By Elizabeth Alexander
‘Through the Lens: Sights and Sites of War – Situating war from both sides of the lens,’ was presented as part of the Passenger Films Series to an audience of more than 50 people on Tuesday evening, May 27th at the JetLag Bar in London’s Fitzrovia neighborhood. Students from the Geopolitics and Security Masters Program at Royal Holloway University of London organized the program and selected the documentary ‘Dirty Wars’ to anchor the event, with three shorts (an RAF Recruitment video, Helmet-Cam footage/audio of Marine A and a clip from South Park ‘Osama Bid Laden has Farty Pants’).
Despite ‘Dirty Wars’ winning a Sundance award for cinematography, the structure of the film, the role of the filmmaker/journalist, and even its’ purpose provoked a degree of skepticism and discussion during the evening. Filmmaker/journalist Jeremy Scahill set out to tell a shadowy story about covert operations In Iraq and Afghanistan, but it seemed as if Bin Laden’s demise and the publicity around the JSOC unit that executed that mission ‘outed’ the story, leaving Scahill to retroactively piece together a documentary that perhaps lacks credibility or mimics a thriller, ‘Anderson Cooper meets Ben Affleck,’ commented one audience member.
Dr. Alasdair Pinkerton from RHUL’s Geography Department led the post-show discussion, with panelists documentary director Ben Campbell of Rampage Studios and Dr. Rikke Bjerg Jensen, Researcher in media and the modern military at RHUL. Participants included cyber-security graduate students and staff, war studies and media college students as well as ex-military, film producers and peace activists. We were disappointed that Sean Langan, a war journalist and filmmaker was unable to attend to add a unique point of view, but travel issues prevented his participation.
Ben Campbell pointed out that from a director’s point of view; the reconstructed narrative, the invisibility of the production crew, and the extensive use of voiceovers undermine the ‘rules’ of documentary making, in which an audience expects to be on the journey. The work has an air of reenactment without being explicitly positioned as such. Rikke Jenson commented that the role of the journalist in the film was very problematic, particularly in the way in which Scahill incorporated images that weren’t credited or contextualized with dates and names. Moderator Alasdair Pinkerton noted the affective atmosphere, which was shadowy, the way that bodies were represented (especially those of children), and the geographies – the contours of the danger and fear that were enrolled in the film.
Audience members countered that Scahill’s efforts should be taken more at face value; perhaps he intended to invoke the espionage trope in order to appeal to an audience who might not otherwise have viewed the film. For some who’d watched the film multiple times, each viewing tended to be a very different experience. Enrolled in the shadows and suspense the first time, seeing inconsistencies and raising questions which interrupt the narrative in the second. And whatever the critique, embedded in the film are scenes, many provided from cell phone video not of Scahill’s making, that are not likely to be forgotten. These are the real stories from real people whose lives have been tragically altered by war, and told ‘through the lens.’ As one audience member wrote in their notes ‘…the story is the story – is truth a zero-sum game?’ The critique and the defense of this film are not mutually exclusive, co-existing uneasily and imperfectly on both sides of the lens.