Wednesday 10 June 2015

Sydney Film Festival (31) - Max Berghouse reviews the Australian documentary Only the Dead

Director and Journalist Michael Ware
Only the Dead ( Michael Ware/Bill Guttentag, 2015) was a film I very much wanted to like. I did not wish to be in a situation of condemning an otherwise bold attempt at a documentary film concerning the effective demise of the Iraqi state, but nor did I wish to be placed in a situation of having to praise out of hand something just because it is Australian.

It is commonplace now to accept that in relation to documentaries, that they should be judged effectively by the same norms as feature films, in which one principal criterion is "entertainment". At worst this means that the trite and ephemeral will be given greater purchase than the considered and the substantial. Embedded within this dichotomy is the device of using the "personal" to project a vision of the "general".

Michael Ware the documentarist entered Iraqi at the time of the collapse of the regime of Saddam Hussein as (apparently) a junior journalist concerned that he had arrived too late for all the action. Subsequently – and this is not described with much specificity – he seems to become the "lovey" of the jihadi groups attempting to wrest the tenuous control of the country from the occupying forces. Amongst these fundamentalist revolutionaries is the incipient IS state who apparently leaked video footage of their barbaric acts to him so that he could release them to the rest of the world. For a journalist, it’s very considerable good fortune.

Apart from relatively small quotas of network footage from the Western world, the bulk of the film is a condensation of apparently "hundreds of hours of video footage", taken by Ware who stayed in the country seven years. Some of the footage is also of the fundamentalists and it is not at all clear which is which. In a short pre-screening announcement, Ware warned viewers of the extreme barbarity of some of the footage. Presumably he means that of the fundamentalists! Unfortunately, and this is a deep criticism including of myself, we have seen all this and more in years gone by and I think we are substantially tempered against it. I could not help thinking that this was, at least in part, a quite cynical attempt to gain attention for what was otherwise, if not innocuous, at least well known.

I had no difficulty watching the footage; my major difficulty was the voice over commentary. Ware tries to convey the impression of a man, himself, rendered callous by his experiences of what are fundamentally the sufferings of others. Quite apart from the fact that his own experiences, even if true, don't help to elucidate why the situation in Iraq degenerated, the visual data conveys the impression exactly the opposite of what the voice-over asserts. He and his Russian born photographer sidekick seem to be having a whale of a time, basking in their repute. Nothing seems to sway him when other individuals are concerned with concentrating on himself. For example when one of their Iraqi assistants, a middle-aged man is shown, he is referred to as being subsequently killed, but there is no attempt to visualise his death (for example by showing the funeral) or the suffering this might bring.

People who go through the emotional drama he alleges he suffered, don't stay in the same place of suffering for seven years. This is a perfect example of what Sartre called years ago "bad faith": the assertion that something which is completely voluntary is in fact necessary. His allegations of personal suffering, apart from being substantially irrelevant, seem at odds with all footage he collected and shows.

I wish I could say otherwise because the footage – whoever shot it – and edited it, did a very good linear job. But I found the overall outcome was distaste.

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