File Under 2018 #76: Hondros


What it's about: Chris Hondros was an American war photographer who captured some of the most indelible, frightening, and important images from recent conflicts in Africa and Asia. His work has been lauded and his stories are fascinating. After his tragic death while doing the work he loved, friends and colleagues remember Hondros, think about his life and work, and what his legacy has meant for art, journalism, and war.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Hondros opens in the midst of insanity. Young black men running through the frame wielding powerful guns, shooting imprecisely screen. Then the voice of Chris Hondros is heard, casually accepting a telephone call, telling the person on the other line that he'll call back later. This mix of the extraordinary and the ordinary is strange and unsettling. In about 2 minutes into the film, Hondros captures the essence of war photography and its subject in a beautiful way.

  • Director Greg Campbell has an intimate connection with his profile as a newspaper correspondent who worked with Hondros throughout their respective careers -- their first job together involved breaking into a party to get a photograph of President Bill Clinton.

  • Especially as a debut filmmaker, Hondros benefits by knowing the subject personally and understanding the kind of work he did. Making a profile documentary doesn't always benefit from such close emotional contact, but because the focus of Hondros is on the work and a celebration of the man, it works just fine.

  • Not surprisingly, the film is filled with images and video taken by Hondros, much of it speaking for itself. The visuals aren't always specifically connected to anything in the story being told, but the whole effectively builds a complete picture. At other times, seeing the images from the most important events of his life as they are being described can be cathartic. The breadth of emotional captured by the images is incredible, from grace and beauty to horrific and hectic.

  • Of course, with all this footage, the film becomes more than just a profile of a person, but about the specific events he covered over his life. Some of this is incredibly specific -- his work in Pakistan directly following 9/11 and the opening scenes in Liberia tell the stories of those places and conflicts economically and without feeling like a history lesson.

  • The film also benefits from interviews of Hondros talking about his work. In these glimpses, Hondros shows to be the personable and driven artist that matches the kind of man we are told about. It is also easy to see how he displayed such a humanistic eye.

  • Hondros reminds of other documentaries made by and about war journalists, such as Restrepo and Which Way Is the Front Line from Here?, and Hondros stands with the best of them. The intimacy and ability to bring people into these extraordinary environments tend to make these types of films work, as long as there is authenticity in the work [as opposed to fictionalized films like Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, which can't compare].

  • But there are other challenges that Hondros has to compete with in order to be a fully rounded and engaging documentary. Seeing the incredible images and hearing people talk about them can be enough to create an insightful and emotional core. Hearing people talk about Chris Hondros, though, adds something invaluable, because it adds context to how these images came to be. Without the profile, the film would have been emotionally complex, sad, stirring, enraging, but everything becomes a little deeper by learning just a little about the man behind the camera.