Under Fire: Journalists in Combat explores new territory–the psychological effects of reporting war. The tables have been turned: it tells the stories of the storytellers who risk their lives to bring first-hand accounts from the front lines into the living rooms of families around the world. Kristy Hutter reviews the documentary short-listed for an Oscar.
In the whole of the First World War, two journalists were killed. In the last decade, almost one journalist a week has been killed, bringing the death toll into the thousands. Yet, eager reporters continue to risk their lives, exposing the stories that make headlines across the globe each day. It is this hunger for the story and the need to be immersed in the action that director Martyn Burke investigates. With the help of Dr. Anthony Feinstein, a psychologist who specializes in journalistic behaviour, Burke chooses nine subjects who had reported from dangerous locations and with them he conducts a series of intimate, often candid, interviews.
Dr. Feinstein is the only professional to analyse the psychological effects on journalists in combat. The results of his study reveal symptoms similar in those who have actually fought: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. In the film, some of the journalists talk about suffering from these conditions, often describing a feeling of disconnectedness once they have returned to everyday life filled with “trivial matters”. Interestingly, the women featured in the documentary (Susan Ormiston from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Christina Lamb from The Sunday Times) divulge the struggle they have balancing their family lives with their careers and how they carry out their motherly duties upon returning from a war zone – a struggle not mentioned by the men in the film.
Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Bosnia, Chechnya, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Congo, Rwanda – the journalists emotionally recount split-second decisions and close calls in the world’s worst war zones. At one point, John Steele, former chief foreign correspondent for The Guardian and author of ‘War Junkie’, breaks down after recounting his role as a witness to the blatant killings of innocent children who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time – a segment that is truly difficult to watch. Near the end of the film, Canadian photojournalist Paul Watson emotionally describes the guilt he felt after photographing an American soldier being dragged down the streets of Mogadishu by proud Somalis in the aftermath of notoriously dubbed ‘Black Hawk Down’. The interview was so honest that it was almost as if he had come to grips with his actions for the first time while the camera was rolling.
The stylistic component of the documentary is basic yet powerful. The film revolves around nine interviews set against a black backdrop, often accompanied by superimposed footage of dramatic stills and video news packages captured by the subjects themselves. These images (often B-side footage with true ‘behind-the- scenes’ gist) are an essential component to the film as they give the viewer an inside look at what the reporters have actually experienced. And the haunting score almost mirrors their journey back to precarious times. Burke even puts himself in the film, allowing his interviewees to question him, probably out of pure journalistic instinct.
Under Fire: Journalists in Combat provides candid insight to a dangerous profession that requires courage and passion, and the lasting consequences that accompany it. But the film really goes beyond its portrayal of life on the front lines and acts as a tribute to those who have died in places most would dare not go in an attempt to expose the truth and give a voice to the voiceless.