It is a known truth that an American Netflix subscription is much more favourable than a British one. Though both seem to host many of the most popular television series, it is recent cinema releases that the latter seems to be rather sluggish in their delivery. However, a moment of occasional bliss occurs when a search through the back catalogue of litter provides something worth hunting for. To give some credit to Netflix, the documentary section is one that consistently provides both interesting and unique insights into all aspects of the world we live in, from Attenborough to Michael Moore, and feminism to pornography.
A few years ago I heard of a temporary Don McCullin photography exhibition in London’s famous Imperial War Museum. McCullin made himself known as one of the most influential war photographers of all time, with a career spanning over three decades and covering many conflicts between the 1960’s and 1980’s such as the Vietnam War and the Civil War in Cyprus. As an avid photographer, to see some of his work first hand is something that I could not ignore. Understanding that his perspective on his past was not always positive, to have such work displayed so beautifully was a rare occasion. While drifting and gazing amongst many of McCullin’s masterpieces, it occurred to me that throughout both film and photography there is always a strange, implicit curiosity in successfully capturing war at its most brutal stages – a trip into the darkness and often greed of humanity.
With this being the case, it was to my extreme delight to find that David and Jacqui Morris’s 2012 BAFTA nominated documentary on the famous war photographer was available to watch at my liberty. The film itself was in many ways an exhibition, chronologically flowing from McCullin’s financially deprived beginnings in London’s Finsbury Park to the calm and serene British countryside where he now resides. Utilising both old and current interviews, there is a definite focus on the way that the man behind the camera is not just a machine that captures action in front of it. With his reputation as a prestigious war photographer, it is often easy to forget that to attain such images, McCullin had to be meters, often inches, from the devastating truth that displays itself in his work.
Through sharp and sudden cuts from his aged interview with Parkinson, where the camera is honed closely to every emotion on his face, to present conversations in his own home, the Morris siblings are constantly hinting towards the toil that has taken place on McCullin as a man, a father and a husband, and though these photographs are to always be admired, it is important to know at what expense McCullin had to go through to achieve perfection.
There are particularly noticeable comparisons to the BBC’s fantastic recent series “What Do Artists Do All Day?” which like McCullin aims to explicitly show as much of the artist’s life and processes as possible without providing a sense of interference and intrusiveness. Many of the documentary’s highlights lie in the scenes where the viewer is able to watch the photographer both partake in his passion of photography, as he makes his way through heavy snow on the hills of Somerset, and as he observes his vast collection of photographs, some of which he never decided to publish.
There is a particular skill in documentary filmmaking which, competing with drama, has the ability to portray a message authentically and respectfully, and this can often lead to a downfall in a director’s process whereby there will be an influx of dramatic reconstruction. It is to the viewer’s benefit that both directors sought to stay true to the roots of the stories and historical facts that put McCullin in the situations he found himself in, utilising some astonishing and brutal archive footage that could have been filmed by the photographer himself. For the hour and a half that one finds themselves immersed in this picture, there is never a shyness to vicious violence or famine, and this creates a distinct rawness to the documentary that has rarely been captured so perfectly before.
This is explicit through haunting cross sections where McCullin’s dialogue connects with the visuals on screen, particularly when he himself explains, “When I hear a chainsaw in the distance, I think a tree is dying. When there’s pheasant shooting, I think there’s going to be blood somewhere.” Contrasting these statements with his contemporary landscape shots, we in some way see into the eye of a genius. To many, his more modern work would be examples of beauty in nature, yet McCullin’s mind has been shaped by the events he has witnessed, masked by the devastation of life and existence. This is where the documentary especially excels in providing a side of a veteran that is not always shown in Hollywood. A man, retired from his duties, habituated in one of the most peaceful landscapes imaginable, yet haunted by scenes of dirt, death and blood.
It is often that gems can be found not from recommendations, but at places and times you least expect. Even years on from my last experience with these timeless photographs, the Morris’s film did more than tell the story of a living legend but supply the important job of acting as a reminder of how essential Don McCullin’s work remains to be. This documentary is a testament to someone who, though externally protrudes tranquillity and peace, has seen hatred at its most devastating stages.