Fatherhood and the Search for Truth Collide as Wartime Documentary YOU ARE NOT A SOLDIER Makes Its World Première at Hot Docs Festival
“It’s about family, and that’s what’s so powerful about it,” spake an erstwhile actress better known for her wit than her poignancy, of a spaceship series that had seen much better days; a recent yet already iconic quote, but whereas Hollywood’s fictions sometimes bellyflop, documentaries may zero in on heart and soul. Case in point: You Are Not a Soldier, a truly powerful cinematic document that’s light on stars but heavy on wars — real wars — and what they can really do to human lives, psyches, and indeed families.
Presently making its debut as part of Hot Docs — North America’s largest and most prestigious festival of documentaries (29 April to 9 May, streaming this year in Canada) — You Are Not a Soldier appears as part of Hot Docs’ Systems Down program (“Challenging the status quo,” and does it ever!), with further roll-outs expected and merited. You Are Not a Soldier is directed by Maria Carolina Telles, co-directed and written by Aleksei Abib, and based on the intense conflict-zone footage — and personal travail — of André Liohn, whose efforts in war photography have earned him the Robert Capa Gold Medal, though you will plainly see that he’s not in this for fortune and glory.
Flying to Brazil to meet the filmmakers wasn’t exactly convenient under current circumstances, thus it was my privilege to join them online for two separate sessions: one with Ms. Telles (who goes by Carol) and Mr. Abib; and one with Mr. Liohn — combined here for further comprehension of You Are Not a Soldier, executive produced by André Antunes, distributed by Elo Company of São Paulo, and well worth your time.
The complementary forces behind the film grew familiar gradually, as Ms. Telles observed Mr. Liohn’s images, especially during the Arab Spring (during which she appreciated his presence as a Latin American journalist in that general field, among the likes of Tim Hetherington and Marie Colvin), then a production company for which she was working came up with the plan to make a movie about him — which she shaped to feature him and his work, yet also to understand her own father, who was also drawn to war zones. Pardon the condensation of this project’s fairly epic origins. (You’ll get it when you watch it.)
Mr. Liohn’s hard drives — to the tune of about 140 hours of footage! — were presented to Ms. Telles, and You Are Not a Soldier began to find its form.
“All the footage that we were going through,” explains Ms. Telles, “especially of Liohn with his daughter, inspired me to reflect upon my own experience with my father. I was dealing with my father’s last days, and deeply connected with him. I was spending my father’s last days sitting by his side, in his kind of lucidity, remembering our life experience together: my childhood, and how important he was for me. Together, we visited music, memories, photos, stories. I had the chance to share with him — with a kind of joy, with my father — the film that I was about to produce, and I was excited about it! It all provoked a return to his memories of the second World War.”
Of the process, adds Mr. Abib: “I met Carol for this movie. One of the first things she did was to make a great interview with Liohn, for four or five days. I thought it was amazing, and then at the end, I suggested to her, ‘Let’s do the same with you.’ She talked about her father, and I thought that this was very strong. She came up with the decision to put this in the movie, and it was very intense for us. But just perfect, I thought.”
“It was very therapeutic,” says Ms. Telles, building our understanding. “It helped me a lot with my grief, to lose my father and to go through this process with this film. Aleksei was an amazing partner for me in this.”
“You are the amazing partner, actually,” laughs Aleksei, who, to be fair, helped turn Carol’s voice-over narration from talking about her father to talking to her father — accompanied by André’s imagery, resulting in an even more personal film. (His final segment in Mosul coincided with the loss of her father, in 2017.)
“We had this immediate trust between each other, Carol and I,” adds Aleksei, then addressing her directly (online): “I found that you were living in this grief, and it’s very strong material, but we should press each other to be able to use it. I remember when we did an exercise,” he turns back to the interviewer: “and I asked her to remember a childhood memory of her and her father, and she wrote a wonderful story. Then we could talk about everything, and then we could talk about Liohn.”
The silver screen’s globetrotting adventurers have nothing on Mr. Liohn, as evidenced by the casual manner in which he relates his initial meetings with Ms. Telles:
“It was 2008 or 2009, and another friend of mine was going to produce a documentary with her, about Gaza. They needed a person to film it. I was in Somalia at the time, and she called to ask if I could come with her to Gaza, and I said sure.
