by Lydia Howell
Our picture of the archetypal war correspondent is a swashbuckler with a notebook, his cool objective eye focusing through a camera lens, addicted to the adrenaline of sex in exotic countries and scrapes with death—and of course, always male. “Bearing Witness,” the newest film by Barbara Kopple, documents the first year of the war in Iraq through the eyes of five women war correspondents.
is most well known for her classic documentary about a miners strike, “Harlan
County USA,” which won the 1977 Oscar for best documentary. Your first
question might be, do women approach a war zone differently than men? Certainly,
no less physical bravery is demanded of these female writers, photographers
and filmmakers than their male colleagues. Along with co-director Marijana Wotton,
Kopple rips away the initial self-congratulation of American victory and shows
the harrowing costs of war paid by ordinary civilians—whose stories these
five women are driven to tell.
From the fall of Baghdad to the assault on Fallujah, from the bombing of the
United Nations Iraq HQ to Abu Ghraib prison and the emergence of the Iraqi resistance,
these women’s experience of reporting war takes us past the too-often
sanitized accounts that manage to make the news Americans are allowed to see.
This film contemplates the highest aims of what journalism is supposed to be.
CNN camera-woman Mary Rogers says, “This is a calling—like being
a doctor or a cop. It’s life-consuming.” TV news producer May Ying
Welsh works for Al-Jazeera and struggles with rejection from fellow Americans,
who see her as a “traitor,” and from Muslim colleagues, since she’s
“not a believer.”
Freelance photographer Molly Bingham was arrested and spent a week in Abu Ghraib
prison at the war’s start. She returns with two Iraqi women formerly incarcerated
there, putting the subsequent revelations about American torture of detainees
there in critical perspective. Bingham also expresses human endurance in a simple
but profoundly moving way.
London Times writer Marie Colvin says, “I want to do a rough draft of
history.” She underscores that, for her, covering war isn’t about
the latest tank—it’s about people. Her eye patch is a testament
to her own war wounds, having lost her eye to shrapnel.
Colvin’s fellow writer at the Times, Janine DiGiovanni says, “Reporters
have an obligation to bear witness.”
Iraq, these women have gone to some of the most terrifying places on Earth,
from civil wars in Africa to Chechnya, from Yugoslavia in the 1990s to the Israeli/Palestinian
conflict. Kopple also digs into these women’s motivations, telling their
personal journeys as war correspondents—and, yes, it is harder for women
doing this work and, perhaps, lonelier. May Ying Welsh brings her bi-racial
experience to the job. You look into the often haunted faces of these women—who
range in age from late-20s to mid-40s—seeing what strong stuff they’re
Balancing work and family life, an issue that all working women face, is intensified
for women reporting war. Yet two of the women’s stories include romantic
love, unexpectedly found under fire, with tragedy and triumph. A biting sense
of humor is one survival skill, especially employed by Colvin, with her throaty
Finally, “Bearing Witness” makes clear the emotional toll that living
in war takes on everyone and which women may be more willing to reveal than
their male colleagues. These women represent a different kind of “embedded”
reporter—they’re embedded with the people of Iraq, and their own
conscience is embedded within their approach to their craft. No matter where
you stand on the war in Iraq, “Bearing Witness” is testimony with
irrefutable power. ||
“Bearing Witness” screens Tue., Apr. 18 at the Bryant-Lake
Bowl. 7 p.m. $4–$10 (pay what you can). 810 W. Lake St., Mpls. 612-825-8949.