McCullin – A film by Jacqui Morris – a first review

Tonight I was privileged to see the (first-edit) premiere of 'McCULLIN – a film by Jacqui Morris'. Here's the trailer…

McCullin Trailer from Jacqui Morris on Vimeo.

This cinema-quality documentary film recalls the work of Don McCullin, the celebrated war photographer who has taken some of the most affecting war, famine and humanitarian photos of the 20th century. He is 75 now and made the film, well, because he was seriously ill and told Morris to come and film quickly before he died. (He has had an operation and is recovering well.)

McCullin tells the story of his own work through interviews with Morris. He talks about what it was like to be a photographer for many years with the Sunday Times – from his war junkie addiction to the sense of duty and integrity he felt in telling the stories of the victims (dead or alive).

It makes for a gripping documentary that is both shocking and relentless (reminsicent of McCullin's own style) but also quite fascinating in terms of McCullin's life and work. It is delivered with a strange mix of detachment and high emotion as it intersperses war footage and McCullin's perfect shots of encapsulated horror, with the words of this gentle, avuncular English man, albeit words that often recall scenes of unimaginable horror.

I'm not sure when the film will get a release but it has been shot for cinema and director Morris, who did a Q&A after the film, hoped it might go mainstream. It deserves to. Not only is it an incredible record of Don McCullin's work, an insight into the life of a war photographer and a reminder of the horrors of war, but the issues are highly topical. The events this week, with Sunday Times war reporter Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik's deaths in Syria, make it particularly timely.

In addition, Morris cuts in interviews with former Sunday Times editor Sir Harold Evans, raising an interesting thread on the changing ethos of journalism, one that moved away from the independence of the Sunday Times to publisher Rupert Murdoch's money-raising agenda that brought in a more ad-driven era of upmarket lifestyle, celebrity and fashion editorial.

She added that while she didn't want to line up to take a pot shot at Murdoch, she thought the scene with Sunday Times owner Lord Roy Thomson summed up the change of editorial character perfectly. When asked how he could allow such pictures to appear in his paper, Lord Thomson would take a card out of his jacket that read how he would not allow commercial considerations to censor his editors from printing what they wanted. "You don't want me to break my promise, do you?" – was his answer to controversy.

This theme is punctuated on a personal level by another scene when the new Sunday Times editor Andrew Neill fails to select McCullin to cover the Falklands War – his photos were too honest (for 1980s journalism). McCullin went instead to Lebanon but it was to be his final war assignment.

People always ask Don McCullin if he has nightmares about what he has seen. Only in the day, he replies. In the end, there is something ultimately quite poignant in his decision to take landscape pictures as a healing process, to fill up his head with new pictures and try to remove the horrors that remain and occasionally visit him when he is awake.

There is a Don McCullin retrospective at the Imperial War Museum – on until April.