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“The first execution I ever saw in my life …” says the subject of David and Jaqui Morris’ documentary early on, and it’s immediately apparent that McCullin is much more than a film about a celebrated photographer. Chronicling the career of British photojournalist Don McCullin — particularly his stint working for the Sunday Times from 1966 to 1983 — the film receiving a weeklong theatrical run at NYC’s Museum of Modern Art presents a vivid portrait of a man who chose to place himself among the most hellish war-torn places on the planet.
Seen in copious interview footage, the handsome, craggy McCullin, in his late 70s, emerges as a deeply thoughtful, sensitive man despite the horrific pressures of his profession. He says that he detests his reputation as a “war photographer,” likening it to being called a mercenary.
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But a war photographer he most certainly was. He began his career photographing the members of the street gangs who populated his native, very rough neighborhood of East London. He soon found assignments in Cold War-era Berlin and the Congo, and eventually went to work for the Sunday Times under the editorship of Harold Evans, who provides extensive commentary throughout and describes McCullin as a “genius.”
The documentary delivers myriad examples of McCullin’s vivid photography, shot in such places as Biafra, Northern Ireland, Cambodia, Vietnam and Beirut. But while the pictures have a stark power undiminished by the passage of time, it’s the photographer’s eloquent commentary that provides the film with its most moving moments, such as when he describes the wrenching experience of encountering 800 dying children in a camp during the Biafran War.
His last major assignment was covering the war in Lebanon in 1982. By then the newspaper had been purchased by Rupert Murdoch, who decided that its magazine section should devote itself to happier topics than wartime atrocities. Evans was forced to resign, and McCullin found himself in limbo. Much to his dismay, he was barred by the British government from covering the Falklands War.
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But his reputation remains intact, with 10 books of his photographs still in print. Now largely concentrating on nature and landscape photography, he comes across in this illuminating film as a man at peace with himself despite the horrors he’s witnessed.
Production: British Film Company, Frith Street Films, Mugshots Productions, Rankin Film Productions
Directors/producers: Jacqui Morris, David Morris
Executive producers: Christopher Hird, Rankin, Steve Milne
Directors of photography: Richard Stewart, Michael Wood
Editors: Andy McGraw, David Fairhead
Composer: Alex Baranowski
Not rated, 85 min.
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