The story of war journalism is not necessarily a linear one. In Richard Parry’s compelling documentary “Shooting Robert King,” the eponymous photojournalist’s story is told against the backdrop of 15 years’ worth of international conflicts interspersed with the modern day King (click here to read our interview with Robert King) as he sits in the woods near his Tennessee farm, talking with a fellow correspondent about what drives him, what used to drive him, and the particulars of choosing such a dangerous career path.
Beginning life as a TV short about freelance photographers during the war in Bosnia, the film took 15 years (with different versions and lengths) to make, ultimately as a full length documentary. “Shooting Robert King” the movie has evolved much as the decade and a half of video shows the changes in King. He begins as a grinning, self-deprecating and naïve photographer, turning self-destructive; then there is the latter day King who has a wife and child, but also still possesses the burning desire to show the world what really happens in the darkness of war.
It also traces his professional development; when he enters his first war zone he is armed with little more than the ambition to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer. The movie follows King as he gets his first big front page story for The Guardian (which also earns him some enemies in the process), and how he became one of the most respected photojournalists in the field.
The story of King could not be told without Parry, his colleague Vaughan Smith (also a war correspondent, co-producer and camera man for the film), and Frontline News, the collective of freelance cameramen (several of whom have died covering conflicts) whose mission it was to broadcast images from war torn countries like Bosnia and Afghanistan throughout much of the 1990s and early 2000s. Frontline News lives on in the guise of the Frontline Club, a gathering spot in London founded by Smith which caters to independent minded journalists.
Like King, Parry and Smith have decades of experience covering wars, but with King, Parry has seemingly found the perfect subject—one with a fascinating life story which ties innately into the larger theme of personal redemption, photojournalism in a war zone, and whether it is possible to keep your sanity while chasing your dream.
When Parry first met King in 1993 and was working on the idea of doing a story about photojournalists in the war, a few things immediately drew Parry to the young photographer.
“It was 10 a.m. in the Holiday Inn, Sarajevo, and a young man at the bar greets me with a Southern drawl, knocking back local moonshine,” Parry said. “Robert was a character. That was my first impression. And I gravitated towards his un-jaded honesty. He was out of kilter from the usual gamut of hacks and snappers here. He was very much his own man, and unlike most of the rest of us didn’t seem compelled to try to be anything different.”
For Parry, the qualities of King, who was in his early 20s and his first war zone, showed some similarities between other war correspondents and photojournalists, but there were a few key differences.
“Most of us had never been to war before and we tried not to let our naivety show. Robert made no attempts to cover it. Maybe he was just unaware. He was what he was: Naive, inexperienced, down-on-his-luck, smoking too much weed and very much at the bottom of the media food chain. He had it all to prove. Besides these very documentary friendly qualities –he was one of the few journalists willing to be filmed. And my colleague and I were keen to make a film about them.”
Over the course of 15 years (1993-2008), the film took a few different forms, until the final version which fully explores King’s journey from Sarajevo to Iraq. And that final version of the film wasn’t necessarily what Parry had expected it to become.
“There have been three incarnations of this film,” Parry said. “The first was a 25 minute version that stayed entirely in Bosnia; the second included Chechnya a few years later and a number of Robert’s successes; the third included Iraq in 2007. The film was for many years a work-in-progress. Each new tier ultimately added a different layer of the film but it certainly wasn’t my intention to make the film it ended up being. Force of necessity, perhaps. I always thought there was a film in Robert but it didn’t fit into the usual fodder of current affairs docs and ultimately took 15 years to find its feet.”
One of the fascinating things about documentaries is the way they evolve. It might be easy to start out with a subject in mind, but how do you go about telling the story? What dictates the way that the narrative is going to unfold on-screen?
“Things were constantly popping into the editing to change the film – but then that’s the beauty of documentary making–its flexibility,” Parry said. “Narrative–especially with an observational film–sort of finds its own way.”
So as Parry was discovering the how of telling King’s story, an arc emerged. By having footage of King throughout the years and the latter day footage of the interviews with him hunting, the narrative took on a clearer voice.
“One interesting structural point for me was the subtle tension in the first half of the film of whether Robert was going to pull through–or if he was going to become yet another other damaged hack, like many of us. But by holding onto the revelations about his marriage and child–the film has a tension, redemption and pay off towards the end. Given the unrelentingly dark nature of the some of the material, the story benefits from light at the end of the tunnel. And new life.”
As someone who has known his documentary subject for a long time, and also as somebody who has had similar experiences in war zones, including the loss of several friends and colleagues, Parry saw the parallels between his own life and that of King’s.
“This film was 15 years in the making. And during that time, half of our company ‘Frontline News’ were killed. Those years steered a change in mine and probably Robert’s view. You come into this business feeling invincible.”
So with the original intent of doing a story of photojournalists covering a war, the documentary became something else. In telling King’s story, Parry was able to delve deeper into the things that make war correspondents tick.
“We were early 20’s, exploring the world, seeing amazing new things. Then as time passes, you start to build up a very real picture of your own vulnerability. Colleagues die, you have close calls and you see a fair amount of death and injury. And it starts to give you a very different impression. You get insight not just into your colleagues but also yourself. You start to question your own motives for wanting to go to wars. You become aware of your own dysfunctions and insecurities. And for a period you get the ‘fear’. The imagination can run riot when you’re under fire. What if that shell comes through my wall? You imagine the deafening explosion, the clouds of dust and debris and the silence after. My motives in the beginning for making this film were very different from the ones at the end. “
So through King’s journey (and his own) in “Shooting Robert King,” what would Parry like audiences to take away from his film?
“A more complex and detailed idea of who are the people behind the pictures, Parry said. “War hacks are often presented as courageous figures simply wanting to tell the world. Either that or adrenaline junkies. Both stereotypes are poor shortcuts of a much more complex, nuanced and fascinating reality.”
visit www.shootingrobertking.com for more information.