Below director Martyn Burke shares a scene from his war documenary “Under Fire: Journalists in Combat,” which recently made the cut of 15 docs to be considered for the upcoming Oscar race. It opens at New York’s Quad cinema December 2nd.
Talk to combat journalists long enough and even in places where there is no light, you feel a shadow hanging around some of them. The shadow is that of friends –fellow combat journalists with whom they often shared a bond so quietly powerful that most of the rest of humanity can never really gauge its force –friends who are no longer here, the ones who were killed while covering war. And it is their shadow that never seems to fade with time. These were the friends who got up one morning in a war zone and took a wrong turn either literally or metaphorically. A sniper’s bullet, a mortar shell, a roadblock gone bad, a roadside bomb –the mechanisms of death that hover in the minds of so many of the combat journalists because sooner or later they see the lives of friends ripped away by one of them.
For the living, the ones who go on covering combat and do not heed the warning signs, there often comes an internal reckoning. It comes in different guises. One is simply the crude, barely acknowledged, law of probability calculations that they make, the ultimate gambling addiction, where the odds of a land mine or a bullet are silently computed and then, almost always, never acknowledged lest they get in the way of doing the job.
The other reckoning comes with a kind of internal mirror that reflects only the dead friend. Guilt, rage and depression are often unleashed within the surviving combat journalists who must go on, too often finding no real focus for their emotions because laying the blame in a war they all wanted to go to can cause that mirror to shatter.
My friend and colleague in “Under Fire,” Dr Anthony Feinstein, Head of NeuroPsychiatry at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, was one of first clinical researchers to delve into the almost unrecognized confluence of symptoms that sometimes catch up with even toughest, most resilient war journalists. From the earliest days of planning the documentary with Anthony, I knew that one of the elements of the film would have to involve the psychological fallout that occurs when a colleague is killed.
Of all the many deaths of journalists in the 21st Century, the two that seemed to mark almost a turning point in how the profession looks at itself, were those of a charismatic American, Kurt Schork of Reuters, and Miguel Gil Moreno, a Spaniard who cast aside his life as a corporate lawyer to become a brilliant cameraman for Associated Press. They were both killed in the same ambush in war-torn Sierra Leone.
The effects of their deaths are still being felt. In “Under Fire,” one of Kurt Schork’s closest friends, Anthony Loyd of the Times of London, talks about the lingering effects, the guilt and the anger, a decade after Kurt’s death. Loyd, who has survived and tempted fate in many wars, constantly wears a locket on a chain around his neck. In that locket are the ashes of his dead friend, Kurt Schork.
Miguel Gil Moreno, who died with Kurt in that Sierra Leone ambush had been hauntingly interviewed a few years before he was killed. In the interview he actually foretold his own death and the effect on his family. As much as the devastation was felt by his own family, it was one of Miguel closest friends, Ian Stewart the former bureau chief in West Africa, who to this day, is nearly reduced to tears by the memories.
In “Under Fire,” I interviewed Ian Stewart long before I had seen the footage of Miguel talking about his own death. In the interview, Ian became emotionally distraught as he talked about the nightmares involving Miguel. It was one of those moving moments where as a filmmaker you’re never quite sure where the line is, the one that separates documentary filmmaking from emotional voyeurism.
The force of Ian’s grief came through while I was sitting beside the camera. But as affected as I was at that moment, it was nothing compared to the Gestalt moment of watching Ian’s interview and Miguel’s put together in the editing process. It was truly the whole being so much more than the sum of the parts. Suddenly I understood, on something other than an intellectual plane, Ian’s grief, anger and confusion. But those parts?….Still when I watch the scene again, I have to tell myself that Miguel and Kurt, would have to have understood that death –their death, would be shown on a screen this way, for others to watch between all the distractions of their busy lives.
After all, Kurt and Miguel did it –over and over again. And that’s what I tell myself. Every time I watch that sequence. And I’m still not sure why I feel the need to explain it in this way.