Interview with Michael Mann
As a filmmaker, what do you look for when you take on a project, whether it be fiction or non-fiction?
When I take on the process as a filmmaker or as an Executive Producer in television what I respond to is a unique and original idea. WITNESS is that. It had the potential to be not like anything I'd seen before. By being on the ground in the heat of the action in the conflict zone, the issues - ravages of Joseph Kony, post Gadaffi Libya, social cleansing in Rio - encountered on a human level on the ground have a power and immediacy that they cannot when the same issues are viewed objectively as, say, in a historical summary or academic analysis. As a dramatist, I'm drawn to that. WITNESS is a document of something but they're not documentaries in the traditional sense. If it's photojournalist Michael Brown returning to Misrata where he had been wounded in a mortar attack the previous March, that tragically killed two of his friends and mentors, the personalized experience impacts upon me with the tragedy, the complexity, the seemingly insoluble contradictions that face real people in everyday life.
Was there a particular person or incident that first sparked your interest in photo journalism?
The initial incident that sparked my interest in photo journalism was a civil rights march my brother and I went on and shot in Chicago and Cicero, Illinois in 1964, which became violent. Two documentarians also shooting that day were Mike Shea and Mike Gray. Then, participation in some of the events of the late 1960s, in Paris and London, in friends who worked at the legendary Granada Television investigative journalism show "World In Action" and - mostly - the example of Robert Capa. He's hardly uncommon as a source of inspiration. In fact, I'm developing a screenplay currently, on his years in Paris and Spain during the Spanish Civil War.
Where did the idea for the WITNESS series come from?
The idea of WITNESS came from David Frankham's documentary on Juarez. I thought it cut into original territory, narratively and artistically. Specifically, because of his visual directorial skills and the openness and charisma of Eros Hoagland, the film impacts with real emotional power and authority. Then, it occurred to us to do a series of these. I took that concept to Michael Lombardo at HBO. Michael got immediately that the intensity of subjectively going into conflict zones with a young generation of war photographers was an original idea. By subjectively experiencing the human fraction of a larger conflict, the whole conflict is known in ways more powerful to me than analysis or summary is capable of. I believe David Frankham in Juarez, South Sudan and Rio and Abdallah Omeish in Libya really pulled it off. In the end, WITNESS is something that you have never quite seen before.
Why are these stories important to tell?
I think these stories are important to tell because, as our world evolves and change occurs more rapidly through globalization, we get a rapid stream of packets of information, but they're cursory. By necessity their abbreviation reduces content to almost a statistical quality. Occasionally there's a story, like Malala Yousafza, the girl shot in Pakistan, which can ignite a nation. Narrative film conveys with emotional impact the human experience - one that comes to mind is the brilliant "The Year of Living Dangerously" - but those are large-scale endeavors, which take a long time to be realized. I believe what's important about WITNESS is that these are rapid insertions into events which are happening right now. WITNESS takes us into the raw human experience. It has the ability to push us into empathy, imagining ourselves in a Libyan psychiatrist's shoes, seeing the internecine conflict through the eyes of an older Tawergha man whose son has disappeared. When conflicts have a human face they sustain in memory.
What do you hope audiences will take away from the films?
What one would hope is taken away from this is a sensitivity to life in its contradictions and complexities, devoid of easy answers and sloganeering.