“Then in 2012, when two friends of mine died in Syria — [journalists] Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik — for some reason, Carol and I started talking on social media. I was sitting in Misrata, Libya, that day when they died, and Carol and I became friends. Then back in 2017, I was in Iraq, covering the Islamic State in Mosul, and Carol was going through a very hard time with her father, who was hospitalized, and going to die. She said she wanted to do a documentary about fatherhood, and I promised her that if she was able to raise the money, to put everything together, then I would give her all the material that I had — but I wasn’t really expecting her to be able to do that.”
Obviously Ms. Telles has succeeded, and the portraiture of You Are Not a Soldier transcends generations, as her feelings about her father are transposed onto Mr. Liohn’s very different career in very similar terrain.
“To be honest with you,” admits Mr. Liohn, perhaps revealing a mix of humility and journalistic integrity (in terms of his own work, which is not this film but rather is the basis for this film: a fuzzy line, but a line nevertheless), “I don’t really like idea of this documentary, because I have been fighting as hard as I could to never do something like this. It doesn’t feel fair, it doesn’t feel right, because in many, many, many ways, when a journalist becomes the story — ” he trails off, his point made.
“War photographers,” he picks up again, “I don’t know why, but in recent years it became a fetish: war, war, war, war.” [This more glib journalist barely restrains his urge to bellow: ‘What is it good for?!’ — opting instead for a thoughtful frown and the less provocative ‘Mm-hm.’] “All the narratives have been the same: the traumatized person, the person who had bad dreams and couldn’t sleep anymore, who had difficulties to fit back into society — and I never identified myself like this. I have always tried to be a normal person, especially with my children, you know, I have two kids.
“Carol managed to make a movie exactly about that, I think: about being a father who by chance is a war photographer. It’s not a movie about war photography. I have been all the way through this process, trying to put myself as far as possible from it, because I didn’t want to be part of that. If she wants to use my material, fair enough — but this job: war photography, war reportage, we are living in a moment when the business is probably dead. The newspapers don’t have anymore money to sustain us, to provide the means that we need to do our job. People are trying to find new ways to promote themselves, and I’m 100% ready to leave this job if there’s no way to make it happen decently. People may think that I’m trying to promote myself, and I’m not.”
When you see You Are Not a Soldier, you’ll note that, from active combat zones in Libya and Iraq, Mr. Liohn’s images speak for themselves, and obviously there is integrity to his work. While he is very open about his work and his family, however, he’s also understandably cynical about his struggle to reveal hard truths in what is arguably an increasingly conservative journalistic climate.
“I have no patience with editors,” he admits. “Especially now, editors are losing their jobs, because one of the things they are required to do is cutting costs.” He chortles, then reflects on trying to generate interest in what he knew was going on in Mosul. “I had been talking with the Sunday Times in London, with the Norwegian newspaper, DN (Dagens Næringsliv), with the Wall Street Journal — all of them were saying, ‘Oh, no, Mosul is finished.’ I said, ‘No, listen. Hundreds of people are dying, right now, they are being assassinated, especially children.’”
Mr. Liohn briefly adopts a mocking tone: “‘Oh, all right. Let’s see what we can do.’” While he found a more sympathetic ear from a representative of Human Rights Watch, the complacency of the press bothered André, to say the least. He likens the situation he observed in Mosul to the tragic events in Aleppo, except coverage was discouraged. In You Are Not a Soldier, you can see him making his way to the front. It isn’t pretty.
I ask André how he feels about his footage — which becomes increasingly harrowing as the film goes on — having a structure imposed upon it, to create a study on fatherhood. He freely explains.
“I had a really rough childhood, man. Somehow my kids today live in a completely different reality — than the one that I lived as a child, and the one that I live as an adult. Their mother and I, we are not together, they have a different cultural background because they’re Italian, and I’m Brazilian. They are growing up very far from how I did. I have always been writing diaries, journals, for my kids, trying to explain to them the points of history that one day may be important for them. Another part of that is that I’ve always been recording it: video, audio, and photography.
“I had many questions about my own past. Why did I end up being born at a time and a place, and among the people that I was born with? I had no answers, so if one day they have questions they want answered, as I did, I have been producing this material for them. Carol used this material, and this material had never been thought to be used in the way it has been used.
“I don’t know how my daughter will react to this movie, because she hasn’t seen it yet. My son saw it, and his reaction was quiet, he didn’t say much. But my daughter, so far, she refuses to see it.” He reflects: “It’s there for them to see.”
