‘Dying to Tell’ (‘Morir Para Contar’): Film Review

Courtesy of Contramedia Films
Grueling but enlightening.

Hernan Zin’s documentary about the tough business of war reportage recently earned best documentary honors at Montreal’s World Film Festival.

Anyone who’s wondered how it feels to fly into a war zone, report on it and then leave, carrying a suitcase full of horror, will learn a lot from watching Hernan Zin's documentary Dying to Tell. This is, in all sorts of different ways, a journey to the dark side. Part homage, part eulogy to the too-many Spanish reporters who have lost their lives in war zones and part study of the very particular mindset that makes it possible for men and women to put their lives in danger in order to keep us informed, Dying to Tell is compelling stuff.

An extreme viewing experience that plunges the audience into the depths of horror, the pic is also strangely reassuring; it is perhaps cause for celebration that such people as these, prepared to do our dirty work for us, exist at all. Multiple fest screenings, including at Seville’s European Fillm Festival, are likely to be followed by more.

Argentina-born but based in Spain, Zin was himself a war reporter until, in Afghanistan in 2012, he experienced a panic attack. After that, he knew he’d be unable to continue in the job. Refocusing his desire to know the truth, Zin now turns his gaze on his Spanish colleagues, and they open up in extraordinarily intimate ways that you suspect they wouldn’t have had he not been one of them.

Dying to Tell essentially shuttles between three ways of getting its story across. We learn of journalists who have been kidnapped or killed, starting with Julio Fuentes in Afghanistan in 2004 and ending with what was in fact the earlier death of Jose Couso, the victim of a U.S. tank that fired at the Baghdad hotel where he was staying. The close-up, harrowing footage of this event may be of the kind we’ve seen before, but it is given extra power here by the fact that we know a lot more about the people on the scene, and also because Zin carefully avoids both hagiography and hero-making.

Then there are are direct-to-camera interviews with a range of colleagues and friends, some of whom have been kidnapped and released in various war zones. One of the interviewees, Monica Garcia Prieto, was married to Fuentes, and later to another journalist who was kidnapped. Another female reporter, Maysun, speaks with weary resignation of the regular “sexual abuse” she has suffered. The sincerity on display is sometimes painful. The interviewees’ names are listed onscreen each time they appear. This is an unusual strategy, but upon reflection, it’s probably because Zin is encouraging us to remember the names of these special people — David Beriain, Roberto Fraile, Javier Espinosa and many more.

Unsurprisingly, given their vocation, Zin’s interviewees are excellent communicators, who, probably through years of having to explain themselves to people who can’t understand, have polished their phrases: “Fear is a defense mechanism that says you shouldn’t be here,” says one. Now unable to live among crowds, Zin describes his panic attack as “the sum of other people’s pain, tragedy and misfortune.” Another interviewee reports that “pain is like a gas; however small it is, it occupies all the available space.” All seem relieved by the chance to open up.

Psychologically, the interviews intensify over the final 20 minutes, as the journalists speak of the PTSD that 25 percent of them suffer from and of their social isolation, with the sense that their experiences are incomprehensible to anyone except those who have lived through such experiences themselves. Few show signs of their inner cracks, presumably having learned not to do so. And interestingly, some feel guilty talking about their own suffering, believing that that of the innocents on whose lives they are reporting should be the real object of our compassion.

“The adults decide to go to war, but the children do the fighting,” Zin reminds us in voiceover. His thoughts throughout the film are with the kids, whether they are child soldiers or the victims of Ugandan guerrilla Joseph Kony, for whom the filmmaker reserves particular ire. It’s hard to eke much positive out of all this, but at the end, in footage from a refugee camp, kids briefly become symbols of unfettered joy. These are Dying to Tell’s only fleeting scenes of happiness.

Production companies: Contramedia Films, Quexito Films
Director-screenwriter: Hernan Zin
Producers: Hernan Zin, Nerea Barros, J. Herrero, Eduardo Jimenez, Miguel Gonzalez
Executive producer: Andres Luque
Directors of photography: Ignacio Barreto, Miguel Hernan Parra
Production designer: Juan Pedro Manzano
Editor: Alicia Medina
Composer: Marcos Bayon
Venue: Seville European Film Festival
Sales: Contramedia Films

87 minutes