revisit again and again," says Anthony Loyd of the Times of London. "I still throw the dice, despite my wife and daughters."
Family is also addressed, with two of the journalists interviewed in Under Fire being women. Christina Lamb of the Sunday Times UK says she has been criticized for leaving her six-year old child and going off to war. "The implication is that it's more irresponsible as a mother to go off and do a dangerous job like that," says Lamb.
Perhaps it's because a mother's job is never over. Susan Ormiston of CBC News describes doing "remote parenting in the middle of a war zone" and she describes having the 'is-the-Easter-Bunny-real?' cell phone chat with her kids back home while bullets fly around her in the Middle East.
Many of the journalists describe the rage they feel at having witnessed death -- and the guilt if that death involved a member of their crew or innocent children. The stories are heartbreaking and upsetting. But the storytellers are the ones who suffer with the nightmares. In some cases turning to alcohol is their way to cope because, as Steele says, "if you drink, you don't remember your dreams."
Death of colleagues is especially hard on them. Many of those interviewed recall photojournalist Tim Hetherington, who just this past February attended the Academy Awards ceremony for his Oscar nominated war documentary Restrepo. Two months later in April, mortar shells in Libya killed him.
"It makes you think... if it's really worth it in the end to lose your life for a picture... I don't know... I don't think I can answer that right now," says O'Reilly. Spending time with O'Reilly throughout the course of the documentary, one can genuinely understand his answer and feel for his dilemma.
And that is one of the reasons why Under Fire is so interesting. These journalists truly are conflicted and haunted, and yet at the same time, utterly dedicated to their jobs. We see it in their facial expressions, in the tears they shed, the rage they express and in their reporting and photos.
The journalists recall colleagues who've committed suicide, like South African photojournalist Kevin Carter, who killed himself in 1994 at age 33. That was also the same year Carter won a Pulitzer Prize for taking a picture of a starving toddler in Sudan with a vulture just a few feet behind the child, hovering, waiting like a predator. As much praise as Carter received for the photograph, he was also criticized for taking it, instead of doing something about it.
And therein lies the moral dilemma for many of these professionals -- is their job to only chronicle what they see? Or do they have a responsibility to step in and do something about it?
Paul Watson, a photojournalist for the Los Angeles Times and Toronto Star, feels the journalist is ultimately in a no-win situation with this dilemma: "Because you are there and can do nothing to stop it, and therefore do nothing to stop it, you feel part of it," he says.
He should know, as he took the Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of U.S. soldier Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland's body being dragged around the streets of Mogadishu by Somalis in 1993.
Although the photograph was responsible in changing American foreign policy, Watson still feels that to this day, "I participated in the desecration of a corpse... to this day, I want to be forgived."
But that forgiveness is not coming. Cleveland's family refuses to speak to him and has barred Watson from contacting them. Nearly twenty years later, he is still suffering. "It's not a pain as much as it is an imprisonment," he explains. "You're just locked in a place and you cannot get out of it."
Under Fire doesn't try to elicit sympathy; rather it creates an understanding of these men and women. In fact, Watson points out that he doesn't want anyone to feel sorry for war journalists because the war is not what "ruins" them. Rather, "there is something in my personality that drew me to this job."
One journalist retired from war reporting admits he misses "the edge," and another says he can't go back because "it's like asking a heroin junkie who's clean if they want to shoot up again."
Clearly there's a lot going on here for these men and women.
It's easy to feel overloaded on all the documentaries in recent years about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. In the last two years alone there were several documentary features on the current wars we are waging, including this year's Hell and Back Again and last years The Tillman Story, Armadillo, Camp Victory, Afghanistan and the aforementioned Restrepo. But don't let that deter you from catching this film. After watching Under Fire, you will never look at another war photograph or video without thinking of the journalist behind it. This documentary gives a face to those who also serve our country not with guns and tanks but with bylines and photo credits.
'Under Fire' opens Friday, December 2 in New York. The film was recently short-listed along with 14 other films eligible for consideration for nomination for a Best Documentary Oscar.
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