Unembedded and open-eyed

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Unembedded journalists document a darker side of the war against terrorism in War Feels Like War.
Unembedded and open-eyed

By Steven G. Kellman

P.O.V.'s 'War Feels Like War' offers a disjointed view of a complicated situation

The job of a war correspondent is to convey a sense of what the fight is like. Sure, war is hell is a cliché, but any other analogy seems inadequate. Scheduled for broadcast on KLRN-TV on Tuesday, July 6, at 10 p.m. as part of P.O.V., PBS's summer series of nonfiction films, War Feels Like War examines combat journalism as an impossible enterprise. Directed by Esteban Uyarra, a Spaniard based in Britain, the film follows reporters from several countries as they attempt to cover the War in Iraq.

Out of approximately 3,000 journalists who converge on Kuwait three days before the American invasion of Iraq, Uyarra focuses on a few who are eager to observe the conflict through independent eyes. Unlike P.J. O'Rourke, shown commenting on the war from the safety of a studio in Kuwait City, or the embedded reporters who are confined to the perspectives of the military units they join, these "unilaterals" chafe at restrictions on their access. Risking disorientation and even death, they head off on their own to report on what war feels like.

In War Photographer, a profile of the legendary James Nachtwey, director Christian Frei depicted the blend of bravery and brazenness required of those who go in to battle armed with only a camera. Elie Chouraqaui's fiction feature, Harrison's Flowers, provided an account of a famous photojournalist swallowed up in Bosnia. War Feels Like War lacks the jolt of either of those, primarily because Uyarra rarely brings us close enough to his buccaneer journalists - from Poland, Norway, Denmark, Spain, and the United States - to share their feelings. We follow them to the sites of sniper fights, massacres, funerals, street demonstrations, and lootings, but, as with ordinary TV coverage, we react more to the drama being reported than to those reporting it.

War Feels Like War

Dir. Esteban Uyarra
One exception is Stephanie, a young woman dispatched by a Chicago newspaper on her first combat assignment. Eager for a taste of battle, she frets at official attempts to distract her from the action with meaningless staged events. Yet she maintains a healthy respect for her own preservation. "I don't want to go out on my first one," she explains. Learning to strike the balance of compassion and detachment required to do her job, Stephanie worries about violating the privacy of grief. Photographing mourners up close at a village funeral, she notes, "It's impossible to not feel something when that's happening."

The unilaterals who try to cover the war become increasingly alienated from the feelings of the world they left behind. Stephanie finds less and less to say to her boyfriend back in the United States. Yet, as conveyed in a film that is as disjointed as the military campaign itself, her job is to hunt down and send back home the words and images that best convey a sense of what war feels like. •

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