Under the Wire is a documentary film you will not forget. It brings together the story of war correspondent Marie Colvin’s last assignment for the Sunday Times in 2012, reporting the harrowing destruction of Baba Amra in Homs, the slaughter of its residents and the gripping escape of her wounded camera man, Paul Conroy. Paul Conroy and Lindsay Hilsum of Channel 4 News discussed the film at the Aldeburgh Documentary Film Festival on November 4th. The audience emerged stunned.
The Director, Christopher Martin, could have made a film culminating in the deaths of Marie Colvin and the French photojournalist, Rémi Ochlik, trapped in the Baba Amr press centre – a wrecked house – and systematically targeted by the Syrian armed forces. This deliberate killing of journalists was in itself an important story.
But Under the Wire is far more. Assad’s bombing destroyed most of Conroy’s footage and photographs but only about 15 minutes of an 80 minute film is reconstruction. Martin searched far and wide for material and found a wealth of amateur video of Homs under siege and of a make-shift health centre where a doctor struggled to keep life in the mutilated bodies brought to its door. But intense bombing coupled with lack of medical equipment and drugs could leave Dr. Mohammed trapped and helpless. The death of a single baby, watched by the mother and doctor, both unable to help, brought the daily slaughter by Assad’s regime into heartbreaking focus.
Conroy, a former soldier, raises this documentary from exceptionally good to almost epic. He acts throughout the film as story-teller/commentator, Liverpudlian voice struggling for the right words, his face in close up, intercut with the live footage of mayhem, terror and suffering. Conroy struggles to express the horror of the situation, trying to suppress emotion, the story first given to camera in one long, almost unbroken, filmed session, features etched like a mappa mundi of the pain, suffering and fear around him. You are irresistibly drawn in. Here he was some six years later, getting a standing ovation in a seaside town in East Anglia, wearing a cheeky Scouser persona like a warm protective coat. Though you wonder what the trauma of his escape from Baba Amr is doing to him inside it.
Conroy’s escape retold as the Syrian tanks roll in has the desperate quality of the common fear and flight nightmare. The Red Crescent arrives when all seems lost. But the doctor in charge, summoned into the press centre, explains sotto voce to Conroy that he and his companions, including another seriously wounded journalist, should under no circumstances, despite the urgency of their physical condition, get into the ambulance. They are left helpless, in pain from bad leg wounds and in the dark, hope fast disappearing, with no apparent means of escape. Christopher Martin, Under the Wire’s Director explained to the audience that they would all have been killed and thrown into a ditch at the outskirts of Homs. Had this brave doctor not died six months before the film was screened, in order to protect him none of these details could have been included.
Were it not for Conroy, Under the Wire could have become another document of outstanding courage in a standard survival/escape movie format, with the journo as tough hero. But he infuses the film with his and Marie Colvin’s passionate conviction that they must “tell the story”. On Marie Colvin’s insistence that they must go back to Baba Amr - having left after being inaccurately informed a Syrian army invasion was imminent – Conroy, smothering his instinct and foreboding, accompanies her and goes back. Phoning the story out, of course, gave the Syrian air force their co-ordinates for bombing. The ethical backbone of the film is Colvin and Conroy’s sacrificial commitment and to the core principles of journalism, and touchingly to each other.
Getting the story out is rarely enough to bring about any substantive change in war zones. A safe passage, local ceasefire, is sometimes the reward. A Nuremberg trial for the Syrian regime with the film as prosecution evidence is not going to happen. But the truth is a value in itself and the cost of it in journalists’ lives is growing increasingly high. And I would include in the cost the unhealed invisible wounds caused by living through such experiences of civilian slaughter in war.
So don’t expect a comfortable tear-jerker. This is raw immersion in Assad’s destruction of life. You will never come closer to feeling what it is like to be bombed or wounded unless you are actually caught up in a war. I came out of the Aldeburgh Cinema feeling someone had surfaced several of my emotions at once, yet had not been manipulated by the film-maker. This is a “must see”, but more importantly a demanding “ought to see”. And if you have children, definitely worth a babysitter.