Page 23


BOOKS & THE CULTURE Beyond the Power of Words War Photographer Directed by Christian Frei ..\\x/ ar has been an important photographic subject since Matthew Brady first toured the battlefields of the Civil War, but our image of the war photographer is mostly a creation of the movies. Like Nick Nolte’s character in Under Fire, the war photographer is a macho daredevil who is not only willing, but eager, to risk his \(I think it’s of both the “truth” of war and the ultimate adrenaline rush. He’s an “extreme journalist,” and often the horrors that he confronts for a living get the best of him. He’s killed in action, or he crumbles morally and psychologically, like Dennis Hopper’s photographer in Apocalypse Now. Once in a great while he’s ennobled by suffering, like James Woods’ character in Salvador. The fact that James Nachtwey is both all of the above and none of the above accounts for much of the fascination of the documentary War Photographer, which was nominated for an Academy Award last year. Nachtwey, the subject of the film, is certainly drawn to danger zones. According to Nachtwey’s telling of his own story, he was attracted to the war photography of Vietnam photojournalists because their images were powerful enough to prove that the U.S. government was lying about the war, and he gave himself the task of becoming a war photographer himself. By the early 1980s he was at work in Central America and the Middle East, among other shooting zones of the day. \(How he went about preparing himself for this then Nachtwey has covered war in Kosovo and Rwanda, and the violence attending the fall of the Suharto regime in Indonesia. But Nachtwey breaks with the popular image of his profession more often than he observes it. Far from being a hard-bitten thrill-junkie, Nachtwey is almost painfully introspective. He scarcely speaks through the first third or so of the film. Instead he wordlessly goes about the business of photographing the anguish of Kosovo mothers looking upon their dead sons.Taking his cue from his subject, director Christian Frei, a Swiss documentarian, at first seems intent on producing an almost literally silent film. Frei’s camera, filming Nachtwey, picks up the cries of the women, while a minicam attached to Nachtwey’s camera takes the viewer almost too close to the wrenching scene. The minicam is a brilliant, if unsettling stroke. We’re perched on Nachtwey’s shoulder as he frames a shot, but we, like Nachtwey himself, are obviously intruding on abject grief. The movie finally gets around to the question of whether or not war photography is a ghoulish profession, but only long after viewers have been asking the question themselves. There’s also a kind of macabre beauty to the opening scenes, as well as to later images of human distress. Or if not beauty, at least a visual fascination to watching Nachtwey work, as we watch his camera hunt for the right image while his fingers adjust its lens. I can’t say that I wanted the wordless \(there are no words in English, that is no doubt the women are speaking last forever, despite the grotesque fascination it provides. But it’s still a jolt when Christiane Amanpour appears on screen to praise Nachtwey’s fearlessness, proclaim him the world’s greatest war photographer, and articulate the reasons a person might be drawn to such a terrible job. Amanpour’s exploits get some screen time as well, as we follow her, sans Nachtwey, into a putrid Kosovo mass grave. The viewer might wonder why Amanpour gets so much screen time in a film ostensibly about Nachtweybut only until the camera joins Nachtwey in his New York apartment. Here the man has nothing to photograph, so he finally has to speak, but when his words come so haltingly you realize that Frei simply had to find someone who could talk. Nachtwey’s near silence, and his inward-focused gaze, raise compelling questions about the man and his line of work. \(In general, the questions the film raises are personal: Why do people let him photograph their pain? How can he stand to photograph their pain? rather than How For his sake, you almost wish he were the hard-living journalist of folklore, so that he’d have a way of releasing the tremendous pressure he must live with. Instead he seems to absorb the pain of the world, and, for all his Zen mannerisms, to become a sort of Christ figure in that limited respect. Once the film has more or less introduced us to this man of sorrows, we get a wider view of his work. There’s video footage of him at various war zones. Frei himself filmed the scenes from recent years, but it’s not clear who captured Nachtwey at work in Nicaragua, or during the late-1980s intifada, which, with its images of Palestinian boys launching rocks with slingshots, looks almost quaint. We also see still images from Rwanda, which seems to be the bloodletting that pained Nachtwey most deeply. His difficulty with speech becomes comprehensible as we look on with him at his photographs of piles of the fragments of bodies, and 22 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 10/11/02