Tuesday, 28 April 2015


By Dimitri Keramitas

The annual Human Rights Film Festival in Paris normally features documentaries depicting rights violations, crises, and problems around the globe. This year’s program included films about pollution-exchange fraud in Denmark (The Carbon Crooks), water shortages in Ethiopia (The Well), the exploitation of agricultural workers in India (Cotton Dreams) and adolescent homelessness in the United States (The Homestretch).

L'Epreuve: taking photos through it all.
But for the first time it also included a fiction feature dealing with a topical subject: the role of photojournalists in conflict zones in Africa and Central Asia, and their responsibilities not only to their profession and subjects, but also to their families.

L’Epreuve (English title: 1000 Times Good Night) was made by Erik Poppe, a Norwegian photojournalist directing his first feature, and stars French actress Juliette Binoche. The “pre-premiere” in a Paris Left Bank cinema in April was followed by a discussion with Hubert Picard, a veteran French photographer (he preferred this term to photojournalist). It sometimes turned into rancorous debate that, like the film itself, called into question easy assumptions about truth and fiction.

Binoche plays photojournalist Rebecca. She has a loving family in Ireland, a marine biologist husband and two young daughters. She could easily have a cozy, privileged domestic life but her profession takes her into conflict areas where she records grisly events and puts her own life in danger.

At the beginning of the film we see her in Afghanistan, where she has seemingly embedded - not with US troops but with Taliban guerrillas. She follows a woman’s elaborate preparation to become a suicide bomber, and even the carrying out of her mission in a dusty village.

The poster for the film.
Rebecca has a burst of conscience at the moment the bomb detonates, yelling out warnings and being severely injured herself. Most of the film is about her return home and convalescence, her questioning her vocation, and most of all her tortured relationship with her spouse Marcus and daughter Steph. To try to repair her relationship with Steph, Rebecca takes her daughter to Kenya to visit a supposedly peaceful refugee camp.

The first issue raised by L’Epreuve is how genuine a film about human rights can be when it stars a celebrity actress, one who’s an Oscar winner and has modelled in glamorous photo shoots. Binoche takes the obvious route of other actresses, such as Jessica Lange and Charlize Theron, who have taken on difficult roles: she makes herself seem as plain and middle-aged as possible. This is mostly successful, especially as Binoche really is of a certain age, and also adopts an understated acting style. In L’Epreuve the other actors, notably Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as the husband, and Lauryn Canny as Steph, more than hold their own, so that we believe in the characters as characters, not as roles or star turns.

A second issue is less successfully resolved, and that has to do with the directing. Taking on his first directing job, Poppe goes overboard in ways typical of neophyte filmmakers. The scenes that take place in Kenya have a well-scrubbed National Geographic sheen, while those in Ireland are often self-consciously gorgeous. The images make the film enjoyable, but they also shout “This is a film”, and more precisely “This is a first film”, distracting us from the subject.

A third issue concerns the production, and the subsidies the film presumably received from Irish authorities. While it’s fine to subsidize a worthy film, the ulterior reason is nearly always to promote a locale. There are many splendid views of the Irish landscape, and these certainly give one the desire to go visit.

Actress Juliette Binoche (photo courtesy of the film)
On a more serious level, there’s no reason a film cannot have an Irish setting. But one wonders about the setting more than necessary, especially as the director is Norwegian and the lead actress French. Viewers may also find themselves thinking of the socio-economic context: Do photojournalists really live in such beautiful House & Gardens-type homes? Can they really take their children to Kenya, just to help them with a class project on Africa? This may have been contextualization, or contrast, depicting the wide gulf between the Western world and that of war zones, but it comes at a cost in focus.

The post-screening discussion brought up other questions. Hubert Picard maintained that the excitement of war is what attracts him to conflict areas, not idealism. In the film the director depicts the dynamic aspect of war convincingly, especially a scene in Kenya, when the camp that Rebecca and Steph visit erupts in violence. Without overdramatizing, Binoche’s performance exudes the adrenalin high of a dangerous job, even in the midst of the awful violence perpetrated against the African refugees. But the script is coy about the subject, preferring to focus on the heroine’s idealism, and highlighting how her photos achieve a concrete result: the reinforcement of security at the camp. Some in the audience seemed caught up in the idealism and were put out by the real photographer’s supposed cynicism, as Picard kept stressing the difference between fiction and reality.

He also stressed the importance of money, and the competitive nature of many journalists, including women. But in the film, Binoche seems to be alone on the job. We don’t get the sense of a hotspot in the news attracting hordes of photographers, TV journalists and others, all vying for the scoop.

A scene from L'Epreuve. What motivates war journalists?
The photographer was more equivocal about the political dimension of his profession. Picard maintained that he was solely interested in exclusive, spectacular photos, and that his impartiality was not affected by being embedded with American forces. But he admitted being sympathetic to the American side, and expressed a preference for the right-leaning Figaro newspaper to Le Monde (which he sarcastically referred to as the world’s leading Arab newspaper). The young Egyptian woman who’d questioned him on this point criticized the confluence of money and political partiality that she sees in media coverage of her own country.

Also called into doubt were the riveting scenes showing Rebecca following the suicide bomber’s actions.  Picard said that while “anything is possible”, it’s practically unheard of for journalists to “embed” with the Taliban. Plausibility is further strained because of recent tragedies involving journalists falling into the hands of extremists. The director is not just content to open with an embed sequence - he has his heroine repeat it, when she returns to Afghanistan. This makes for effective symmetry, and also serves to show how her character has evolved. But here the film betrays an adherence not only to fiction, as opposed to documentary, but to out and out fantasy.

The film’s general release is on May 6, three days after World Press Freedom Day. Production: Paradox/Paradox Spillefilm/Film i Väst. Distribution: Global Screen (worldwide) / Septième Factory (France).

Dimitri Keramitas is a Paris-based legal specialist and prize-winning writer.