War Story (2014) — Image via visitfilms.com

War Story

Directed by Mark Jackson (2014)

War Story is Mark Jackson’s second film in what will be a trilogy featuring women in isolated and emotionally extreme situations (the first installment being 2011’s Without). War Story opens with a shell-shocked Lee (Catherine Keener) leaving what is most likely Libya and arriving in Sicily (to compound their isolation, Jackson situates each of his protagonists on islands), where she secludes herself in a dimly-lit hotel room and begins behaving erratically.

While we don’t know exactly what has happened to her (the film reveals this very slowly), we know that, whatever it is, it’s been unspeakably traumatic. Lee chain-smokes, slurps water from her cupped hand instead of a glass, asks the maid not to enter her darkened room, rearranges the furniture, and steals wine and food from the hotel kitchen in the middle of the night so as to avoid human contact. It seems that Lee is waging a battle between the desire to disappear completely, as evidenced by the many telephone calls she ignores, and her need to hang on desperately to her existence, illustrated by her repeated toweling off of the bathroom mirror whenever it gets foggy so that she can see herself in it. Her dogged determination to get the mirror clean each time it mists over conveys her apparent fear that losing this image of herself in the glass might lead to the loss of her actual self, not a surprising notion coming from someone who, as a photojournalist, largely accesses the world through images.

War Story (2014) — Image via visitfilms.comWhen Lee finally meets up with Albert (Ben Kingsley) — an old friend, colleague, and possible lover who is living in Italy — we learn that she and her deceased work partner, Mark, were photographing in a war zone in Libya when they were taken hostage. Mark was killed, and Lee, after her release, fled to Sicily, which she is loath to leave despite one of her colleague’s insistence that she fly back to New York for Mark’s memorial service. Through her conversation with Albert and the one telephone call she accepts from a colleague, we are meant to understand that Lee has allowed herself to grow too attached to Mark, a dangerous occurrence in a line of work that forces her to document one trauma and then move on to the next. While certainly it is clear that Lee is distraught over Mark’s death, one wonders if the extremity of her behavior stems partially from the fact that she is letting herself feel grief after weeks, months, or perhaps years of deferment.

Despite her lukewarm attempts to stay alive after the tragedy of Mark’s death (we see Lee walk through the city, snapping pictures, clearly her way of processing and participating in the world around her), it does seem that she is well on her way to giving up when she asks a doctor to prescribe her pain medication without an accompanying examination of the injuries she sustained in Libya. She doesn’t want to talk about her physical pain, any more than she wants to talk about her emotional pain, but rather seeks to numb it, possibly to the point of no return. On the way back to her hotel room, painkillers in hand, Lee is seemingly saved, at least temporarily, when she catches sight of Hafsia (Hafsia Herzi), a woman she believes she recognizes from Libya, having taken her picture next to her brother’s broken and bloodstained body.

War Story (2014) — Image via visitfilms.com“I know you,” she tells Hafsia, who initially resists Lee’s advances but eventually becomes her grudging acquaintance. While vowing that she is not the woman Lee photographed in Libya, Hafsia questions how Lee can claim to know someone merely by having taken their picture. Lee’s job, after all, is to remain detached, to “know” her subjects only long enough and well enough to get the coveted shot. Hafsia’s inquiries cause the viewer, if not Lee herself, to contemplate what a picture might be unable to show. The fact that pictures never tell a complete story, are in fact incapable of doing so, is something Jackson seems rather comfortable with even if Lee isn’t. Certainly, we are not meant to think that we truly know Hafsia, as she remains enigmatic and unpredictable right through to the very last scene of the film. Similarly, although Lee is in almost every scene of the film, often alone, we come to know her and the violence she has undergone very slowly, despite the visual intimacy the film creates by giving us close-up after close-up of Lee’s wracked, weary, yet still expressive face.

Whether she truly knows her or not, Lee attempts to rebuild her shattered self through helping Hafsia, who was abandoned by a human trafficker in Italy (she had intended to go to France) and is need of an abortion. Lee resolves to help Hafsia acquire the abortion and get to France, and once she has decided to do these things, they become the obsession that drives the last third of the film. While Lee’s desire to help Hafsia seems desperate and obtrusive at times, I disagree with The Guardian’s Chris Michael, who wrote that the film flirted with a “sad white lady saves poor black girl, learns to live again” dynamic, not least of all because it is questionable if Lee actually helps Hafsia at all, despite her intentions to do so. What’s more, given Lee’s extremely fragile mental state when she sees Hafsia for the first time, I don’t think the idea that Lee knowingly uses her first-world privilege to help “those less fortunate than herself” really holds water. This implies mental clarity and deliberate choice on Lee’s part that is simply not present in her character.

War Story (2014) — Image via visitfilms.comI do, however, think it is fair to assert that Lee doesn’t really see Hafsia for who she is but rather views her as a substitute for the dead Mark. This transference accounts for Lee’s unyielding and determined desire to secure Hafsia an abortion and passage out of Italy. One wonders if Lee is still in the bargaining stage of her grief and believes on some level that if she saves Hafsia, she will be able to undo Mark’s death as well. That Hafsia is largely a stand-in for Mark becomes even more evident when Lee, still groggy from sleep, tells Hafsia that she loves her after only having known her for a day or so. The fact that Hafsia could have been anyone in need of help, I think, allows the film to avoid the dynamic Michael alludes to. The film is really much less about the relationship between the two women than it is about Lee’s slow realization of what she has lost with Mark’s death. What’s more, War Story’s ambiguous ending likely leaves Lee with the sense that, just as she could not save Mark, ensuring Hafsia’s welfare falls beyond her grasp as well.

In contrast to Lee’s continued powerlessness within the narrative, Keener’s powerful presence on screen is masterful, even overwhelming at times. It’s a testament to her skill as an actor that such bleak subject matter was a pleasure to watch. She is brittle, raw, and completely mesmerizing in this film.

War Story was part of the Sundance Film Festival’s Next series, which focuses on promising up-and-coming filmmakers. It also screened at the Walker Art Center on May 10th. I can only hope that with Keener’s riveting performance, Reed Morano’s moody cinematography, and Dave Eggar’s subtly haunting score, it will earn a theatrical release.

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Emily Anderson

is completing her Ph.D. in English at the University of Minnesota. She teaches literature and writing at several local educational institutions.

One thought on “War Story”

  1. How did you get all that information to write a lengthy movie review from watching “War Story”? Are you a friend of the director’s? This movie went nowhere, very slowly. Watching this movie was nothing more than a total waste of time.

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