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The New War Stories
by Karen Pecota

The number of war stories selected for the festival seemed fitting to current world events. The absence of stories from the battle-front captured on film would be strange because Sundance is the place to showcase those stories needing to be told. Many narratives of war are brought to safety by men and women who risk their lives to tell the world of social injustice and truth. Atop the Filmmakers Lodge on Park City’s Main Street, a small group of filmmaker panelists address a standing-room-only audience on the perils of documenting the stories of war. Naturally, the stories of war are not new; but, with modern technology, one can use a variety of tools to creatively capture either the real deal (documentary film) or a re-creation of circumstance (narrative feature film based on fact or fiction).

Moderator, Lynne Kirby introduced the panelists: Amir Bar-Lev (The Tillman Story,documentary), Andrei Nekrasov’s (Russian Lessons,documentary), Mohamed Al-Daradji (Son of Babylon,narrative feature), Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington (Restrepo,documentary). Each filmmaker briefly explains their role in documenting war stories. Kirby opens the panel discussion by asking each member to tell how they told their theatre of war in a new way. The panelist’s agreed that the main goal is to tell the story with context. In the traditional sense, they are still the keeper of a story which happens to be documented as a part of history. The panelist’s begin to part ways when talking about the technology chosen to document their piece of history. The new way to present a story comes in part from the tools of the trade available to filmmakers today. One can choose highly sophisticated cameras to very simple compact units and lenses. The documentary filmmakers feel it is crucial for the filmmaker to tell his or her war story with accuracy and passion. Often the material, film footage and narration are too boring for a typical audience to sit through even 30 minutes of footage. They must draw the audience into their world for the story to have an impact. Certain cameras will make it possible to show more visual clarity vs. raw imagery. Once the angle of the story to be told is determined, it is easier to choose the style of camera and film to create the desired impact.

Al-Daradji’s film Son of Babylon, transformed a true war story transcribed from a relative about a treacherous road trip taken by a mother who lost her son in the war and a boy who lost his father. His premise combined historical accounts the Iraqi people encountered from the Gulf War tragedies along with customs to respect their dead. The cinematography of the countryside and its people, along with up-close visuals to describe the relationship between the grandma and her grandson were keys for a lasting impression. This is a human interest story of war and cultural responses.

In Restrepo two acclaimed journalists, Tim Hetherington and Sabastian Junger, follow the second platoon from Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade May 2007 through July 2008. They made ten trips to Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, the residence of the platoon, while on their assignment for Vanity Fair Magazine and ABC News. Their focus was to shadow the soldiers and film daily aspects of their operations. The personal contact with the soldiers, the locals and insurgents within the dangerous combat zone was vital to their story. The big-brother style of filming is one way in which their 94-minute film will connect the audience to the reality of a combat soldier. Evident is the fact that politics are far removed from their world of warfare because they are too busy fighting for their lives. All equipment had to be carried in and out of the combat zone. The limitations were difficult to deal with for a filmmaker especially when longing for that story of impact. Many times it was either their own lives at stake vs. the life of the camera.

In The Tillman Story a family fights for justice after losing a son in friendly fire while fighting in Afghanistan. The US government tried to cover up the embarrassment because the son was the famous NFL football player, Pat Tillman. The tools in this account are for the filmmaker to visually show the process of the belabored hours, days, months and now years spent to find the truth necessary to lay their beloved to rest. The editing is the key to accurately telling this story of passion.

Russian Lessons makes claim against a part of Russia’s horrific atrocities committed to its own Soviet countrymen in the former state of Georgia. The filmmakers take historical accounts and compare it to the evidence found which enlightens the struggle between the defenseless masses and the nation’s hand of power. The risk for a new story here is in their findings and how they have to protect the information to put it on film.

The new-ness in reference to the filmmakers’ product is the ability to document truth with freshness. They want to present the whole picture, personalize the information and once seen, allow the audience to make a conclusion. In contrast, the modern day news media provides only snippets of new information proving to be impersonal and it may or may not be fully accurate. The lack of truth telling is a growing concern, giving power to the documentary filmmaker to pursue his/her zest for storytelling. The New War Stories told by excellent filmmakers have an ever-growing platform and in my opinion they lead the way to tell difficult stories in a creative fashion. They give credit where credit is due and try to challenge you and me to understand the world as it really is carrying a message of compassion.