In the exceptional documentary Shooting Robert King, war provides a grim backdrop for all kinds of self-making.
In fact, the more you went out, the better you got at surviving, and the better frame you could make. You understood the madness, you could slough off emotion and concentrate on the image and staying alive. The problem was the odds were stacked against you. The war was on an ever increasing tempo, the weapons and ordnance becoming more effective, more maiming, more deadly.
-- Tim Page, Page After Page: Memoirs of a War-Torn Photographer
Going to war for the first time in 1993, Robert King was unprepared. "I was really naïve," he says. "You know, I had these ideals. I was a messenger of the world." Like so many young people who land in battle zones, he had preconceptions. "The only thing I knew about war was what I saw on TV. The only thing I knew about war correspondents was what I read in a book."
Robert King's story is familiar, his ingenuousness and his deliberate self-image, his less than reliable sources. Still, he believed he could find meaning in his mission, that he could tell stories that needed to be told, bring some measure of truth to "the world." His story comprises Shooting Robert King, premiering as part of SnagFilms' SummerFest 2010 on 23 July (and available on DVD 27 September). Robert Parry's film follows King's journey from that first outing in Sarajevo, through subsequent wars (for examples, Afghanistan, Albania, Rwanda, and Iraq) and also his downtime back home in Tennessee, where he hunts deer from inside a blind, his Kalashnikov at the ready. "Catching a story," he observes, "is like catching a deer: it’s a lot of waiting."
He learns that lesson early, but slowly, and repeatedly. Driving in Sarajevo with fellow freelance cameraman Vaughan Smith, King appears hopelessly ill informed (he doesn't know basic political players' names, like Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic), but he's in good spirits. When the scene cuts from inside the vehicle bumping along a dirt road to the Holiday Inn, the camera watches from across the lobby as a veteran journalist advises King not to wear military-type pants: "If you're at a checkpoint and somebody's pointing a gun at you, it can make a difference."
If he's slow on the common sense uptake, King is determined to make his name, insisting, "I was put on this world to be a messenger, you know, and convey a message of human suffering." Even when he can't get an assignment and can't afford to stay in the hotel at $80 a night, he persists. "I consider myself to be pretty ethical," he sighs, "but when you're hungry, your ethics kind of step aside." His attempts to scam the waiters for food soon give way to accepting help from kids at a nearby orphanage: "Definitely, poverty recognizes poverty in this case."
As King learns how to survive day-to-day, he also heads out into combat areas. It's here that the film gets complicated, its representational registers turning in on themselves. As King's voiceover describes his frustrations (his agency drops him, his pictures are "too general, whatever the fuck that means"), you see him dashing across streets or huddling against walls, his helmet askew, his t-shirt too white (a soldier lend him a vest). The film is indeed "shooting" King as she also shoots, as both film and photos show soldiers shooting. War is an industry in more ways than one, from the usual combinations of militaries, corporations, and governments, to the exploitations by and of media. As much as reporters interrogate and reveal war horrors, they are also, increasingly, used to promote national and corporate causes.
While soldiers talk about King ("He's scared, poor guy, he can hardy breathe"), photographer Jeff Chagrin explains his own approach to the job: "I'm going to go to the frontest line they've got," he says, because long shots are less effective than close-ups. "The magic is getting their faces as the bullet comes over," he rhapsodizes. King absorbs this romance, pursues the stories and gets off on the risk. Once he finds he can make a living at it, he goes back to war again and again. Michael Herr describes the inevitable shift in stakes in Dispatches, "Talk about impersonating an identity, about locking into a role, about irony; I went to cover the war and the war covered me; an old story, unless of course you’ve never heard it.” Shooting Robert King illustrates the thrill and the repetition, the forever effects of excess, addiction, and trauma.
Even as it notes King's successes, his Time and Newsweek covers, it also suggests the pain that propels him to war. A visit with his father, absent and alcoholic during King's childhood, reframes his need for reporting. "Robert was kind of the designated person to show that there was some really big destruction going on in the King family," his father observes, sounding both proud and guilty. King situates his drive differently, so that war seems a sort of therapy, an addiction between other addictions. "Journalism was the rehab from hell," he says. "You get off the juice, you go to some obscure place on the map where there's a war, then you come back and you're back on the juice, probably twice as hard as when you left."
It's a rough and profoundly inefficient way to cope with damage. It's also all too typical. Back in Tennessee, Parry asks if King thinks he's "become cynical." King offers nuance rather than a straight answer. As he's now stepped over hundreds of "nameless dead bodies," he focuses on what he sees as the job: "I document the best I can, look for signs of torture, investigate the situation visually with my camera, and then I get that information out." War provides a grim backdrop for all kinds of self-making.