There were a variety of reasons to attend this week’s screening of McCullin at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. The ICA’s preeminent reputation consistently draws in distinguished panels, in this case McCullin director Jacqui Smith and world-renowned photographer Rankin.
The film’s protagonist, Don McCullin, is hailed as one of the greatest war photographers of all time and the first photojournalist to ever be awarded a CBE – yet the subject’s credentials are only of secondary importance to the subject matter of this (undoubtedly soon to be award-winning) documentary.
For all the discomfort triggered by these photographs and their brutally vivid portrayal of humanity, the narrated montage delivers on the promise made by the beautiful and haunting opening credits: this is a film that will stay with you for a long time.
From his first time as war correspondent in 1964 Cyprus through to ravaged Vietnam and the Congo, via the Troubles and the fall of the Berlin Wall, McCullin has captured many moments that were to become seminal emblems of their time.
The exceptional editing skills of Andy McGraw and David Fairhead manage to tie together the abrupt rhythm of depicted events in a mellifluous fashion, and take us through history via McCullin’s own extraordinary history of being in the right place at the right time – an esoteric trick of the trade intrinsic to good photojournalism.
McCullin however never abuses this power: a video clip of his work in deprived areas of Britain (he himself was born in Finsbury Park in 1935) shows him tip-toeing around a man, making sure he’s not “bullying” him in any way before he snaps his photograph.
Throughout his career McCullin has shown the same sensitivity to the plight of the inner-city poor as to the victims of conflict and the soldiers ordered to carry it out. Representing atrocity is clearly as difficult a calling to him as it is one of tremendous importance.
His own on-camera musings, alongside an interview with Harold Evans (editor of the Sunday Times while McCullin worked for the broadsheet’s magazine), bear witness to this internal struggle and offer a first-hand account of war reporting amongst differently-minded peers and a changing landscape in journalism.
McCullin doesn’t come across as a comment on journalistic ethics, but if it were, McCullin’s own conclusion is that it is better to choose to be “on the side of humanity”.
The passion of the protagonist is reflected in the passion of the filmmakers. The incredible archive research – which took an entire year for only three days of shooting – results in a treasure trove of difficult-to-find photographs all available in the same place (for those photographs that didn’t make the final cut, they will be available on DVD upon its release in February 2013).
Such commitment may rightly be the product of McCullin’s own incredible dedication (which apparently outstripped his technical skills: he “couldn’t light his way out of a paper bag” according to Jacqui Smith) and his quest to “delegitimise war”, as described by Harold Evans.
Whatever the motivation the end result is the same: Rankin thinks McCullin is “the most anti-war film ever made” and his claim certainly holds weight. “I think we’re drawn to war as artists or communicators”, he says. “People forget that about photography: you need that element of humanity and empathy.”
It is perhaps lucky that the film was ever made at all, both on account of McCullin’s self-effaced privacy and his recent coming out of retirement to cover the conflict in Syria. All the more reason to watch it in cinemas while you can.