Frontline aired an extraordinary documentary from Olly Lambert on the civil war in Syria. He managed to spend time on both sides of the same battle zone with both the Alawites/Syrian army and the Sunnis fighting against them. He also wrote an article, “I Almost Died in Syria,” about his experience making the documentary, which you can find here. Lambert feels deeply conflicted when he goes into war zones:
The only true and abiding memory I have of the weeks and months spent in places like Helmand province in Afghanistan or a field hospital in Iraq is a vague and intangible sense of my split personality. One part of me becomes the journalist thief, prowling in search of people and stories to turn into a film. And at the same time I’m something quite different but also connected: a profoundly moved and thin-skinned witness to the awful extremes of human behavior. Both sides need the other, but they pull in very different directions.
In a civil war like Syria’s, most of the victims are civilians, and as in most civil wars, civilian deaths are intentional. Lambert has the traditional producer’s concerns of “getting the shot” while at the same time witnessing horrific suffering and carnage all around him. (If you see the doc, there are multiple scenes of bodies being pulled out of rubble.)
This had traditionally been called “bearing witness.” It’s an important and honorable role, but that doesn’t seem to make Lambert feel any better. Bearing witness all too quickly becomes survivors guilt.