HBO’s four-part documentary series Witness, about combat photographers, is harrowing and ambitious. Executive produced by filmmaker Michael Mann (Heat, Miami Vice) and documentarian David Frankham (who helmed three of the four episodes), the series explores war-torn nations via striking images (both still and video) and sketches portraits of photographers. It’s powerful and illuminating in some ways and unsatisfying in others.
Tonight’s premiere, “Juarez,” is unfortunately the weakest of the episodes. Its view of drug violence in Cuidad Juarez, Mexico, feels both reportorial and impressionistic. The images, dialogue, location sound, and pop soundtrack merge into a trancelike whole. You know where you are, and yet you don’t know where you are. Then the episode’s subject, photographer Eros Hoagland, and various on-the-scene participants give you a few appalling tidbits: The war has claimed 100 Mexican soldiers and 19,000 civilians. The Mexican army may be responsible for the vast majority of killings, tortures, and rapes. The drug business is fractured. There are hundreds of gangs. The police forces in Juarez should be considered gangs, too. There’s so much money at stake that the war could go on forever.
Most of the factoids in that last graf come from one interviewee, Charles Bowden, author of Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields. He’s the only person in the episode who could be considered a “talking head.” That fits with the program’s aesthetic; Witness isn’t Frontline and isn’t trying to be. But what is it trying to be? For the most part, this episode isn’t terribly interested in specifics, but in capturing a vibe. We see photos and video footage of cops, drug dealers, corpses, and Juarez citizens grieving or fretting or going about their business, and it all adds up to an impression of a city in chaos. Then Bowden enters the picture and we learn a lot. Later, Hoagland comes into focus, and we discover that he learned photography from his photojournalist father, David Hoagland, who was killed in 1984 while covering the war in El Salvador. Hoagland’s recollections are unaffected and honest, and the archival images of the young Hoagland with his father are wrenching.
But the episode seems afraid to dwell on Hoagland’s psychology; he remains a somewhat mysterious, marginal figure until the episode’s final third. Why? To avoid charges that Witness is more interested in a white photographer’s childhood trauma than in the suffering he documents? Whatever the explanation, the episode lacks a strong, individual center. It’s sympathetic to the suffering of Juarez’s citizens, yet treats them as a mostly undifferentiated mass. The episode’s failures are symptomatic of Witness’s eagerness to be many different things at once. “Juarez” is investigative journalism, travelogue, portraiture, photojournalism, hard-edged music video, and more; that’s a lot to pack into a half-hour.
Next week’s follow-up, “Libya” (November 12) — directed by Abdallah Omeish — is in the same vein. But like the other three episodes of Witness, it runs an hour and merges its disparate parts more smoothly. Its photographer, Michael Christopher Brown, is more lucid and emotionally accessible than Hoagland, and thus a better guide for the viewer. The episode conveys a sense of what it might be like to live in a place that was united by a charismatic dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, for decades, only to plunge into chaos after his death. The nation is still reeling. Libya’s youth are restless, aimless, and strapped. “We have these young men who are still carrying arms and still committing violations,” says Khalifa Hifter, commander of Libya’s National Army. “The violations come from despair, or from a real void.” Video footage of young men betting on a dogfight in front of the ruins of Gaddafi’s compound tie the journalistic details and personal ruminations together. “I have no idea what it was like to grow up in a country like Libya under Gaddafi,” Brown tells the filmmakers, “but I could relate in a way to how these young people were feeling.”
This is good stuff — a tad unfocused but perceptive and direct. The third installment, “South Sudan” (November 19), is even better. It gives French photojournalist Veronique de Vigurie, who made her name covering the Taliban, the detailed scrutiny of a great magazine profile. It makes her subjects, the Arrow Boys fighting against Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, come alive as people, and it conveys the grinding practical realities of combat photography: the hassle of getting where you need to be, staying there, and getting the job done without getting injured or killed.
The series really comes alive when it zeroes in on the photographs and the act of taking them. In the most original section of “Juarez,” Hoagland discusses his own de-saturated, somewhat figurative, faintly eerie style. “War does not exist in a world of color, nor does it exist in a world of black-and-white,” he tells the filmmakers. “It’s a half-world, a place where there are no true colors.” This is good stuff; I wish there were more of it. There are many notable documentaries about war and war photography, but few that explore how photojournalists convey their worldviews through composition, color, and light. Michael Mann — who studied both documentary filmmaking and advertising as a young man, and went on to become one of the supreme stylists in American cinema — would seem uniquely suited to oversee a series about the interplay of form and content in war photography. Witness isn’t that series. It’s only intermittently interested in the aesthetics of the work that it celebrates, because it has too many other things on its mind.