Never Look Away, Margaret Moth, Lucy Lawless
Photo Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Lucy Lawless Reimagines the Myth of Icarus in Margaret Moth Film

Lucy Lawless’ debut documentary about combat journalist and trailblazing camerawoman Margaret Moth, Never Look Away, reimagines the Myth of Icarus.

Never Look Away
Lucy Lawless
XYZ Films
18 January 2024 (Sundance)

“At a certain point, sex, drugs, and rock and roll just wasn’t enough. War was the ultimate drug. Desert Storm was where she made it. Her dream had come true.”

– Jeff Russi, Never Look Away

Lucy Lawless’ directorial feature debut, Never Look Away, tells the story of trailblazing combat camerawoman Margaret Moth. The first camerawoman for Television New Zealand, by 1990 she was covering politics for KHOU, Houston’s Southwest Bureau. Her colleague and close friend Joe Duran describes meeting this woman with spiky jet-black hair and a rock ‘n’ roll look, or as he called her, “Joan Jett’s big sister”, who’d prefer to be filming a hurricane than covering a political press conference. 

In April 1979, CNN (Cable News Network) planned to revolutionise news media with the 24-hour news cycle. By the early ’90s, the broadcaster had earned the reputation as the “shit” amongst correspondents and camerapersons. Margaret Moth was recruited to CNN’s Dallas Bureau, and her first combat assignment was Desert Storm (1991), followed by the Georgian Civil War (1991-1993). In the Bosnian conflict (1992-1995), her flourishing career was abruptly halted when she was shot on Sarajevo’s Sniper Alley.

After life-saving surgery, she’d require a further 25 operations. Defiantly, Moth returned to work at CNN’s Paris Bureau and, despite efforts to keep her away from dangerous situations, she would return to the theatres of war, among them: Rwanda, Zaire, the Palestinian city of Ramallah in the West Bank, Israel, and Tyre, Lebanon.

At a glance, Margaret Moth’s story is far removed from the ancient world dramas Lucy Lawless has starred in: Xena: Warrior Princess (Schulian and Tapert, 1995-2001) and Spartacus: Blood and Sand (DeKnight, 2010), and its prequel series, Gods of the Arena (2011). However, like the fictional characters Xena and Lucretia, Moth’s world was dominated by violence and politics. It’s not ironic that Lawless’ directorial debut is a reimagining of the ancient myth of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun with his wings of wax and feathers and fell to his death.

Former BBC camerawoman Susan Stein describes combat journalism as like Russian Roulette – eventually, your luck will run out. Margaret Moth was willing to veer closer toward the machinery of death than her colleagues, who described taking cover behind a car when armed men began firing into a group of civilians. Moth, however, remained standing and filmed the event.

Lucy Lawless’ inexperience with filmmaking is hidden by her assured direction in Never Look Away. From the opening title sequence set to Heart’s 1979 song, “Barracuda“, to the use of diorama and other techniques instead of CGI, Lawless channels the spirit of Moth’s rough and tumble world. “I’ve never wanted to direct. I imagined everything in my life except this,” Lawless told me via Zoom. “I feel like the spirit of Margaret compelled me to make this. [Her story] wanted to be told so badly that it used me to do it. I feel so lucky. But I never envisaged it; I never wanted to direct, and now, it’s all I want to do. I’m hooked!” Considering that Lawless never wanted to direct, she has an uncanny knack for it, turning the production’s budget limitations into the film’s strength of character.

Never Look Away is a story in two halves. The first half builds up to Margaret Moth’s fateful Icarus-like moment. The second half is about Moth defiantly rising up from her injuries and returning to the theatre of conflict. It becomes difficult to watch after her shooting when the audience’s interest might wane. Lawless’ direction, however, energises Moth’s story. It’s when we see Moth at her most vulnerable that her defiance and strength of will shines brightest. 

Throughout Never Look Away, Margaret Moth’s childhood becomes a haunting presence. Lucy Lawless doesn’t tell Moth’s story chronologically. Instead, she peels back the layers of her subject’s personality, relationships, and experiences. She begins with an introduction to former lover Jeff Russi, cuts to the title sequence, jumps forward to Stefano Kotsonis, a former CNN Correspondent and colleague remembering Moth, and then returns to Russi’s narration of their love affair, then leads into her coverage of Desert Storm. 

Margaret Moth’s open relationships meant she had lovers in the US and Europe. Lawless returns to Russi and her French lover, Yaschinka, a former colleague from The Gulf War, time and again. Russi’s recollections reveal the mystery of Moth’s adolescence and family life, while Yaschinka reveals her unconventional ideas about romantic relationships. Never Look Away breaks the chronology through Russi’s memories and reminds us that we don’t live or experience life chronologically.

Like Icarus, who was trying to escape captivity, Margaret Moth herself was trying to escape something. “I never understood what was ticking inside of her,” says Kotsonis, who describes Moth’s internal anger and defiance. “You never stopped sensing that somewhere in there, something was propelling her like a bat out of hell, out of her own past, her own childhood.” 

Never Look Away is an insightful portrait of a trailblazer who was among the first women to break into the male-dominated world of photojournalism. Lawless probes her subject’s vulnerability and reveals that there’s a limit to how much she let anyone know about her. Moth’s life was a series of complex interactions. We’re able to see how her childhood and adulthood, her hedonistic lifestyle of drugs, sex and open relationships, skydiving, and combat journalism connect (for better or worse), yet it compels us to want a deeper emotional and psychological understanding.  

Transcending its subject, Never Look Away engages in relatable themes and ideas. Kotsonis’ reflections on the loneliness of returning to civilian life and the misunderstanding of experiences of war offer a possible explanation as to why war is often glorified or sensationalised. 

“She would tell you in so many different ways that she didn’t care about people. ‘People are screwed. People are bad. Humanity is a mess,’” says Kotsonis. Moth, however, was a deeply empathetic person. She was driven to document the experiences of innocents caught up in war and to speak up for them. She challenges cynicism’s negative connotation and asks us to interrogate the source of a person’s cynicism or pessimism before we hastily judge or condemn. 

The words of Stein and CNN’s Chief International Anchor, Christiane Amanpour, strike a powerful chord. They remind us that combat journalism has the power to create change. “Her pictures told the truth. Our stories and Margaret’s pictures gradually forced our democracies not to turn away,” says Amanpour, speaking about the Bosnian War. “After a terrible massacre at Srebrenica, the US-led coalition came in, and in about two weeks with very few casualties, if any, on the Serb side, they bombed the Serbian military installations around the hills that were surrounding the valley in which Sarajevo was located. And the war stopped. It was as simple as that. … And I attribute that in large part to the journalism in Bosnia and to the pictures that camerawomen like Margaret Moth and all her colleagues sent out into the world.”

Amanpour’s words are a timely reminder of how the courage of combat journalists is devalued if their images and stories are not acted on. Never Look Away challenges the media to adhere to its principles of objective journalism under the pressure of right- and left-wing adversarial agendas.   

Never Look Away screened in the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.