Thursday, February 14, 2008

Of Documentaries ... and the reason why

The recent seminar organized by the RFC with renowned Swiss filmmaker, Christian Frei, was a real treat. Not only is he a great filmmaker, but an inspired and impassioned speaker too with a refreshing dose of modesty - all reflected in his films. Of particular note was his 2001 award winning film 'War Photographer' that left me speechless … no wonder he sent us all home after the film without the chance to ask questions … no-one could talk … as we drifted out of the new multi media centre of the RFC and went home rather shell shocked. The rain that began to fall was a light reprieve. But please don't misunderstand. It was a unique and fascinating film about the life of war photographer – Peter Nachtwey , the most respected war photographer of our times, if one can use the term 'respect' in conjunction with the word 'war' - "an engaging personality; the diametrical opposite of the hardened and cynical war correspondent" (Norbert Creutz). Christian captured the spirit of the man, professional, committed, and modest who has been humbled by man's inhumanity to man. Every step of the journey from Kosovo, to Indonesia, Palestine to Africa, Christian always followed never imposed, and you were taken with him into the horrors of conflict, the danger, the pain of it all and the touching moments of fleeting compassion that rose up from the madness of it all.

We debated how effective a tool the documentary film or indeed a photographer's photo can be in effecting change in this world, hell-bent on destruction. Was it not a narcissistic view of the world, a voyeuristic journey? But you soon realize that’s not what this art form is about. It's about finding the truth within; a powerful and essential means of communication … a very human need. It is a need we all have, particularly in today's media manipulated world, when the documentary film works as an impassioned plea to change attitudes and find the truth that may set us free. But it's also about a deep unrelenting, mysterious love – as in Christian's case – that reflects reverence for his subject; an unmistakable vein that pumps through the heart of all his documentary films. He does not judge, take sides, nor manipulate – evidenced by his sublime film 'The Giant Buddhas' that was reviewed by Mittelbayerische Zeitung as "an urgent appeal for tolerance". A film that for Christian is a "hymn to diversity of expression, religions and cultures, a call for tolerance conveyed through the figure of the Chinese monk who set out westwards in the seventh century AD." "Look" says Frei, "they had their Marco Polos as well! We should stop seeing our civilization as the center of the world. Just because it was an act of ignorance for the Taliban to destroy the Giant Buddhas of Bamiyan Valley, the reaction to that ignorance should not be equally ignorant".

A Christian Frei film is all about team work and the stunning cinematography by Peter Indergand, his longtime camerman, is a testament to their friendship founded on a deep understanding of their work. Although the two are completely different in character, the films come about through a process of "respectful disputation" as Christian puts it. But the underpinning element of a Christian Frei film that can take up to three years to make, is that "Switzerland has an excellent system of film funding" which is why Frei can afford the luxury of investing the necessary time. Something that through the ambitious and dedicated aims of the Royal Film Commission, may yet be available to Jordanian filmmakers, so that they too will one day find themselves celebrating at the Oscars!

It was an inspiring three days .... so a big thank you to the Royal Film Commision for their unrelenting commitment to the nascent Jordanian Film Industry that is off to a great start with Amin Matalka's work of art in the beautiful and highly acclaimed film "Captain Abu Raed"
and Mahmud Al Massoud's documentary 'Recycle' that won the Sundance World Cinema Cinematography Award. This documentary was centered on the life of a Jordanian family man, who lived in the same town of Zarqa as Abu Musa Al Zarqawi of Al Qaeda Iraq, and who struggles to support his family and define his identity in a tense political climate.

RFC website or contact Mohannad Bakri for further information on options available to Jordanian film makers.

And finally, I thought it appropriate to quote the words of Peter Nachtwey that he wrote in 1985 shortly before becoming a member of the world famous photo agency Magnum, about the relevance of his work as a war photographer – something as relevant today as it was then:

"There has always been war. War is raging throughout the world at the present
moment. And there is little reason to believe that war will cease to exist
in the future. As man has become increasingly civilized, his means of
destroying his fellow man have become ever more efficient, cruel and devastating."

"Is it possible to put an end to a form of human behaviour which has existed throughout history by means of photography? The proportions of that notion seem ridiculously out of balance. Yet, that very idea has motivated me."

"For me, the strength of photography lies in its ability to evoke a sense of humanity. If war is an attempt to negate humanity, then photography can be perceived as the opposite of war, and it if is used well it can be a powerful ingredient in the antidote to war. If everyone could be there just once to see for themselves what white
phosphorous does to the face of a child or what unspeakable pain is caused by
the impact of a single bullet or how a jagged piece of shrapnel can rip someone's leg off – it everyone could be there to see for themselves the fear and the grief, just one time, then they would understand that nothing is worth letting things get to the point where that happens to even one person, let alone thousands. But everyone cannot be there, and that is why photographers go there – to show them, to negotiate for peace and to reach out and grab them and make them stop what they are doing – to create pictures powerful enough to overcome the diluting effects of the mass media and shake people out of their indifference – to protest and by the strength of that protest to make others protest." …

"The worst thing is to feel that as a photographer I am benefiting from someone else's tragedy. This idea haunts me. It is something I have to reckon with every day because I know that if I ever allow genuine compassion to be overtaken by personal ambition I will have sold my soul. The stakes are simply too high for me to believe otherwise. I attempt to become as totally responsible to the subject as I possibly can.
"The act of being an outsider aiming a camera can be a violation of humanity. The only way I can justify my role is to have respect for the other person's predicament. The extent to which I do that is the extent to which I become accepted by the other, and to that extent I can accept myself."


Blogger joladies said...

Thanks J for such an interesting blog about photography and documentaries. I hope that the goal to expose the horrors of war will be realized. The pathos for the photographer to maintain his humility in the light of his career opportunities says much about his humanness already.

Friday, February 15, 2008  

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