SnagFilms’ 2nd annual SummerFest, a free online festival showcasing exclusive, limited-duration runs of popular new documentaries, continues with “Shooting Robert King,” the second film in the series, premiering this Friday, July 23rd.
[Editor’s Note: SnagFilms is the parent company of indieWIRE.]
Using the tagline “15 Years, 3 Wars, 1 Photographer,” “Shooting Robert King” tells the story of the titular war correspondent, beginning as a naive 24-year-old covering the war in Bosnia in 1993, following up when he is a hardened man in Chechnya in 1997, and finding him more at peace in 2007, both embedded within the US military in Iraq and at home in the Tennessee woods on a deer-hunting trip. Robert King is the focus through which the film explores the complex and at times contradictory forces motivating journalists to put themselves in harm’s way to bear witness to war and atrocity.
indieWIRE spoke to the film’s director, Richard Parry, from the United Kingdom earlier this week about how the project was developed, the parallels he sees in his own life, and the dangerous life of a documentary filmmaker.
iW: Richard, how did you meet Robert? What drew you to him vs other war correspondents you came across while you yourself were covering the war in Yugoslavia?
Richard Parry: I met Robert in Sarajevo in the Holiday Inn where all the journalists were staying. He was at the bar at 10am, drinking the local jungle juice. He looked out of place . I introduced myself, and he said to me, “I’ve lived in Brooklyn for six years, so I thought I knew what war was, but man, this place is crazy!” I liked him from the beginning – I found him to be honest, candid, and funny. We latched on to one another – I didn’t know I would be spending 15 years making this film!
I was there doing my own story, working as a freelancer, packaging stories and selling them to outlets. The idea was born to make a documentary about the hack, about the underbelly of war correspondents. The intention was to make a genuine film about this type of people who you rarely see, especially the photographers, who drink a lot and get shot at more.
iW: You are extremely close to your subject. Was there anything that you felt was off-limits or that Robert declared off-limits for filming?
RP: Robert was very open, that’s the way he is. He allowed me to film almost everything. Sure, there were small requests in there, but they weren’t a big deal. He’s always trusted me. That trust may have wavered at times over the course of the 15 years, but the general trust has remained, and we’ve retained our friendship.
iW: How much of yourself did you see in Robert, given your similar work in war zones?
RP: Quite a lot. The film is in many ways also about me and about how I see the role of war correspondents. I think I share with Robert the complexities that drive someone to want to do this kind of work. But it’s not unique to Robert or myself – the film is dedicated to the journalists who died in this field – it’s a tribute to them.
iW: You’re with Robert in literal war zones – your own life was in danger. Can you tell us about the most dangerous moments that you filmed?
RP: The most dangerous was when we were in Bosnia, the episode Robert describes at the beginning of the film. We were in a car, and bullets were flying through it, literally piercing the metal. We didn’t know where they were coming from, it was chaos. A bullet ended up hitting my camera, in the viewfinder. I couldn’t see anything, I didn’t know if the camera was still operational, but I kept filming.
iW: Can you tell me about the process of filming over 15 years?
RP: I grabbed footage whenever I could, wherever we happened to be together, and my camera was there to pick it up. We would do stories together occasionally, and we would stay in the same flat together. Filming him just became natural. We had a symbiotic relationship – every time we worked together, it would feed the documentary. Initially, the film was about 25-30 minutes, covering Robert in Sarajevo, and it played at one of the first Sheffield fests. But I couldn’t sell it, so I decided to expand upon it, and included Robert in Chechnya. By this point, Robert had achieved the success he was searching for, he had become a different person. This gave the film more depth. It was a 52 minute version, but I couldn’t sell that either. So I put it on the shelf for awhile, until years later, a UK distributor told me he could distribute it theatrically if I expanded it to a 90 minute version. And I’m glad I did – it became a much better film, more honest and reflective.
iW: How did the deer hunting trip come up as the setting for the present day interviews?
RP: The film needed a point of reflection, needed a space where Robert could reflect back, and hunting was a good avenue to find that. There’s a lot of downtime, a lot of waiting time, and Robert doesn’t shoot at the deer much – plenty of time to talk and think about his past. It’s a dialogue between the two of us, how we felt about our experiences, and about our involvement in the field.
iW: Can you talk about how Robert changed over the 15 year span of filming?
RP: Robert changed in similar ways that I changed. I notice changes within myself that are similar to changes within Robert. He and I began with this sense of invincibility – we never thought anything was going to happen to us. We didn’t understand the complexities or question our motives. After that, we found the fear, that sense that something would happen to us. We had our times with using drugs and drinking when we weren’t in war zones, which were themselves a kind of drug. And later, we both calmed down, found more time to reflect and some more stability.
iW: You’ve had a healthy festival run. What’s the most surprising question or response you’ve received?
RP: Because of the hunting setting, we have been asked what we thought of vegetarianism, which was a weird question. But really, while the hunting can be seen as a metaphor in the film, it really is there just because that’s what Robert does to unwind. Q&As are always interesting because they are an opportunity to look back on the film and reassess what you think of it. It is a very personal film for me.