review from the LONG STORY SHORTS festival
“The horror doesn’t stop just because you’re not there”. These words penetrate to the very core of Beyond Her Lens’ short narrative, where a war photographer returns home from Mosul, Iraq shattered by the pain and horrors she has witnessed. As her photos roll out of the printer, taking her subjects from the reality of Iraq and enclosing them within a neat white border, the above phrase reveals it’s polysemy.
For her the horror of being a witness continues through memory, for those remaining in Mosul the horrors of physically living in a warzone continue and, most profoundly, the horror of commodifying these events through the sale of victims’ images comes into existence.
This pain, felt most acutely by the photographer and her subjects, brought to mind Kevin Carter’s infamous photograph The Vulture and the Little Girl which, combined with his extensive reportage of famine and apartheid, lead to his tragic suicide. Both this photograph and Beyond Her Lens interrogate the boundaries and responsibilities of photojournalists, needing to let tragedy unfold to steal its image side-lining the immediate assistance they often could provide. Such commitment to witnessing and reporting horror while deferring assistance is sure to break any individual.
Yet as our protagonist sits in her apartment in tears over her own photos, she is instructed to return to the city, the horrors. Reluctant, it dawns on her, as it does us, that someone must be there to report or the world will never know. As she boards the plane to return to the warzone, we are left to ask whether such a commitment to tearing oneself apart to report is worth it. Leaving the book open, in this way, is one of the films’ greatest strengths. It poses numerous contentious issues about photography, career commitment and responsibility to the self and the other, and lets those questions linger with us far beyond the film’s brief runtime.
Meanwhile, these difficult themes are encapsulated within sensuous images which bring flavoursome aesthetics to bedrooms, warzones and landing strips alike. Sani Baladi’s luscious score heightens the emotional tone, perfectly complimenting both the explosive gunshots of the warzone and moments of quietude. Yet despite it’s sharp camerawork, effective lighting and rich soundscape the predictably professional sheen of the production left me craving a touch of creative flair, which would signal a larger artistic vision. Furthermore the choice to present the film in English was both perplexing and saddening. It seemed unnecessary narratively, as the film was based in Czechia, about a Czech individual and produced by a mostly Czech team, leading me to assume its denationalisation was motivated by the prospect of a larger audience and greater success. Removing such an integral part of the Czech identity from this Czech story is deeply disheartening, and frankly disturbs both the viewership and the actors’ performances.
As the film fades to black it reveals its basis on the Czech photographer and filmmaker Jana Andert, yet she remains uncredited otherwise leaving me wondering whether the film received her blessing. In interview, Andert herself has said “stories are best told by the people who live them”, which interrogates the film’s fictional recreation. Would a documentary on Andert prove more profound or revealing? We can only speculate.
That said, Beyond Her Lens finds its greatest value in the questions in poses, which are both timeless and relevant, and continue to provoke discussion long after the credits. It holds a strong visual and auditory aesthetic throughout, with its crisp, colourful camerawork and lush score being the technical highlights. It’s a film that will do, and has already done, well at numerous festivals. My only hope is that it can somehow break from those confines and find a wider audience, as the questions it poses about the reportage images we witness in daily news are important to consider in an age ruled by media and images.
- Leo Barton, Long Story Shorts