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Star- Robert King!
It may have taken Wikkileaks to reveal the grubby unspoken truth on just how sadistically the world is run for the benefit of the United States but the truth has always been their in war photography, the subject of this engaging documentary about celebrated photo journalist Robert king. The camera never lies and because so few people want to read about the back story to every tragic and revealing photo from the war zones of the world the truth rarely registers. But few people have a problem with having their photo taken if it's going to be in the paper and so always good record of the bad stuff and the victims and perpetrators often in the shots, so need to steel any encrypted data. We have all seen those very young African child soldiers dragging their Kalashnikov's with a brilliant but sad smile as they chew quat (root narcotic) for the camera, or the more mysterious Arabic horsemen hiding behind their kaftans, only piercing green eyes suggesting they may not be the nicest of people on the planet. A photo allows us to move on and forget.
War photographers are notoriously crazy and Robert king is no different, a handsome and likeable chap but clearly honing his death wish, his early relationship with his father-also explored here- one of the reasons he preferred fleeing to hideous foreign conflict to escape his own family battlefield. You have to be mad to work here is the motto.
Like many of the best jobs we learn there are no application forms here to fill in for the job of war cameramen, throwing yourself in at the deep end the only way to know if you are up to it, what money you do make freelancing in your early days paying for your food and bar bill. The plan then is to build your reputation by not only taking great pictures but getting them seen by the right agencies to sell them. In Roberts first year in a war zone it took him seven months to sell anything of value, an apprenticeship that was basically about not getting killed or seriously injured and so not joining your subject matter in some other photojournalist portfolio. King worked out that he made less than $100 a week in his first year. It is one of those typical media professions that are dominated by young middle-class men because you need some sort of funding to be able to work for nothing for a long period of time until you turn a decent wage and that's called the parents. It's the same in writing for cash and journalism and so jobs that always will be dominated by those who can support themselves with external help. A war photographer is also a job that plonks you in a moral vacuum where helping the wounded and innocent is missing a photo opportunity so only for a certain type of selfish person. The key is facial expressions of the subject in this game and the more close up to the perilous situation the subject matter is then the better and so more valuable the shots. You go to the edge and most of these war snappers want to be in that place, why they do it. We learn through the film that this is just as much a therapy for King that it is about the photos.
We open the film with our first view of King in action back in the day, 1992 to be exact, his car riddled by bullets after fleeing a checkpoint in Bosnia, frantically checking his body for bullet holes, narrow escapes fellow war hacks John Simpson and Frank Gardner know all about. On camera King points out to his fellow snapper that a bullet has gone clean through his camera. The only narrative of sorts on offer here is expressed through flashback, King and his director Richard Parry seen in the present day on a hunting trip in Canada shooting moose, clearly as some sort of Deer Hunter metaphor, jumping back to important events in Kings, career through archive footage, which feels a little amateur to be honest.
Fresh out of university the phlegmatic Canadian heads straight to the Balkans to live out his dream, his first big conflict, the idea being that his friend Richard Parry would document his journey to fully fledged war photographer on hand held camera, what turned out to be a 15-year journey and a solid friendship between the two men. The pair are soon in at the deep end on film as Kings choice of clothing to approach the Bosnia frontline was a white shirt with his flimsy bullet proof jacket, a juicy target for Serbian snipers, producing pure terror for greenhorn king but great mirth for the Bosnian soldiers trying to protect him, Parry (behind the lens at the time) commenting caustically that this may not be what King was cut out for. But his courage grows as the film moves on, girls and booze his sedative to get through the hell of the Bosnian war and deliver those graphic and harrowing images, the reality all around him and shown gruesomely in the film. Its made clear early on that this would be a no holds barred documentary and so not for the feint hearted.
When King finally finds his feet and gets his act together with the camera on the type of 'human interest 'photos the broadsheets and magazines want he earns a front page for the London Times, an image of lazy United Nations peacekeepers preferring to enjoy the local prostitutes and booze than stop any genocides. UN troops, whether they will admit it or not, are not designed - or there - to intervene in wars and the only way the feeble UN can exist if we are honest. If the UN did ever decide to take action to stop wars then it wouldn't last very long, as we are seeing in the Ivory Coast right now, not politically expedient for foreign troops to be dieing in foreign lands under the blue helmets.
Kings second big posting in the film is to the ugly hell that is Chechnya, the rebel Russian Republic suffering a Northern Ireland style insurgency that's stoked up by Russian troops when Putin needs to win elections. Although a similar style war to Bosnia the might of the Russian army and expendable young Russia troops meant it was far more close contact and bloody, meaning great shots for King, of course. AT this point in his life he is married and so all the stress for the family on top.
Iraq, inevitably, drew King and camera to conflict, the third segment of the documentary, but embedded photo journalism not really his thing, which shows in the film, confined to a US base for most of his tour there. If you were not embedded with the US troops there they were probably shooting at you, a record number of media people killed in Iraq, some of the stuff quite disgusting from the American troops, foreign and western journalist openly targeted by US guns and missiles. Who will forget the Al Jazeera office and John Simpson's convoy being blown up deliberately by US warplanes! This part of the documentary also brings King's story up to date as the film tails off as the danger is removed and we are now worn out with his personality.
The film is known as Blood Trail for its Lionsgate US release and perhaps a more realistic title, the editors and agencies equally uncaring towards their snappers, this film just as much about King's bloodlust as it is the art of taking good photo's in war zones. It's also quite interesting to see just how cynical the business is and how cutthroat (excuse the pun) these guys are to each other to get the shot. King seems a decent chap but there is an element of hamming here which takes the film into a more psychedelic narrative at times, revisiting some of his friends he met on the battlefields making for contrived scenes to keep the film quirky, none more so than a Bosnian hooker trying to eat 100 American bananas in one of his obtuse photo shoots. But he is clearly popular and respected with his peers, however long that took.
It's often been levelled at these guys that they stage their best shots to get those front pages, many cases of this recovered in history. But we also know the psy-ops teams in the military are also guilty of this and create photo ops that aid their propaganda, the infamous hoisting of the US flag above Iwoa Jima in World War Two and the pulling down of Saddams statue to name but two. The media win modern day wars just as much as weapons and bombs do and if the military can control them then it's a powerful weapon to have in your arsenal.
King is a complex guy and can only function in the chaos of the war, a point the film pushes early on, and the director's biggest problem. You can feel parry trying to exaggerate Kings drinking and womanizing problems to build the legend and the distinct lack of fellow war snappers contributing suggest he may not be that popular with his peers, this film the first time I have heard of the guy. But it's interesting and entertaining enough and if you can stomach the gruesome stuff (you see an old guy trying to crawl with half a leg) then you will get something from it, an honest depiction and document of the worlds war zones, terrible places indeed.
Imdb.com - 7.2/10 (47 votes)
The Times - "A fascinating, entertaining and skilfully assembled documentary about the messed up business of war reporting, and the messed up men who do it"
= = = = Special Features = = = =
King and Parry talk about their film
-The Making of Shooting Robert King-
The two talk about their experiences over the years and the problems they had selling the film.
-Riding with Suarez-
This chunk of the film is about the brutal drug and civilian killings on the Mexican-US border, deemed not interesting enough to escape the extras.
Quite a few
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