The film includes Mr. Liohn interviewing his son, who is not too fond of his father’s dangerous career path. Noting that Mr. Liohn’s following rant in Rome is — in a film rife with atrocities — among the most revealing moments of humanity and vulnerability in all of You Are Not a Soldier, Ms. Telles explains the backstory:
“To me, that was the most important part, and I told Aleksei and Pablo (Pinheiro, the editor) it has to be almost the climax of the film! This is exactly what I would say to my father: What the hell do you have in your mind, to go to this place? Why? You have us here! You have your children, life, love, everything. You are not a soldier!” [she chuckles knowingly] “You are not a soldier. You don’t need to be there. It’s your choice. My father was the same.”
“After Liohn’s son talks to him,” chimes in Mr. Abib, himself a new father, “this is the trigger to his crisis in Rome. That’s exactly what Carol wanted, and that’s exactly what we did.”
“It’s important to say,” adds Ms. Telles, “by this time we were already working on Liohn’s footage, and he sent this to us. He said, ‘Look, I spoke with my son about my work, and I’m so depressed.’ It was one of his breakdowns. I called him and said, ‘You have to talk about it. We can record this on Zoom, we can work with you on it.’ He said no, but what he did, he was completely drunk, he got his iPhone, and he started to walk through Rome, talking about it. I can’t believe that he actually sent it to us.”
“I talked to him: ‘If you send me this material, I’m going to use it!’ He said: ‘Okay, but what are you going to do with it? Why are you going to use it?’ ‘Do you trust me, or not?’ He was not too comfortable when he watched it for the first time,” she grins, “but that was it.”
This, too, shows bravery. Considering what Mr. Liohn has endured — and observed! — and trying to merge all that with a family or somewhat normal life, even this brief glimpse of an existential crisis may prove useful to many, anywhere on Earth. Life can be hard. Maybe don’t take it out on the tourists who just want their photo-ops at the Coliseum, but as Churchill apparently said: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” André does keep going. Carol and Aleksei were wise to include the segment.
Mr. Abib delivers further insight into how the film was made more personal and poignant:
“From a dramatic point of view, we have a clear father-daughter story. It speaks to everybody. The main theme, for us, is grief, which is also universal. We can add this as a universal way to understand everything, to overcome the language barrier.”
“We tried to make it more available to everyone,” adds Ms. Telles, “to feel it as music. It’s more about music, doing an album with different tracks and moods and feelings, so you have all these experiences!”
You Are Not a Soldier, thus conceived as music, also features actual and quite moving music in the form of a score by Ruben Feffer, one of its producers. Plus check out the plaintive songs by newcomer Nina Maia.
The filmmakers are also also wise to field my deceptively simple question about the film’s mix of languages in a more complex and comprehensive way.
“We have to find a universal congress,” explains Ms. Telles. “We were embarking upon all these plot lines, with Aleksei, about fatherhood, and about André’s character arc, but above everything, I believe that a project like this film, that investigates the life, motives, conflicts, and perspectives of this war photojournalist who circulates independently transposes the spheres of journalism. Information and the protection of journalism is an important contemporary weapon in the battle that will protect democracy all over the world. For me, that was the point of making the film. All these multiple languages were converging in the same place.
“Everything starts with information that we have available. For us it was important to understand the perspective of the rebels, and the perspective of André’s journalistic cohorts in Libya, and Iraq. This is interesting! We are not trying to see the war through the soldiers’ eyes. We have tried to convey an anti-war message through the character-driven experience of this information collector, this non-combatant.
“War is hell, and it’s hell everywhere in the world — it’s universal, it doesn’t matter what language you speak, or where you’re from. Not dependent on any cultural background, we are trying to take war home, through a father experience, through a son experience, through a man experience, through a Latin American experience, a Brazilian experience. There is a strong anti-war message in it, to make us reflect more deeply on war’s horrific nature, and the senselessness of it all.
“It’s a battle,” Carol concludes. “It doesn’t depend on language. It’s a feeling.”
So is Mr. Liohn a hero? Inasmuch as we all are in our own ways, yes, of course he is. Yet he’s not like most people. And certainly, as You Are Not a Soldier readily reveals, his relentless strivings to reveal truth in the worst of circumstances, those actions are heroic. Yet the film, carefully finessed by Ms. Telles, Mr. Abib, and their associates, imparts a deeper and more complex concept than simple heroism: the facing of one’s fears: something Mr. Liohn indisputably does.
As I said in an attempted ice-breaker at the beginning of our talk, Mr. Liohn may not be a soldier, but he has become a documentary. (He graciously laughed.) In his dual search for outer truth and inner self, he boldly goes where no mere actor would dare go. Behold the real stuff, in You Are Not a Soldier.
These interviews have been edited for space and clarity.