Of all the questions about the work of a journalist specializing in covering wars, the least important always seemed to me to be why. Why does anyone come out of his house to witness a conflict on the line of fire that is not his people, let alone his? There will be as many answers as there are people. Or, to put it another way, only the analyst’s couch will provide honest answers. So the questions “why to cover wars” and “how to do it” have always seemed to me much more relevant.
This is why I let myself be drawn into the documentary “Você Não É um Soldado” (You are not a soldier), on the path of award-winning Brazilian photographer André Liohn. Directed by Maria Carolina Telles, who has already signed “A Verdade da Mentira”, on the era of fake news, the film is primarily concerned with the reasons that make someone want to be on a battlefield.
The interest, reveals the documentary maker, comes from the fact that her father was drafted into World War II. The armistice, however, came before he reached the front lines, which frustrated him forever. Why? Asks the filmmaker. Without having the answer of her father, already dead, she goes to Liohn to recover it.
This death wish held by many people, especially men, is undoubtedly a powerful theme. The emphasis on the relationship between those who go to war and their families makes for some moving moments in the film. Liohn has a son and a daughter, who are still children. Both hate their father’s job.
“You got a shitty job, you make me throw up,” the boy said. In another passage, even louder because it takes place in the middle of a game, near Liohn’s departure for a trip, the boy exclaims: “You see that papa wants death!”
It cannot be said, however, that the documentary actually manages to unravel the conundrum. In fact, even Liohn’s motives are never disclosed. At one point, the photographer reveals his annoyance with people who say they dream of covering wars. “Coming here has to be the consequence of something in a person’s life except a dream,” he says. The documentary talks about his poor childhood inside São Paulo, shows his parents and the place where he grew up. This is not quite an explanation.
Along with that – and actually forming the body of the film – are the footage that Liohn shot on the pitch. With nearly 15 years of career, he is not a minor figure in his company. In 2011, he won the Robert Capa Gold Medal, the most important distinction in war photography, with special mentions for his courage and initiative. Liohn would be the perfect character to delve into the “how” and “why” of war journalism, but that doesn’t happen either.
The lack of any contextualization of the fighting is what exasperates the most. How was Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya? Who took up arms against him? Who were the people followed by Liohn, and how did he reach them? And in Iraq, what did the Islamic State want? Who were his victims, who fought him?
Lack of information, however small, is a betrayal of the spirit of war journalism. The history and meaning of the conflicts are lost and only dark-skinned men kill each other.
A crucial theme is scratched: the propaganda wars that overlap today, in real time and like never before, the wars of gunfire and bloodshed. The fighters’ quest to control information is undoubtedly one of the reasons journalists have become constant targets this century.
Liohn has a clear perception of the phenomenon. The difficulty in circulating facts that neither side wishes to see exposed – perhaps the greatest task of war journalism – even leads to existential crises. But the film sees it less clearly than the photographer.
Which makes “You’re Not a Soldier” a missed opportunity.