Seeing war on their own

`P.O.V' reports on reporters

TV Preview

July 06, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

One of the most under-reported stories of the War in Iraq was that of the unilaterals - reporters and photographers who tried to cover the war independent of military control. They were the ones operating at considerable risk outside the Pentagon's highly publicized program of "embedding" that allowed journalists to accompany coalition troops as long as they acquiesced and played by military rules.

War Feels Like War, a documentary film making its television premiere tonight as part of PBS' 17-year-old P.O.V. series, helps fill that void with insight, sensitivity and a keen eye for cinematic detail. The film is firmly grounded in people stories - the gritty specifics of the day-in-day-out lives of several people trying to cover the war outside the Pentagon bubble. But through these personal narratives viewers come to understand in a macro-sense how much was missed in coverage dominated by embedded reporting - or, put another way, how much the U.S. government was able to shape coverage of the war.

For three months, Spanish filmmaker Esteban Uyarra followed a diverse group of unilaterals. While network and cable news channels gone gung-ho for embedding regularly characterized unilaterals as free-lancers working for fringe publications, the group here includes best-selling author P.J. O'Rourke (working for ABC Radio), as well as reporters and photographers for news operations ranging from Poland's Radio Zet to the Chicago Tribune.

Like the director of a high-quality, prime-time drama, Uyarra assembles a compelling ensemble cast, and then further focuses his lens during the hour to highlight the story arc of those one or two individuals on the journeys of greatest growth. The film opens with its eye mostly on O'Rourke, but that's a matter of marquee value more than anything else. He is the most widely known of the reporters and photographers in the film.

O'Rourke does typify to some extent the initial frustrations of the unilaterals in trying to get out of Kuwait City and into Iraq. But, once the invasion begins and the more intrepid start making their way across the border, O'Rourke is quickly left behind.

War Feels Like War hits its stride as the camera settles on Stephanie Sinclair, a photographer for the Chicago Tribune. This is her first war, and she is by far the most emotionally open and reflective journalist onscreen - constantly questioning aloud whether she is being too aggressive in her coverage, or not aggressive enough. Most of all, she keeps trying to assess whether or not she is being changed by the violence, danger and death that surround her and her colleagues.

At first, she seems so chatty about her feelings that she comes off as self-absorbed, like someone on a reality TV show thinking it is all about her. And Uyarra cleverly exploits that, using the confessional techniques of the genre to show Sinclair in close-up talking to the camera about her feelings late at night, alone in a darkened room.

Clever becomes wise when he juxtaposes her self-assessment with pictures of her in action - pictures that he shoots with a hand-held camera to catch the messy, jangled look of war.

"I don't think I am going to change at all," Sinclair says at one point as she stresses the importance of not letting the desire to get a good picture desensitize her to the people she is photographing.

But, later in the film, viewers see Sinclair at the side of an open grave push ahead of a woman in deep mourning to get as close as she can with her camera to a corpse. By the end of the film, Sinclair is shooting remarkable pictures of the naked corpses of children. And, while she still questions what is happening to her emotionally, there is no question that she is doing important journalistic work, telling a story about civilian casualties that gives the lie to Pentagon press conference talk about what a successful and "clean" war the coalition has waged.

Be warned, the film is graphic and vulgar at points. But there is nothing more graphic or vulgar than the reality of death - especially the death of children caught in the path of war. That ancient and ugly truth is one of the primary stories that the government tried to keep the press from telling through its control of embedded correspondents.

Thank goodness, not just for the unilaterals who told that story with their pictures and words, but also Uyarra for reminding us how much more difficult it is getting for the media to speak that truth.

War Feels Like War

Where: WETA (Channel 26)

When: Tonight at 11 (it also airs at 12:30 a.m. July 14 on MPT)

In brief: A compelling look at the reporters and photographers who covered the War in Iraq without Pentagon control.

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