By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

Sundance 2014 Review: War Story

War Story

When I first saw Mark Jackson’s 2011 debut feature Without, I was impressed by the young director’s confident direction and meticulous pacing. Jackson’s willingness to let his protagonist, Joslyn, a young girl flailing emotionally in the aftermath of her friend’s suicide, live out her story quietly within the spaces between things was noteworthy among a slew of indie films that seemed so reluctant to ever let silence carry the story. With Jackson’s second feature, War Story, he once again focuses on a single female protagonist who’s lost in the aftermath of trauma, grief and loss (subjects, it would seem, that he’s not yet done exploring). This time around, he squares his lens on Catherine Keener as Lee, a photojournalist who works in war zones, who’s just lost her best friend and work partner in one of those tragic events that happen when you’re working around war and guns and people who like to shoot them.

War Story opens on Lee running from tragedy to Sicily, isolating herself from worried friends and colleagues. She avoids answering her hotel room phone, letting its incessant ringing wash over her. She roams restlessly with her camera, taking pictures that officials make her delete when they catch her at it. And she grows obsessed with a young girl, Hafsia (Hafsia Herzi), convinced she photographed this girl in Libya, weeping over the bloodied body of her younger brother. Hafsia insists she is not that girl, but the two form a bond somewhat resembling friendship, constructed around Hafsia’s need for help to solve a problem and to get to France, where she thinks she’ll find more acceptance and less prejudice and can rebuild her troubled life. Lee, perhaps seeking to assuage her own sense of guilt over photographing a young girl in a moment of grief now that she feels keenly herself what loss feels like, offers her help.

Lee’s story is a deeply insular one; she’s stuck inside her head, unable to let go of the horror of her friend’s final moments and her own unrelenting guilt over his death. And we feel Lee’s grief and numbness all the more deeply because of how Keener subtly reveals them through the little cracks that shatter the façade of control and detachment within which she, as a person who lives and breathes in a world of violence, death and suffering, has come to live. She’s trained herself to be able to capture the realities of war without allowing the horror of what her lens reveals to get inside her, and now she finds she can no longer do that. She doesn’t know how to cope with her rage and sense of loss, and all she can do is turn it all on herself and hide from the world. Lee’s numbness and loss are etched even more starkly in a scene with a colleague and mentor, Albert (Ben Kingsley), who’s sympathetic to Lee’s pain, but tries to smack her back to reality by bluntly reminding her: This is the life you chose. This is what you do. You see this suffering every day, and because it happened to your friend and colleague, who you should never have let yourself feel so close to in the first place, now you’re suffering. Get back out there, that’s all you can do.

It’s advice that’s easy enough to give, harder to take. Letting go of grief, shrugging off the mantle of a deep depression after a trauma like what she’s been through, isn’t as easy as just saying, well, I guess that was just another day in the salt mines, carry on. The death of Lee’s friend has perhaps made her see the wages of war as a price higher than she ever thought she’d pay to be in the thick of it. She’s captured so many losses, so many tragedies, through the lens of her camera, but she has no idea how to capture and cope with her own. The film’s final moments elegantly underscore the truth about the death of those we love and how we grieve the impact of losing them: It hurts, it will always hurt, when you lose someone you love, and even more so when you feel yourself responsible. But life moves on, wars continue to happen, the world spins around its axis just like it did before you lost this person you cared about. And somehow, you have to find a way to crawl up out of that dark and insular space you’ve retreated within, to find a way to live within the world again.

Back in 2011, Without made my top ten list, and I wrote that Jackson was an upcoming director to watch. Three years later, he’s fulfilled the promise he showed with his first film, delivering a sophomore effort that’s even better, more assured than I could have hoped. Beautifully, stunningly shot by Reed Morano (Frozen River, Kill Your Darlings), one of my favorite cinematographers, and scored hauntingly with some gorgeous cello-centric composition by Dave Eggar, War Story is cinematic storytelling at its finest. This is the hallmark of a true artist – to reach beyond the mundane, ignore what others are doing, give your actors room to breathe and to find their own truth, and paint it all on a canvas in such a way that marks it uniquely as your own uncompromised vision. With War Story, I think it’s safe to say Jackson’s found the storytelling niche of a rising auteur, and he plans to stay there.

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“Let me try and be as direct as I possibly can with you on this. There was no relationship to repair. I didn’t intend for Harvey to buy and release The Immigrant – I thought it was a terrible idea. And I didn’t think he would want the film, and I didn’t think he would like the film. He bought the film without me knowing! He bought it from the equity people who raised the money for me in the States. And I told them it was a terrible idea, but I had no say over the matter. So they sold it to him without my say-so, and with me thinking it was a terrible idea. I was completely correct, but I couldn’t do anything about it. It was not my preference, it was not my choice, I did not want that to happen, I have no relationship with Harvey. So, it’s not like I repaired some relationship, then he screwed me again, and I’m an idiot for trusting him twice! Like I say, you try to distance yourself as much as possible from the immediate response to a movie. With The Immigrant I had final cut. So he knew he couldn’t make me change it. But he applied all the pressure he could, including shelving the film.”
James Gray

“I’m an unusual producer because I control the destiny of a lot of the films I’ve done. Most of them are in perfect states of restoration and preservation and distribution, and I aim to keep them in distribution. HanWay Films, which is my sales company, has a 500-film catalogue, which is looked after and tended like a garden. I’m still looking after my films in the catalogue and trying to get other people to look after their films, which we represent intellectually, to try to keep them alive. A film has to be run through a projector to be alive, unfortunately, and those electric shadows are few and far between now. It’s very hard to go and see films in a movie house. I was always involved with the sales and marketing of my films, right up from The Shout onwards. I’ve had good periods, but I also had a best period because the film business was in its best period then. You couldn’t make The Last Emperor today. You couldn’t make The Sheltering Sky today. You couldn’t make those films anymore as independent films. There are neither the resources nor the vision within the studios to go to them and say, “I want to make a film about China with no stars in it.”Then, twenty years ago, I thought, “OK, I’m going to sell my own films but I don’t want to make it my own sales company.” I wanted it to be for me but I wanted to make it open for every other producer, so they don’t feel that they make a film but I get the focus. So, it’s a company that is my business and I’m involved with running it in a certain way, but I’m not seen as a competitor with other people that use it. It’s used by lots of different producers apart from me. When I want to use it, however, it’s there for me and I suppose I’m planning to continue making all my films to be sold by HanWay. I don’t have to, but I do because it’s in my building and the marketing’s here, and I can do it like that. Often, it sounds like I’m being easy about things, but it’s much more difficult than it sounds. It’s just that I’ve been at it for a long time and there’s lots of fat and security around my business. I know how to make films, but it’s not easy—it’s become a very exacting life.”
~ Producer Jeremy Thomas