Film fanatics may be familiar with writer/director Michael Mann's realistic, often visceral films such as "Heat," "The Insider," and "Collateral." Mann has now parlayed his flair for drama to a new HBO documentary mini-series on HBO. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, the acclaimed director discusses "Witness" and gaining a new perspective on conflict.
The series spotlights the risks taken by photojournalists in war-torn areas such as the jungles of South Sudan, post-Gaddafi Libya, and Juarez, Mexico (where the crew witnessed a shooting death firsthand). Mann explains that it was his interest in conflict and the drama that comes with it that piqued his interest and led to his involvement with the mini-series. "I like conflict because I like drama. Some of the conflicts that I’ve dealt with, a lot of them are crime. I grew up in Chicago, so there’s a certain orientation to where I find conflict," Mann says. "Conflict comes in many different sizes, shapes, and forms. I’ve always been attracted to the real world, as far back as I can remember. Some of the first film I ever shot was the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Chicago in the ‘60s marching into Cicero [during the Chicago Freedom Movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr.], which turned very violent. It’s horrifying, and there’s human courage, and hatred, and you become very attracted to it."
While the director acknowledges his interest in drama of all forms as a driving factor in putting together the series, he also hopes to pay homages to infamous images of war from the past. "Great war photographers, from [Robert] Capa to Larry Burrows. Did they have an effect? Sure they did. Those images from the Spanish Civil War were suddenly in everybody’s living room," Mann explains. "So I think of Capa’s photography from the Spanish Civil War, or Larry Burrows from Vietnam, or James Nachtwey. And then right into the current day of shots that Veronique has made embedding herself with the Taliban."
Mann expresses his own admiration of the photographers in not only embedding themselves in tenuous situations, but also having the emotional strength to endure. "I think [the photographers] embrace all of it. I don’t think it’s a balance. They live with it. They ask themselves very difficult questions, which they do right on camera in this. It’s not as simple as, ‘I have to distance myself from war so I can record these images because they’re important.’ They’re not distanced. They are engaged," Mann says. "Veronique without hesitation will put down the camera to help somebody. Eros in Rio talks about not wanting to photograph a bribe which is offered by one of the gangs in one of the favelas, because he knows what’s going to happen to these people after he leaves. He’s more experienced in these conflicts than his subjects are. We get to go home – they’ve got to live there. And they’ll get tracked down. It’s very complex. I love experiencing how things really are. That’s the driving motivation for me: how they really are."
Mann promises the mini-series will present viewers with a visceral thrill, a shocking confrontation with reality, but no historical or sociopolitical spin to go along with it. "We intentionally do not seek to summarize, analyze, or give the historical context. Our ambition is to insert ourselves as intensely and immediately as possible into an emotional fraction of a conflict zone, like Misrata [in Libya] after Gaddafi, and discover in dramatic ways the human experience that contains within it the macro issues," he says. "So the conflicts in the wake of the fall of Gaddafi are the same conflicts that produced Benghazi. You can ask a question, why didn’t we know this, and why didn’t we know that, about the assassination of the ambassador – after you see the show on Libya, you understand that it’s chaotic. There’s tribal conflict that has been exacerbated by 40 years of Gaddafi, and after Gaddafi falls, it’s not gonna suddenly turn into a nice small town in Connecticut. But what truly interests me is to convey what it is to be there, to walk in the shoes of some of these people, to be in their skin, to see through their eyes."
Be sure to check out Michael Mann's "Witness: Libya" as it airs tonight on HBO.