“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.
Between the experiences of photographers Hoagland, Veronique de Viguerie and Michael Christopher Brown, “Witness” presents a thunderous if implicit case for the essentialness of on-the-ground reporting and for the power of images to call attention to troubling situations that can’t be easily summed up in a two-minute cable news report.
Indiewire spoke with Mann (who’s reteaming with HBO on a new series from “Bullhead” director Michael R. Roskam) and Frankham about “Witness” and the importance of documenting the human experience. (The installments are rerunning on HBO and are available on demand and via HBO Go.)
Where did “Witness” get its start?
David Frankham: We made “Juarez” [the first installment] and showed that to a few people and Michael [Mann] was at the top of our list. When he saw that film, we connected in that idea of it being powerful storytelling but also a way to give a point of view on the news that wasn’t currently there. He brought it to HBO, and they were brave to get behind it and push for it the way they have; they committed to something that, at times, can be very difficult and disturbing.
I thought it was a way of getting inside these conflicts in a way that we haven’t seen; to be able to tell these stories in a first-person, ground-level way. I thought we could engage an audience that might not be that interested in a documentary about war — but through these photographer’s stories, through them as characters, we could take you in so that you have a very human connection and experience not only their struggle, their fight to get an image and a truth, but beyond that… Not show you the news from afar, not give you statistics or a summation that I haven’t been able to relate to for a long time — take you through a character along a journey, inside of the conflict.
Michael Mann: It’s an immersive technique of a tiny film unit of two people moving with a war photographer. War photographers are always going to the front line. As [Robert] Capa said, “If your picture’s not good enough, you’re not close enough.” They’re always the ones in close, on the ground, seeing history from inside the human experience. That’s very intense, dramatic and truthful about social issues — if you’re with people who have perspective and authority — in a way that conventional documentaries don’t do. Conventional documentaries objective perspective is necessary and often excellent, but I prefer our intensely immersive. They’re great, Ken Burns is terrific, but there’s this other approach, too.
There’s a lot of care put into the aesthetics of the series — did the work of the photographers you were shooting inform the look of the films?
DF: That was a very important thing. I felt that was the first time you had this chance of going into this situation, and, like conflict photographers do, be able to kind of steal an image. You want to be there, but you don’t want to take the focus out of a situation. Often, there might be just two people shooting, or three — it’s very small. We’re shooting with these cameras that are nonintrusive and allow us to get closer to things, to experience it in a first-person way, in a visceral way, as opposed to putting a camera on your shoulder and a long lens. The camera doesn’t lie in that way; you’re either there, or you’re not. You’re either in the moment, and a participant, or you’re an observer from a safe distance. It was very important that this show was as close as these brave conflict photographers get, right there in the moment.
MM: It’s really David’s visual sensibility and I responded to it strongly. I thought it was terrific. And Jared Moossy was the operator/director of photography. I loved the whole concept, thought it should be a series and so I brought it to Michael Lombardo at HBO and set it up. I made sure that budgets were adequate, worked on selecting what stories to tell, got involved heavily in editing, brought Antonio Pinto, who had scored “Collateral” for me, to compose our music.
DF: Moosey was a conflict photographer first, and he discussed the difference between capturing an image and capturing a moment. We spent a lot of time working on that, talking through things, and watching some war movies the way you would prepare for a film, so that you’d have a similar language and ideas about how to tell stories. “South Sudan” has a very different feel than “Rio” or “Juarez”; they interact differently in “Juarez,” there’s a different language there.
There’s definitely some kind of respect in response to that — how the photographers drove their stories, how they interacted with people, that’s shaped them, as well. We talk about journalism always having to be objective, and then you get there, on the ground, and you see someone die, you see someone injured, you see what’s going on and you’re in those moments. There is going to be a subjective hand in there as well, otherwise it’s not going to be a human experience.
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.
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.
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.