Witness: Libya: Venice review

Cable documentary's hour-long glimpse into the shattered post-revolution landscape of Libya is more notable for topicality than originality.

From executive producer Michael Mann, the first of a four-part HBO series on war photographers, premiering at the Venice Film Festival

The high-adrenaline, high-risk world of the war-photographer is the slightly shaky focus of Witness: Libya, the first of a quartet of hour-long HBO films devised and executive-produced by Michael Mann. Directed by local documentarian Abdallah Omeish (2006's Occupation 101), it was unveiled at the Venice Film Festival, where Mann was jury-president, with a U.S. cable debut set for in November. An energetic if somewhat stylistically over-familiar snapshot of a country painfully emerging from bloody civil war, this dispatch from the Arab Spring's Year Zero includes a few graphic sequences of injury and death. The Mann imprimatur is a major plus, and with the killing of U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens keeping Libya firmly in the news, festivals and networks specializing in topical, adult-oriented non-fiction fare will be keen to take a look.

In a picture which must balance first-person testimony with the plight of voiceless thousands, our guide and narrator is Michael Christopher Brown, a freelance thirtysomething New York-based shutterbug who wants to go "whether the fighters go: the front line." Brown narrowly escaped death in April this year during an incident that made the worldwide news after two of his colleagues, Pulitzer-nominated Chris Hondros and award-winning British photographer/filmmaker Tim Hetherington, were killed in the besieged city of Misrata.

Several months later Brown returns to Libya to assess how the country is coping following the defeat of four-decade ruler Colonel Muammar Ghadafi, and learns that the long dictatorship has left the country's six-million-strong population riven by tribal divisions -and suffering from collective "paranoia." As recent outrages in Benghazi and elsewhere indicate, this is a highly volatile part of the world - "the craziest country on Earth," it's described here. And while the film's brief running-time rules out any in-depth analysis of the background or the issues involved, it passes muster as an accessible introduction to on-the-ground realities as snapped through Brown's lenses. Indeed, dozens of powerful photographs by Brown and company flit past, so quickly that they can only be properly examined and appreciated by small-screen viewers using DVD or DVR technology.

The big screen, however, has the benefit of displaying cinematographer Jared Moossy's limpid images to maximum effect, in a film which, like several of executive producer Mann's recent productions, serves as a fine showcase for digital camerawork and new technologies. Moossy is himself a photographer of some note with particular experience in troubled areas of Afghanistan and Mexico - the latter being an upcoming Witness location along with Brazil and South Sudan. He makes an auspicious transition to DP work here, and probably can't be blamed for director Omeish's occasional gimmicky ploy of degrading the footage to make it look like scratchy small-gauge celluloid stock. Omeish also heavy-handedly overuses Antonio Pinto's conventional, emotion-underlining score, a counter-productive and very TV-style element which this strong, raw material would cope perfectly well without.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition - Special Screenings), September 3, 2012.
Production company: Blue Light Media, Little Puppet (for HBO Documentary Films)
Director / Screenwriter: Abdallah Omeish
Executive producers: Michael Mann, David Frankham
Director of photography: Jared Moossy
Music: Antonio Pinto
Editor: Mako Kamitsuna

Sales agent: HBO Enterprises, London
No MPAA rating, 56 minutes 

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