Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...

Michael Mann and David Frankham Talk War Photography and the Burdens of Serving as a 'Witness'

Photo of Alison Willmore By Alison Willmore | Indiewire November 28, 2012 at 10:48AM

"Witness," HBO's recent documentary series about photojournalists working in conflict zones around the globe, premiered the final of its four installments on Monday, with an hour spent following photojournalist Eros Hoagland as he explored the battles between favela gangs, police and monied forces making land grabs in Rio de Janeiro. The series offers an unsettlingly beautiful and intriguingly subjective viewpoint on a set of complicated contemporary struggles, from the cartel-fueled violence in Ciudad Juárez to the battles with the Lord's Resistance Army in South Sudan and internecine warring in Libya. Executive produced by filmmakers Michael Mann and David Frankham (who directed three of the four episodes), the "Witness" docs are haunted by the death of the late photojournalist and "Restrepo" co-director Tim Hetherington, whom Mann met during the 2010 awards season and who was slated to direct and serve as the on-camera subject of one of the docs before he was killed covering the fighting in Misrata.
0
'Witness: Libya'
Michael Christopher Brown/HBO 'Witness: Libya'

Hoagland makes a poignant comment in "Rio" about how he feels like he's lying when he asks to be able to photograph people by saying his "work is going to somehow help their situation," when he feels it "isn't going to change anything." What are your thoughts on that sentiment?

MM: There's a tired notion that the photojournalist has to be disengaged to be able to shoot what he shoots, and that's such a clichéd idea of what the experience is. Of course they’re engaged, and they're not distanced. Veronique puts down the camera in a second to aid somebody who was critically wounded; Eros questions whether any of what he’s doing has any value. I want you to walk away with the idea that he's presented his experience to you, but also, that’s not a surrender of a position.

Politically, socially; he has very strong opinions and the shows have very strong attitudes. They're not didactic, but our attitudes are very overt, very out there, the shows are highly opinionated. What we do is both an attitudinal perspective that is quite specific, and yet, it's coming to you as experience, which I believe is more impactful.

'Witness: South Sudan'
Veronique de Viguerie/HBO 'Witness: South Sudan'

There's that scene in which Hoagland is photographing a man who has been shot in "Juarez" and says, "I wasn't there to mourn him, I was there to document him," whereas we also have de Viguerie helping that wounded boy in South Sudan. The series is called "Witness," but it does seem like one of the major burdens being explored is whether or not to actually intervene, to take part in what's happening.

DF: Definitely. What they take on is so difficult; not just in the external, being in a dangerous situation. It's the internal conflict that resonates with you longer, these tough decisions. It's when you get close to or feel a connection to these people, and then to see them in harm's way. There's a constant struggle with where the line is, with what your duty is as a journalist, as a human. I always thought that "Juarez" and "South Sudan" should play back-to-back so that you really saw both those sides, so that you could see Eros' struggle in that moment, and completely understand: Okay, he can't cross over. If he crosses over, not only would he make himself more vulnerable, but how does he go home and deal with that? He has to compartmentalize these emotions, or he wouldn't survive at this job very long.

I think an audience can walk away and understand that on some level and respect it on a deeper level, and see how difficult it is... And then go on this journey with Veronique and feel 180 degrees differently. She crosses that line and helps. You know why she does, you know she can't help it, she has to. There are times when Veronique has stepped back and there are times when Eros has crossed over... This isn't a once-in-a-career, once-in-a-lifetime kind of decision you have to make. I wanted the audience to be taken to that place, to think about it in that way.

'Witness: Juarez'
Eros Hoagland/HBO 'Witness: Juarez'

While you've mentioned this series isn't intended to be didactic, these situations are very underreported in mainstream US news coverage -- was part of the thinking behind it to draw attention in that way?

MM: If you're asking me, "Do they have some beneficial social impact," absolutely. It's one thing to see images in an infomercial about some NGO, religious or otherwise, in Africa, with starving children and orphans. It's "Let's feel sorry and donate to charity"; half of the time, it's self-serving and you wouldn’t want to see a good analysis of where the money goes. It's totally different to move in to South Sudan and interview a school teacher, as Veronique did, who lost eight or nine members of his family. That victim isn't an object of pity, that victim is you and I. When you can empathize and experience and believe, "I imagine myself in their shoes. If these circumstances descended upon me; that would be, there. They are you and I," And in "Witness" you understand that the circumstances are not simple, and the forces at war with each other in Libya, for example, are not simple. Sloganeering and simplistic solutions don’t improve anything.

DF: I don't believe in the black and white, the summations that our TV news is now completely beholden to. It is trying to take these very complex conflicts and say "This is why this happened, this is why this happened" in 30 seconds. It makes no sense to me, the way we give simple answers for such complex things. All conflicts have multiple sides to them, and I think you have to be on the ground to really feel that and see that these are humans in this struggle. That was probably one of the reasons why the photographers were connected to these stories, because I really let the photographers dictate where we went.

Eros has been covering the border for a long time, Veronique had been down twice already that year, drawn back with the need to tell that story. That was one of the building block ideas of the series: to leave the audience with more questions than answers. I never wanted to talk to them or tell them what was going on in that formal, documentary way. I wanted them to have an experience -- putting you on the ground so that you can feel that, but not trying to explain it because they're all too complex to explain. We could spend 100 hours on Juarez, and you'd still just be summing it up -- and that was the last thing we wanted to do.

This article is related to: Television, TV Interviews, HBO , Witness, Tim Hetherington, Michael Mann, David Frankham, Interviews





Win The Complete Twin Peaks on Blu-ray from Indiewire! in Indiewire's Hangs on LockerDome


SnagFilms

Watch Over 10,000 Free Movies!

We the Economy: Supply and Dance, Man!

Why is the law of supply and demand so powerful? In this whimsical tale, our friendly narrator guides bored students Jonathan and Kristin through a microeconomic musical extravaganza.

More