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From a war reporter's point of view

Dying to Count
Regissør: Hernan Zin

Dying to Tell is a portrait of Spanish war reporters, which recounts the sense of horror associated with adrenaline-fueled warfare as well as the trauma the war creates.


Right after the view at the 58. Krakow Film Festival in Poland, Hernan Zin's film stands again as a strong, thought-provoking documentary, which is offered to cinemas worldwide.

For Zin, his fingers are not in between: for many young (and not so young) men, war is the only major adrenaline rush. As a viewer, you are immediately gripped by the extremely young age of the American soldiers – 18, 20, 23 years – where they staff a bombing position in Afghanistan in the film's opening sequence, and by the laconic, peculiar way they delight in the record their unit has set: 2180 rounds the bomber within four months. The phrase is more reminiscent of a nightly summer camp than deadly warfare: in shorts and T-shirts they lodge on camp beds, they smoke and jokes, and sometimes they send a slim bomb, slain and mutilated, into the night sky.

The film is seen from the perspective of war correspondents, and many of them share the enthusiasm of young soldiers for combat operations. "In war, you have condensed a lifetime in a week," Zin said in a voiceover. "It's ecstasy, it's fear, it's moral commitment, it's empathy, but you don't deny the essence of life, which is that everything is random and short-lived. It is very fascinating. ”This is a key statement in a movie that has Zin's own personal tragedy as a starting point: In 2012, he suffered an accident in Afghanistan that changed his life forever. The incident triggered trauma that had built up over the course of 20 years as a war correspondent.

Pain is like gas – eventually it has penetrated everywhere.

In search of something that could be a way out of depression, loneliness and self-destructive behavior, Zin began talking to other journalists to find out what the impact of being witnesses to death and suffering had on them. The result is what Zin claims to be "the first documentary ever made about the trauma of war reporters".

The truth about the war

In addition to calling it a "brutal and savage portrait of war," he says it is "a tribute to those who risk their lives for the world to be informed."

It is debatable whether it is so certain that the world knows enough about the suffering of war, or whether war reporting has become so much a part of the global Hollywood entertainment industry (where clinical technicolor violence is an important, perhaps the most important, ingredient in the multi-billion dollar business plan).

But the prominent Spanish war reporters who stand in front of Zin's camera and share their worst nightmares, give a glimpse into the world of those who live to observe the death of others, shrouded in the moral certainty that they are defending the old adage that the war's first victim is the truth.

Zin says he deliberately chose to open the film with the pictures of the young soldiers down on his chin because it is obvious that "they had no idea about the price they were going to pay" – just like himself when he went out on the way to become a war correspondent. "We go out in the war in search of adventure, but come back with a box full of bodies," he says, quoting Spanish journalist and author Arturo Pérez Reverte.

Spanish photojournalists who were kidnapped when they tried to enter Syria from Turkey and held hostage for ten months talk about the survivor's guilt – this was after US journalist James Foley was beheaded by IS, and there was a danger of that they too would be killed.

"No story or story is worth the suffering inflicted on my family," says one of the three, face facing the camera in front of a dark background.

A painful movie

It is not easy to watch this movie: Zin forces viewers to see in the white that pain and anxiety – "what's left inside," as he puts it -  of those who choose to report on the evil that exists in the world today.

Zin and the others he interviews are the lucky ones; they have been allowed to live so that they have been able to tell these stories. Not everyone was aware of this. Julio Fuentes, a celebrated Spanish war correspondent, was killed in an ambush in Afghanistan in 2001, and the grainy footage of his young wife receiving the body at the Pakistani border is a reminder, as another correspondent puts it, that "bombs and bullets don't care who you are ”.

The journalists and photographers Zin speaks with do not refuse to describe the moral compromises they make – knowing the suffering their job causes on their families back home. But they are adamant that telling the truth about war is a courageous decision to make, and a job to be done.

It's ecstasy, it's fear, it's moral commitment, it's empathy.

"The hope behind filming people in these moments of unbearable suffering is that the world reacts and stops all this pointlessness."

After more than half a century of modern war reports, there is one hope that is deeply shared by journalists in Dying to Count: "Telling how other people are is important in creating a common understanding," says an experienced reporter.

However, when it comes to whether a survivor is a war correspondent, it is an accounting that must be settled.

“I've lived in big cities. I've lived in Calcutta. I've lived in Buenos Aires. And now I need to live in the wild, ”says Zin. "I don't endure large crowds. I feel overwhelmed: They trigger an alarm inside me that I associate with the trauma, the pain. ”

And as one of his colleagues says: “We journalists often think it is nonsensical to talk about our own pain. But it's no small pain, and it's like gas – in the end, it has penetrated everywhere. " 

Nick Holdsworth
Nick Holdsworth
Holdsworth is a writer, journalist and filmmaker.

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