Sunday, September 26, 2010

Review - Shooting Robert King

Did Robert King know what he was letting himself in for when he turned up in Sarajevo in 1993? The young American photographer entered the warzone full of big ideas, pondering his chances of becoming the youngest winner of the Pulitzer, and describing himself as messenger for the world. But Robert was also hugely naïve and unprepared, having no idea about the political context of the conflict he was stepping into, and with little sense of how to conduct himself as a wartime photojournalist. "The only thing I knew about war was what I saw on TV, and the only thing I knew about war correspondents was what I read in a book," he freely admits as he looks back on his experiences some 15 years later. For the other, more experienced photographers around him, Robert King is a figure of fun and curiosity. Few of them expect him to last long.

Robert King didn't just survive the war, he flourished, and his development from inexperienced nobody to acclaimed photojournalist is detailed in Shooting Robert King, Richard Parry's absorbing documentary which was shot intermittently over the years as Robert and his camera captured the bloody truth of wars around the world. The contrast between those who are visiting the frontlines for the first time and those who have lived through many is shown vividly in an early sequence, where Robert (a sniper's dream in his bright white shirt!) cowers in fear as bullets whizz past his head. His colleague Jeff Chagrin takes it all in his stride, telling the camera, "I've come to so many frontlines it's like taking a double-decker bus." Shooting Robert King offers a fascinating insight into the mentality of photographers at war, who have to put their lives at risk every day if they want to go where the action is, where they can get the only shots that count.

The film is full of startling, and often horrifying footage of carnage and bloodshed. Parry doesn't spare his audience the shocking sights that King himself often had face on a daily basis, but as such scenes of violence become a more frequent occurrence, the photographer gradually seems to develop an immunity to their effect. Casting his eye over the results of a bombing in Iraq, King explains that he has to see past the fact that the street is littered with body parts: "Yes, you know it’s a foot. Yes, you know it’s somebody’s face" he says, "but you have to look at it as a form and shape and compose those forms and those shapes." Robert is an amiable and honest character and he is upfront about both his achievements and his failings. Not only does he freely admit that he was recklessly unprepared for the life he chose, but he also discusses the way his life became sidetracked by the subculture of drink and sex that he was documenting in Russia.

Robert reminisces from inside a hunting tent in Tennessee, where he was filmed in 2008; older, wiser, more reflective and – by his own admission – far more cynical. Considering the manner in which Shooting Robert King was filmed, shot in various war zones over the course of 15 years, the finished product that Parry and producer Vaughan Smith (a fellow freelance journalist) have assembled is remarkably coherent. It works not only as a compelling portrait of an intriguing character, but in a larger sense, it gives us a unique vantage point on life in the middle of a war zone, and what it does to those who live through it. "How many nameless dead bodies have I stepped over?" Robert asks at one stage, and while it may be a question that is unimaginable for most of us, Shooting Robert King shows us that it's an everyday practicality for the war correspondent, for whom getting the story, and surviving to tell it, are the only things that count.

Shooting Robert King is released on DVD on September 27th. The disc includes an informative and light-hearted commentary by Richard Parry and Vaughan Smith, some deleted scenes and a number of documentaries on the background to the film.