Under Fire (1983)

I feel a bit reluctant to write about the role of photography in Roger Spottiswoode’s film, when it’s really about something deeply personal – the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua and the unexpected angle I got to see it through Under Fire.  First, it was exciting to see a movie about a place I know all too well even if I was constantly distracted by the Mexican accents and urban environment (it was filmed in Oaxaca).  

Second, it was  a rather crude reminder of my own preconceptions. I have to admit that growing up, I had a very simplistic picture of the American involvement in Latin American military regimes. Perhaps just like the simplistic pictures we get today about current world conflicts. All I knew was that Americans supported the hereditary dictator Somoza and aided his dictatorship financially.  Only later when I went there did I learn that the reality was much more complex and that public opinion in the US was something different from the official policy.  In fact, which is where the film comes, that tide changed with the murder of ABC reporter Bill Stewart by Somoza’s National Guard, documented by a fellow journalist.

So this is a film about an era when, instead of blogs, unofficial information was disseminated by airborne leaflets; instead of locals with iphones, wars were documented by journalists sent by agencies with fully equipped darkrooms – and wearing several cameras around their necks.  And it’s about Russell Price, an American photojournalist who wins awards for his work but stays objective and detached in the conflicts he documents around the world. Photography is his shield from danger, even symbolically, which comes real through his oft-told story about an ektachrome roll that protected him from a bullet once.

You’d think that this is how photojournalism should be, after all. But it’s an illusion. The moment of truth for Russell comes in a conversation with Oates, an American mercenary he comes across here in there in the various world conflicts where both are on assignment. For Oates, Russell is a mercenary just like himself, doing his job and profiting from the wars he covers, unscathed by the events he witnesses. Interested in the local beer, at the most, and not much else, but unaware how powerful, life-and-death his presence and his pictures are. They entice, threaten, push people to act and  play a gigantic role in shaping minds and opinions.

Until he comes to Nicaragua. And a new friend, an aspiring baseball player is shot by Oates while both are walking down the cobbled church pathway. It’s the symbolic moment on screen when Russell drops his camera and grabs a rifle to search for the source of fire. He’s realizes how his mere presence channels the course of events.

The whole film is actually built around a photograph. Russell wants to take a picture of Rafael, the (fictional) Sandinista leader who nobody can recognize. But then Somoza triumphantly announces Rafael’s death at the hands of the National Guard. Russell is taken by the guerrilla to their base village and gets this request that can easily be the film’s motto:

“You are a great photographer. Make him alive”

Russel Price's constructed photo

Russel Price’s constructed photo of Rafael

And he does. Not just to appear alive, but to keep on living. Rafael’s post-mortem portrait takes over the streets and inspires the crowds. He himself goes on living and that brings about the withdrawal of support of the Carter administration for Somoza.

Pictures also kill. Russel’s casual pictures in the guerilla’s village help identify the people on them and make them target for assassination.  He finds out that he can’t really control the pictures’ destiny once they’ve come out of the camera. They acquire their own life once they are made.

So ultimately the film is about truth and what it really means. About appearance that we often take at face value but which hides contradicting details. If Russell had not gotten personally involved, he would’ve been telling the story on the surface, the one staged by Somoza. And since journalists can be misled by appearances, too, the key is to recognize they are also creating this reality they are reporting. Only after his friend Alex was killed by the National Guard did international indignation force the dictator to flee.  One nurse in the movie says: “Maybe they should’ve killed an American journalist 50 years ago”. 

As a film, it’s not so strong artistically –  Oliver Stone’s totally fictional Salvador is better. But it didn’t make me think as much as this one.

I wonder though – was there a public debate of journalistic involvement in Nicaragua at that time (the 80s)? Or in current events in general? Just wondering about the concept of the film and if it had originated from something going on in society back then.

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