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Review: David Frankham & Michael Mann’s ‘Witness’ A Raw & Powerful Look At The Front Lines Of Photojournalism

Review: David Frankham & Michael Mann's 'Witness' A Raw & Powerful Look At The Front Lines Of Photojournalism

The news media hasn’t been in good shape in the past few years, particularly when it comes to on the ground, investigative journalism. Dwindling budgets, an audience shift from newspapers and television to the internet, and some would argue a lack of drive from the media themselves to do hard reporting, has made it a grim time to be involved in the industry. But as producer and director David Frankham told us recently, he hopes that the HBO series “Witness” (also produced by Michael Mann), is able to enact the kind of change that the classic reportage of “60 Minutes” managed to achieve. And while it doesn’t quite go that far, “Witness” is an eye-opening, riveting look at conflicts raging around the world, and the complex and mostly ignored narratives that are unfolding.

Airing this past Monday, “Juarez” was essentially the test model for the series, and it shows. It runs a half an hour shorter than the other entries, and as a result remains a touch uneven. But it does introduce viewers to Eros Hoagland, who they’ll later see the series closer, “Rio.” Both sensitive and cynical, he perhaps has the hungriest eye of any of the photographers featured. Working with local fixers and speaking the language, his trust isn’t easily earned, and he doesn’t always buy the lines fed to him by local authorities. He seeks images that depict a single moment, but an illuminating truth about the exacting toll of the ongoing, escalating and devastating drug war is having just south of the border. 

And while “Juarez” weaves and bobs in and out of the alleys and hills where bullets and bodies are stacking up at a staggering rate, it’s “Murder City” author Charles Bowden who lays down the real situation (his contribution winds up being so much more substantive than Hoagland’s, he almost becomes the focus of the episode, an odd shift in the brief running time). Against a backdrop of literally hundreds of gangs with varying interests, and a Mexican army that is relentlessly killing civilians, this isn’t just about druglords, but authority and who wields it. But as you’ll see in the rest of the series, “Witness” doesn’t offer tidy summaries. The show is about plunging the viewer into the thick of a place and time, and hoping they emerge with further curiosity and concern, perhaps to learn more themselves. As for the Hoagland, the documentary doesn’t mind leaving him as just a device around which to pivot what is essentially an edited collection of footage, all loosely connected, giving an impression of “Juarez” and the highwire life of the photojournalist.

But if Hoagland is in the midst of war, Michael Christopher Brown is in the aftermath of a revolution in “Libya.” Again, while most reporters went home following the capture of Gaddafi, Brown returns to Libya though not without some heavy baggage (metaphorically speaking). Along with Chris Hondros, he was in the same mortar attack that killed Tim Hetherington in April 2011. Remarkably, there is footage from that day, and when Brown’s companion/fixer informs him in a field hospital — as doctors are pumping away on Hetherington’s chest — that his friend might be dead, it’s one of the rawest and most powerful documentary moments of the year.

That Brown returns to the country almost unfazed speaks to the resiliency all of these photographers share. There is no doubt they are adrenaline junkies to some degree, or perhaps making up for something else in their life (we’ll get to that shortly), but psychological reasons aside, their bravery is astonishing (and even Brown admits that he doesn’t quite yet understand what drives him or his colleagues). And what Brown finds in the post-Gaddafi Libya, is an even more complex web of special interests vying for power. But perhaps most shocking for those who followed mainstream media coverage of Libya, is Brown’s visit with the refugees of Tawergha. A supposed pro-Gadaffi town, it has since been emptied, with Amnesty International the treatment of its citizens as war crimes. They have been displaced by Libyan government, and Brown’s interview with elderly parents who son has been arrested, tortured and is missing is yet another example of the important, human stories that tend to slip through the cracks of the 140 characters, quick blog post and headline, type and post world of the news media.

But French photojournalist Veronique de Viguerie seems to have a bit more freedom in that regard to make sure her reportage gets the full spectrum it deserves. Commissioned for longer pieces by various magazines and publications, she spends her time in “South Sudan” — while pregnant no less — getting to the bottom of the crisis being caused by the by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. She admits she may be trying to fill the painful void left by the sudden death of her boyfriend, but her commitment and involvement is no less sincere. Moving among refugee camps the stories she’s told of children being kidnapped and trained to kill and of entire families slaughtered is heart-wrenching. And yet, perhaps more than another segment, there is inspiration too, in the form of the Arrow Boys, a ragtag group of farmers who have formed an army of sorts, providing refuge for the victims of the LRA, as they track them across the country.

But what is the cost of her involvment? When bullets fly towards the latter half of the episode, Viguerie has no problem dropping any kind of journalistic “ethics” to make sure the injured seek medical attention. She simply can’t be a passive observer. And the same is somewhat true of Hoagland, who we catch up with again in “Rio.” As Brazil gears up for the double whammy of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics across the next four years, the question of what to do with self-governed and dangerous favelas is becoming a complex one. With some of them up in the hills, yet boasting beautiful views, there seems to be an unofficial gentrification project underway, with the city quietly trying to relocate citizens to less desirable land as far as 50 miles away, and anyone who stays faces stronger methods to encourage them to leave. Powerful gangs control the drug trade and the favelas, and unlike elsewhere in the world, reporters are not protected. But is it just the criminals in this neighborhood who are causing trouble?

Hoagland’s instincts through tell him something else is happening beneath the surface. Statistics reveal tha the murder rate is down in Rio…but missing persons is up. Corruption is running rampant through the police, with connections to the drug gangs themselves being reported. But the further Hoagland tries to peer behind the curtain, the more his own fixer becomes concerned, and then Hoagland himself. Given the opportunity of a lifetime by a gang to catch police corruption in action, Hoagland thinks long and hard about it, knowing that doing so can put the lives of everyone  in Rio he works with in grave danger, while he gets to leave, and fly home to relative safety.

Across all four documentaries, there is a real push and pull between being the in the moment, and standing back to consider moral and ethical obligations, and also process what is begin witnessed through the lens. Forgive the language, but “Witness” both for better and worse is a drive-by account of what is happening in these pockets of the world. It’s filmed viscerally, often utilizing POV camera work with units strapped to the photographers themselves, and a live on the fly approach that makes no mistake of the immediacy of their situations. But it’s also sometimes frustratingly without context, and though viewers are never left wanting for knowing the score, so many avenues of discussion are left open, each entry could be expanded its own standalone, feature length doc.

However, there is no doubt that “Witness” is wholly compelling and enganging, a welcome antidote to the talking head cable news, and wire service regurgitation that the newspapers have become. Journalism is still alive, and it’s happening right now, it just needs more people to bear witness. [B]

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