USA (88 mi) 2014 d: Katy Chevigny and Ross Kauffman Official site
The film is a fairly choppily edited sequence of events following reporters working for the Human Rights Watch, an international organization that investigates and documents human rights abuses. While very little information is provided about the organization itself, what footage is provided is accompanied by views seen through the eyes of the journalists, both as they’re on their jobs, but also while safely at home having meals with family and friends. What’s quickly apparent is the differentiation in social and economic class, as the journalists are well-educated, living comfortably in the lavishness of a wealthy lifestyle, where a husband and wife team is seen leading a quiet life outside of Geneva, Switzerland, but drop everything after receiving phone calls sending in the E-Teams, emergency teams into battle zones where people are in the midst of heated violence, with mobs of people on the streets filled with abandoned buildings raked by shrapnel, where people are literally under attack, often with nearby explosions and bullets flying, where people are fighting for their lives. In the intensity of the moment, a mob mentality prevails, where like-minded people are all too willing to blame the other side when talking to reporters, where it’s often hard to distinguish between fact and fiction. A building was bombed, children were killed or injured, where an on-the-scene interview with the mother may not be the most accurate or objective piece of reporting, but it’s dramatic as hell. This film feels forced and manipulative, always looking for a worse case scenario, seeking to incite the most outrageous sense of drama, where it’s edited like an adrenaline-laced emergency room television program, following one disaster after the next, elevating the level of trauma and outrage, where anyone willing to fit that profile will be interviewed, failing to provide a more detached explanation of what’s happening on the ground. More importantly, most of what’s being documented is old news, where more current reportage and analysis has already provided a more recent understanding of the conflicts shown.
Taking us into well known crisis regions, like Libya in the aftermath of Muammar Gaddafi, or attacks on civilians near Syrian rebel outposts by Bashar al-Assad, but even backtracking to the Kosovo War that took place more than a decade ago, where one of the reporters actually testifies in the Hague, documenting what he witnessed, subject to hostile, face-to-face questions from Slobodan Milošević, the Serbian President accused of war crimes. While the team conducts interviews on the street and attempts to collect evidence of atrocities, it’s clear they’re in a harrowing business, often smuggled into the most dangerous regions of the world, where what they do is indisputably valuable, yet the tone of the entire film is also filled with in-your-face moral self-righteousness, suggesting we were there, we risked our lives to obtain this footage, pounding the viewers on the head about the immediate significance, attempting to provide a sense of urgency, yet what we see onscreen is nothing new. The airwaves are filled with this stuff, as are plenty of online sites, where the raw footage of a ravished war zone looks pretty much the same whether you’re in Syria or the West Bank, Iraq or Afghanistan. War is hell. What’s missing in their pieces, as opposed to the distinguished photojournalism of Tim Hetherington (who was killed in Misurata, Libya recently while filming the conflict there) and Sebastian Junger in RESTREPO (2010), who spent a year with one platoon in the deadliest valley in Afghanistan, is the extent of time spent in each location. What they’re reporting are specific flash points, a dramatic moment in time, but they fail to provide an overall, in-depth sense of what’s going on in the region, which would include a more balanced sense of the region’s place in history. We never get at the root of the turmoil, the origins of any of these conflicts, but instead focus upon the incidental casualties of innocents.
While the film makes claims that it investigates atrocities on both sides, this is clearly not the case, as there is simply no footage anywhere to be seen of Israel’s assault on the West Bank, or America’s occupation of Iraq or Afghanistan, including extensive accounts of hundreds of innocents dying from errant bombs. The reason for this is obvious, as western reporters are simply not allowed into the most dangerous regions on earth. With the recent revelations of videotaped beheadings of western journalists by the extremist rebel jihadists of ISIL in Syria and Iraq, it’s impossible to minimize just how dangerous it is to enter these regions. Even the downed passenger plane, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, shot down over the war zone in territory controlled by pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine was impossible to investigate as western investigators were simply not allowed near the crash site. Nonetheless, that doesn’t stop frantic requests from E-team journalists on the ground urgently asking their superiors to demand a no-fly zone to try to prevent Syrian air strikes against civilian villages. When the leaders of their own organization hesitates, believing such an action would be premature, the journalists feel betrayed, as if they’re risking their lives for nothing. This incident attempts to expose an existing rift that inevitably occurs between bureaucracies safely tucked into the background and the extreme realities that happen every day in a war zone, which by the way, was Kubrick’s subject in PATHS OF GLORY (1957). This is a rather simplistic way of expressing similar themes that those waging wars are nowhere to be seen near the front lines, oblivious to the often gruesome consequences of their own acts, hiding behind the belligerent rhetoric of war. While the journalists themselves steadfastly believe in the power of images, especially when they are the first on the scene, but their self-congratulatory tone of how essential they really are sends the wrong message, making themselves the subject of their own photos, falling in love with seeing themselves in front of the cameras, which only comes across as western arrogance, much like the soldiers sending selfies of themselves with prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison.