Directed by Jacqui Morris, David Morris Club, Light House, Dublin (and QFT, Belfast from Jan 18th), 90 min
A kind of sentimental glamour still hangs on the role of war photographer. One thinks of combat-jacketed snappers downing the last gin before hopping on the final chopper out of Saigon.
Don McCullin, arguably the most distinguished Englishman to have plied the trade, has as much working-class London suavity as his contemporary David Bailey. But this superb documentary reveals McCullin also to be a clear,compassionate thinker who long ago shook off any silly illusions about the job – or lofty notions about art. Featuring lengthy contributions from its subject, the film answers most of the questions you want asked.
Did McCullin ever assist the victims in his photographs? (Yes.) Was he ever seriously frightened? (Eventually.) Were the authorities angered by his snaps? (Frequently.)
Inevitably, the film ends up offering us a primer in warfare from the 1960s to the 1980s. Catastrophe in Cyprus leads on to bloodshed in the Congo and seemingly endless conflict in Vietnam. McCullin’s photographs from Biafra – notably those of a starving albino child – are still so chilling that it proves hard to look at their blown-up dimensions on the larger screen.
It is hardly surprising that he experiences horrific daytime flashbacks and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder to this day. After slaughter on the scale of central Africa, his stories from Northern Ireland seem, for all the suffering of that place, like dispatches from a schoolyard brawl.
McCullin, the biographical portrait, does boast a slightly odd structure. The film features occasional contributions from Harold Evans, former editor of the Sunday Times, but, for the most part, it runs as an augmented monologue. Happily, Don is such a compelling talker that the picture doesn’t drag for an instant. And for all the horror he has seen, McCullin emerges as a man largely untainted by bitterness.
Mind you, his final meditations on the way war reporting has changed do chill the blood somewhat. With increased control from the military in conflicts such as Afghanistan, we may never see his like again. A flak jacket just doesn’t look right on an embedded reporter. T