Sunday, November 04, 2007

Under Fire

Under Fire posterPhotography's a strange business. It's second only to cinema itself in its capacity both to document and to distort the real. But unlike the moving pictures, a photographic still stops time dead. It presents a frozen moment, a snap or slice time that, precisely because of its dead immutability, also gains a kind of eternal life. It establishes a series of parallel worlds in which we remain as young as ever, with the same old seventies haircuts or eighties fashion mistakes. And while a movie can also act as a time capsule in this way, a photograph's particular combination of instantaneity and permanence blurs the boundary between death and life more profoundly and more disturbingly.

Just such an almost indecipherable photography lies at the heart of Under Fire. This is a movie that, like Salvador presents the Central American revolutions through a photographer's lens. Indeed, Spottiswoode's film drives the point home even more emphatically than does Stone's: here the protagonist, Russell Price, is a full-time photographer rather than a writer who also wields a lens, and moreover we are continually seeing through his eyes as the moving image on screen stops dead and leaves us, however briefly, with the still that lingers like an afterimage burned on a cinematic retina.

Yes, there's also a love triangle in which Price wins the heart of a fellow journalist at the expense of her former partner. But the most interesting and most important aspect of its film is it examination of the Western gaze and the ways in which we can or should relate to an event such as the Sandinista uprising in late 1970s Nicaragua. A still camera (perhaps even more than a movie camera) offers the promise of detached objectivity. But just as Price chooses to take a picture of his lover's naked back shortly after they first sleep together, lingering over and fixing the image and texture of her skin, so still photography (again perhaps even more than moving film) is all about choosing which moments to record, and which to leave to history's natural fate of evanescence and oblivion. So here Price observes two assassinations, but photographs one but not the other. Both snaps are likely to have an impact on how the revolution is perceived abroad, and the combination would suggest that the rebels are as quick to indulge in impromptu executions as are the government. So Price lets the second moment go, allowing the outrage to come down squarely on the Somocistas.

But the film's central image is not of a death. It's of a man who's already dead, photographed as though he were alive. Price has been seeking to capture the image of the mysterious guerrilla leader, Rafael, but his chance comes only when the rebels ask him to produce what's blatantly a propaganda image, taking advantage of the photographic ambivalence between life and death. The picture he takes of the comandante's corpse brings the guerrillero back to life, and resuscitates a revolution that's on the verge of flagging. It's an intervention designed to short-circuit other interventions: the possibility that the US might send down further resources to bolster a revived dictatorial regime.

Under Fire stillSo beyond the otherwise banal point that any documentation is also inevitably an intervention, Under Fire reveals a fascination with the technology of documentation itself, and the ways in which certain statements or images can be framed or staged in particular ways to gain particular impact. The film happily reveals its own biases, and those of just about every other movie of this genre, by having a Nicaraguan point out that the life of one US citizen is worth more on the international stage than the 50,000 deaths that the struggle has cost. "Maybe we should have killed an American journalist fifty years ago," she comments.

And the movie indulges the notion that a single photographer can also bring the war to an end. On being told that his picture of Rafael would make him famous, Price declares "I've won enough prizes." "But you haven't won a war," comes the response. And this is the fantasy, which in some ways is not so far from the mark: that the photojournalist has the key to a technology that can decide between victory and defeat, life and death, precisely because it makes the difference between the two ultimately undecideable.

YouTube link: the movie trailer.

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