Witness: TV Review

HBO Witness: South Sudan - H 2012

HBO Witness: South Sudan - H 2012

This raw HBO series eschews analysis in favor of direct access to the experience of three photographers in contemporary conflict zones.

Executive produced by Michael Mann and David Frankham, the HBO miniseries captures first-hand the experience of three photographers in war zones.

The historically significant work of groundbreaking war photographers like Roger Fenton, Alexander Gardner, Robert Capa and Joe Rosenthal has been widely documented, but the names of their modern-day counterparts are less well-known. The exceptions tend to be photoreporters killed in action, like Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, who lost their lives in a 2011 attack in Misrata, Libya. That incident provides the background for one of the four episodes in Witness, a visceral HBO Documentary miniseries executive produced by Michael Mann and David Frankham.

Directed by Abdallah Omeish, Witness: Libya premiered and was reviewed this summer at the Venice Film Festival, where Mann served as president of the main competition jury. However, despite its topicality being further fueled by the killing of U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens in an assault on the American consulate in Benghazi in September, the episode is arguably the least trenchant of the series’ four parts.

Its subject is Michael Christopher Brown, who was injured in the same mortar blast that killed his friends and mentors Hetherington and Hondros. Relying on a personally invested narrator has its pros and cons, and in this case, Brown’s return to post-revolution Libya lacks clarity, indicating that he is still too close to the events to provide much perspective. That comes instead from other talking heads, sketching a society in chaos. Many question whether the civil unrest, violence, poverty and ongoing corruption that have followed the end of Gaddafi’s rule represent any real improvement.

While the episode can’t compete with the ample editorial analysis elsewhere on the Libyan situation, it does contribute to the docu-series’ overall insight into the psyche of the photojournalist. Brown identifies the most important tool of the profession as a conscience. The tricky balance required to get the shot without violating human dignity or exploiting tragedy is a recurring theme.

In addition to Brown, the other subjects of Witness are Eros Hoagland, in two episodes devoted to the drug and crime wars in Mexico and Brazil; and French hot-zone veteran Veronique de Vigeurie. She ventures into the South Sudan jungle while pregnant to accompany the unpaid militia known as the Arrow Boys on their hunt for the Lord’s Resistance Army, led by the evasive war criminal Joseph Kony. Frankham directed all but the Libya episode.

All three subjects, unsurprisingly, share a virtual absence of fear. And all three, without actually saying as much, suggest that a certain innate protagonism is as much a job requirement as the driving urge to shed light on brutality and suffering. They all appear less interested in framing frontline action than its toll on people inhabiting the margins, or “the blanks,” to use Brown’s description. A common thread reveals that the difficulty of actually getting to the right location at the right time often outweighs the skill necessary to capture the image.

Another unifying characteristic is the reluctance to editorialize. “I’m not there to tell you what’s happening,” says Hoagland. “I’m there to show you what I saw and you can come upon your own conclusions.” That in essence sums up the approach of the entire series, which is both a strength and a weakness.

The opener is Witness: Juarez, a pithy half-hour account (the remaining three episodes run an hour each) of Hoagland’s experiences in Ciudad Juarez, the border town across the river from El Paso, Texas. While Mexican drug cartels and gangs are the principal threat, many locals have equal or greater fear of the police and military in a place where law-and-order lines have been all but erased. In the episode’s most unsettling scene, Hoagland and his camera watch, with a crowd of onlookers, as a shooting victim bleeds to death. This raises interesting questions of moral ambiguity about the difference between complicity and the emotional shield of professional responsibility.

Hoagland is a second-generation photoreporter whose father, John Hoagland, was caught in crossfire and killed in 1984 while on assignment for Newsweek in El Salvador. His son acknowledges that Latin America is now his “gravitational point,” taking him in the final episode to Rio.

With citywide construction and government cleanup measures accelerating in the run-up to the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games two years later, Hoagland digs into another morass. The drug and gang war of the favelas overlaps with the “war on poverty” as the Brazilian government attempts to sweep the poor outside the sightlines of international attention. City of God novelist Paulo Lins is among the illuminating interviewees here, exposing what in many ways is another kind of ethnic cleansing.

The series high point is episode three, Witness: South Sudan, not only due to its tense narrative of harrowing stories but also because de Vigeurie is a compelling subject more prone to self-reflection. Having covered everything from Taliban militants to Somalian pirates, she makes her third trip in a year to the Congolese border to document resistance against the cycle of violence perpetuated by Kony and his recruits.

The vicious nature of that recruitment process – with children abducted from schoolrooms and forcibly indoctrinated into a kill-or-be-killed culture – makes the personal accounts extremely unsettling. De Vigeurie talks about the usefulness of the camera to put distance between herself and the horror of people’s stories. Observing farmers and other civilians who have taken action after being failed by their government and police force makes for stirring drama.

When a young man is seriously wounded by gunfire as the group pushes deep into the Central African Republic jungle, de Vigeurie’s response illustrates that she is a human being first and a photographer second.

All four episodes were shot by Jared Moossy with the dexterity and immediacy that only hand-held digital technology allows, creating suspenseful interludes especially in the Rio and South Sudan segments. And the series editors make appropriate use of still images to highlight the photoreporters’ work.

The sense remains that a more analytical guiding hand and perhaps some scripted narration and tighter structure might have made the occasionally meandering material more cohesive. The thematic through-line is there, but could have benefited from more focused exploration. Still, there’s something to be said for letting the photographers tell their own unvarnished stories, which makes this intermittently powerful series a valuable addition to studies of war journalism.