Director David Frankham's 'WITNESS' Views Conflict Through Photojournalists' Eyes

Director David Frankham's 'WITNESS' Views Conflict Through Photojournalists' Eyes
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By Noah J. Nelson

"The one thing that I keep coming back to with this show is that I feel like it's hard for people to behave badly and to do the kind of violence that's going on when there's cameras present. When there's a way for people to get the word out into the world."

These are the words of David Frankham, director and executive producer of the HBO documentary series Witness, which is currently airing on the cable network.

Frankham's series, produced under the aegis of legendary director Michael Mann (Heat, The Last of the Mohicans), views some of the world's most dangerous places through the lens of war photographers.

"I think in another life it would have been what I would have done. Become a war photographer," said Frankham. "I've always been obsessed with photography, I've always been obsessed with the news and there was a time there that it was something that I was interested in doing."

Instead Frankham found himself with a successful commercial directing career that netted him the top honors in that field. Clios and Golden Lions. The interest remained strong, however, and it led him to produce what became the first episode of the series, the documentary short Witness: Juarez.

In that piece Frankham followed photographer Eros Hoagland, whose own "origin story" as a photojournalist is as dramatic as his subject matter, into one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Hoagland's unblinking eye exposes the viewers to graphic depictions of the violence that plagues Juarez, Mexico which lies just a short drive over the boarder from El Paso, Texas.

"You can't talk about this city where at the height there was seven people dying a day and not put faces to these deaths" said Frankham.

A particularly disturbing moment in the film is when Hoagland is at the scene of a crime where a young man is found gut shot behind the wheel of a car. Still alive, the gunshot victim drags himself out from behind the wheel.

"You do feel a great weight in showing that," Frankham said about this sequence. "I don't that believe we can talk about these wars and not talk about the deaths. We can't talk about these guns on the streets without showing what they do."

In this scene no one takes action despite the presence of a man dying in front of them.

"To see this young man die and to see the military stand by and not do anything. The police stand by and not do anything it was in a way a fractal for me. It's showing the bigger problem. The bigger issue. And when I say not doing anything I'm not even talking about putting their hand on the wound and stopping the bleeding. I'm talking about no one was filling out a piece of paperwork.

"It felt like we had to show that. We had to engage on that level. And it is upsetting. It is disturbing."

Frankham says that he was interested in the using the lives of the photojournalists as a way of bringing audience's attention to conflicts around the globe.

"One might not sit down and see a documentary about South Sudan or about Juarez, but they might be interested enough in these photographers, these characters. What they do, what their journey is, how they accomplish it. That could pull them in and through that we could reveal what's really going on on the ground and what the people caught in the conflict are going through."

In addition to Juarez and South Sudan the series features episodes focused on the revolution in Libya and the changing landscape of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In the Rio segment Hoagland goes to the famed city to witness the governments actions against the drug traffickers who rule the city's massive favelas, only to discover that there is another story lurking beneath the surface.

"I believe what we went through and witnessed in Rio is maybe the most important of all the shows," Frankham told me. "I feel like what's happening there in the name of the World cup and in the name of the Olympics and the displacement of the people there ,and the disappearing of the people that's going on there is something that I hope becomes a bigger part of the debate.

"I hope that the IOC (International Olympic Committee) and FIFA take a hard look at this. Debate this and speak to this to the powers that be. I don't want to see the people of Rio suffer for something that's supposed to be in the great bringing together of the human spirit like the Olympics.

"What's going on in the name of that," said Frankham, "is one of the most unsettling things I went through this last year."

I asked Frankham if he thought that the world has become a more dangerous place in the wake of the Cold War or if we are merely more aware of what has always been going on thanks to how interconnected the globe has become.

"Eros and I have had this conversation and debate a lot. I definitely think we're more aware of things than ever before. Obviously the internet allows us see what's going on in Southeast Asia or wherever in a way that we couldn't have."

"I have a feeling that man has fought throughout time. Provoked to fighting for sometimes not the biggest reasons or the most important reasons. I think that there's so many conflicts going on in the world and I think that's why the show is so important and I'd love to do more of them.

"But I think that we could go back a hundred years and even if they weren't fighting with guns in the way they are now there was probably just as much death. Just as much fighting."

The final two episodes of Witness-- South Sudan and Rio-- debut on HBO on November 19th and 26th, respectively.

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