Fri April 19, Sun April 21
At a recent film festival in Baltimore, the judges' panel swooned over a documentary movie about making documentaries--exhibiting how, in recent years, the world of documentary filmmakers has reached a narcissistic absurdity. At first blush, it would seem as if War Photographer, a true-to-life story about a diligent war correspondent, would easily slide into this category of masturbatory exercise; yet, this stark and languid film rubs completely against the grain.
The film follows Jim Nachtwey, an upper echelon photographer, through the hotspots of the '90s--South Africa, Somalia, Kosovo. There is little editing, and the film unfurls in pure, unmitigated footage. When Nachtwey first appears in Kosovo, the camera merely perches itself over his right shoulder as he lines up and snaps shots of a smoldering village; it is as if we are watching through his viewfinder. These slow-moving scenes deliver home the full dimensions of the horror in Kosovo and Somalia.
From interviews with editors, friends, and lovers, the film pieces together a loose montage of Nachtwey's personality. Unlike other documentaries, which yank the viewer by the hand towards judgements as if they were stone-solid facts, these interviews offer no conclusions and, seemingly, no judgements. When one lover remarks that Nachtwey is wholly engrossed in his work and that, by necessity, he is a loner, she says so without longing or resentment. Like looking at a newspaper photograph, much of the film's emotional meaning is purposefully ambiguous. There is no commentary, no dramatic musical accompaniment, no tearful interview.
War Photographer was nominated for an Oscar this year, and thankfully so; these awards say as much about the industry's sentiments as they do about the film's intrinsic values. After a decade where Ken Burns simplified the details of the Civil War and USA Today has reduced world history to snappy and colorful pie charts, War Photographer is unflinchingly honest--no frills, no judgements; just the naked facts for the viewer to ingest.