Photojournalists who brave war zones are a different breed, and their fearlessness and willingness to put themselves in the line of fire serves as the spine of “Witness,” four HBO documentaries produced by Michael Mann and David Frankham. Shot with great cinematic flair, the films follow different photographers, and prove compelling to varying degrees. The approach operates on parallel tracks: Capturing how the journalists do their jobs, while providing sobering glimpses of Hell on Earth. Ultimately, the most memorable moments (or snapshots) surpass the whole, which exhibits a perhaps-unavoidable difficulty maintaining focus.
In “Juarez,” photographer Eros Hoagland chronicles the high death toll associated with the Mexican drug war, at one point being told as he snaps a picture of a grieving mother, “Respect the pain, my friend.”
The most timely chapter, clearly, is “Libya,” offering a taste of the chaos and violence in the region, shown in the wake of the fatal attack on the U.S. embassy. Moreover, the story of featured journalist Michael Christopher Brown includes a 2011 mortar assault that injured him and claimed the lives of two others. (Watching this, it’s hard not to recall radio host Rush Limbaugh gleefully discussing foreign journalists being rounded up and detained in Egypt.)
The most compelling installment, though, is “South Sudan,” where Veronique de Viguerie — the only woman, we’re told, to have embedded with the Taliban — wanders through the bush with local militia, known as “Arrow Boys,” hunting mass-murderer/Internet cause celebre Joseph Kony.
As the French photographer notes, the toughest part of her job is putting oneself in the position to capture these events, though she wearily muses in an unguarded moment, “It’s hard to imagine a photo changing any of this.”
Finally, “Rio” also features Hoagland and deals with a region hobbled by the battle between police and drug gangs, set against the backdrop of the city having been selected to host the next Summer Olympics.
As impressive as the filmmaking is, the grim material and spare storytelling makes “Witness” a slog at times — more to be admired for its ambition and unflinching lens, along with the courage of its subjects, than savored or understood. That said, the very undertaking shines a light on areas of the world receiving short shrift from U.S. media — especially television — as news outlets have retrenched and cut back on foreign resources and bureaus.
A decade ago, NBC sought to dramatize such fare with “War Stories,” a pilot starring Jeff Goldblum. Watching that then, and now this real-life version, underscores how little has changed — both in the cowboy attitude that animates photojournalists and in the collective tendency to shy away from such unsettling imagery.
Seen through that prism, “Witness” — with its over-the-shoulder view of these hot-spots — heightens our appreciation for the sacrifices such journalists make, and invites viewers to learn more. What it can’t do, in this age with such ready access to soft news and fluff, is compel people to willingly fix their gaze on its uncomfortable truths.