Embedded Journalism

When War Feels Like War

How does war feel to those who report on it? In the documentary film "War feels like War," the filmmaker Esteban Uyarra portrays journalists who covered the war in Iraq without the cover of helmets, bullet-proof vests, or the American military

. The film will air on the BBC in coming months

photo: AP
Tank in the Iraq war

​​Coverage of the war in Iraq was the largest media event the world has witnessed on the television screen – more than 3,000 international correspondents reported from the war zone. And the war took its toll on journalists: 14 reporters died in Iraq, and the human rights organization "Reporters without borders" has made the US army responsible for five additional deaths.

From another perspective

After the war in Iraq a few "embedded journalists" published books about their experiences, made the rounds on talk shows, and commanded a fair amount of media attention themselves, for example in Germany the correspondents Stefan Kloß and Ulrich Tilgner.

photo: AP
Embedded "Time Magazine" photographer Nickelsberg in Iraq

​​During the war new "experts" were born, some were stylized as heroes. In his documentary, British filmmaker Esteban Uyarra portrays the media workers who were not under the protection of the American army or reported from the safety of their hotel lobby, looking instead at journalists who were there more or less on their own with only each other for support. These journalists made up the majority of those reporting on the war.

In his documentary "War feels like War," Esteban Uyarra accompanied some of them over three months as they went about their work. On his own with a simple hand-held camera, he wanted to find out what it feels like when one enters the world of wartime media:

"At first I wanted to make a film about a hotel where journalists are staying in a crisis-ridden region. I got the idea from a book by a Spanish war reporter. I waited three years for the opportunity to arise. It happened with the Iraq conflict. But the problem was that it was forbidden to enter Iraq. So I first went to Kuwait City because someone told me that 3,000 journalists were waiting there for the American invasion," says Uyarra.

Hungry journalists waiting

Courtesy of International Documentary Festival Amsterdam
Film still "War Feels Like War"

​​The 60-minute documentary opens with the words: "Kuwait City: Over 3,000 journalists are hungry." "Hungry" meaning hungry for information, which was very scarce in the first weeks of the war in March and April of 2003. The journalists are visibly nervous, tension is in the air at the hotel. Uyarra's film portrays the daily life of the journalists without commentary, recording the mood among them and their heated discussions with military administrators, who were not forthcoming with information.

One reporter expressed the anger of the journalists when he shouted at a member of the American military, "We're supposed to film you delivering mail, but not the bombing of Baghdad!" Iraq in the spring of 2003: a diary of waiting. Then the action: The first visible light streaks of the bombs reach Kuwait City, sirens are heard, a chaotic rumble of camera people, photographers and journalists in the hotel's bomb shelter. By now at the latest, no one is willing to cover the American invasion from a distance anymore.

Surreal realities

Uyarra wanted to make a documentary, "but against my will it became an action film," says the filmmaker, who recently showed his unusual look back at the beginning of the Iraq war at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam. As more and more journalists made their way illegally across the border toward Baghdad, Uyarra followed on the heels of his colleagues.

photo: AP
A wounded journalist after an attack on the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad

​​His camera records the conflicting moments of their media mission: the fears, but also the desire to get to Baghdad in order to finally know what is happening—although at this point no one really knows what awaits them. The journey into the unknown is not without its dangers: on the way to Baghdad their vehicles are stopped by Iraqi fighters, and at night they are exposed to combat. In a few scenes the camera cuts off in a wash of sand.

The spectator is brought uncannily close to the events, which, though real, seem surreal from this proximity. Uyarra says this was no place to give oneself over to fear: "I was occupied with my film because I never knew what was coming next. I filmed 15 hours a day and at night I slept with my camera."

Extended war zone

On the twentieth day of war, the 8th of April 2003, something happened which many had feared all along. An American tank grenade hit the Palestine Hotel where journalists were housed, killing two correspondents. Earlier another reporter had also died in Baghdad.

The news hits the journalists hard, and the mood strikes a new low. One reporter says, "I have not come here to die, but to report." Uyarra's film exposes the power of war to act on the mind. We see the personal changes among the journalists, for example the young photographer Stephanie, who is in a war zone for the first time, or even the experienced Polish radio journalist Jacek.

Profitable sensationalism vs. duty

"I think there are two types," says Uyarra, "People like Jacek and Stephanie, who would rather work independently and according to their own sense of responsibility, who strongly believe in what they are doing. And then there's the other side, the large media corporations and the American media, who, of course, have the money to equip their reporters and tech staff with drivers or translators."

The question arises as to one's own position in this situation: "Most of the journalists I met were ok. I had a lot of respect for what they did and how they did it. Above all for the photographers, because mostly they were completely on their own, unprotected and always in the midst of the action to get the shots. A reporter has more of a distance."

And respect goes to Esteban Uyarra himself, a young filmmaker who courageously documented what went on behind the scenes during the reporting on the war in Iraq. It is perhaps telling that the only group willing to insure him for his work was the organization "Reporters without Borders."

Petra Tabeling

© Qantara.de 2004

Translation from German: Christina M. White

"War feels like War," Director/Camera: Esteban Uyarra. Editing: Brian Tagg. Coordination: Sarah Brownrigg. In Focus Production/Uyarra Films 2003

More information on Uyarra's film can be found on the homepage of the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam.

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