Jacqui and David Morris’ harrowing documentary McCullin, concerning the life and work of famed British “war photographer” Donald McCullin, goes beyond its initial subject to provide an insight into some of the human atrocities that have occurred since the second world war, an account of despair, and a call-to-arms against Murdochian journalism.
The film mostly plays out as an intimate one-to-one interview with McCullin (minus talking head footage from long-term friend and former editor of The Sunday Times, Harold Evans), interspersed with incredible, though equally startling, archive footage.
It traces his life from his humble beginnings in Finsbury to his work as a photographer during conflicts in Cyprus, Congo, Biafra, Vietnam, Northern Island, Cambodia and Lebanon, all the while investigating his turbulent relationship with the very thing that has made his name: war.
McCullin makes for an intriguing personality: morally conflicted, haunted by memories, a man who has had time to reflect, and has ultimately been changed by time. He’s no longer the self-confessed “cocky” kid ready to roam dangerous terrain, nor the “war junkie” addicted to the danger zone, but someone who distances himself from the term “war photographer” on the basis that he condemns such “insanity.”
His interview is candid and straightforward, and it is a mannerism reflected by the film’s appearance; the Morris siblings are content with low-key presentation and simple chronology, safe in the knowledge that their work doesn’t need stylising in order to gain attention. Their exercise in effective, manipulative film-making comes instead when they use McCullin’s voice to narrate over the images shown on screen, providing his photographs with a back-story – and therefore extra emotional weight. They say a picture speaks a thousand words; well here those words are spoken to us.
It is in these stories of absurd tragedy where McCullin becomes an impossible film to find comfort within, because it is void of any optimism. It travels to the deepest, darkest recesses of humanity, and is unrelenting in its barrage of tragic imagery, making the viewer take hit after hit after hit after hit. It’s some of the most honest imagery you’re ever likely to see, but it’s the kind you have to see (for sake of knowing what our race is capable of), rather than want to.
Arguably, many parallels can be made between the film and its subject. The same moral questions asked of McCullin’s photography (eg should we be helping rather than watching?) can be asked of the film, particularly given the irony that the cinematic audience become like the camera lens: voyeurs, studying these images from a harmless distance.
There’s also no doubt that the film is riddled with bias. When it has the chance to, it does not cover opposing ground. There is no government spokesman, for instance, when it is revealed that the government prevented McCullin from travelling to the Falklands war. It is, unquestionably, the photographer’s film. As it explains his principles, it also naturally adopts them, itself becoming an effective anti-war message (which is no bad thing).
As the film progresses, it breaks further ground by taking a swipe at Rupert Murdoch for the bleak decline of honourable, realistic journalism, in favour of the tabloid press and advertising. It’s one more interesting sub-plot that suggests today’s media is scared of, and today’s society now sheltered from, the harsh realities McCullin brought to his audience: the things we should see rather than want to.
Watching McCullin is a lesson in desensitisation, that we should never ever become accustomed to explosions or death or tragedy, no matter what cinema trivialises, or what we are shown (or not shown) on our news reports.
It’s just a shame that for as interesting a figure, and a life, as McCullin’s, and for all the messages intertwined with this, the overriding sensation from this powerful, engaging film is one of futility.