Michael Ware is a fascinating individual with insights into dark truths many of us may only glimpse in a life time. He is the subject, co-director and narrator of his intensely personal documentary Only the Dead. The war time correspondent for Time was sent to Iraq and covered the war for 7 years. A longer time than most military veterans. By a stroke of good fortune Michael obtained a camera just prior to arrival and on a whim began documenting his experiences there.
The boon and weakness of this film is that Michael clearly did not at any point set out to turn his video experiences into a documentary. This is a visual journal of drabs and drips assembled together into a nonlinear narrative. A Dr Frankenstein’s monster film pieced together from differing experiences of the man behind the camera. This lack of foresight of knowing that these experiences would lead to a film actually gives the footage an authenticity unlike other documentaries; his experiences are enthralling, exposing the reality of life in war torn Iraq. There is no coercion or bias and the camera tells no lies, opening up his memories in a voyeuristic light.
Beyond the incredibly powerful images a big strength to this project is the narration. Michael speaks for himself in this. The dialogue is exceptionally well crafted, providing a factual and gritty expansion of the visuals with simmering poetic undertones of themes the film fleshes out. Wares’ gravelly and harsh voice is a great mirror for his experiences. He guides us scene by scene through his encounters. Whilst the dialogue is faultless it seems a shame that Michael has abstained his personal political views on the war. A man with such a depth of firsthand experience, one wants him to talk of his own musings on this war specifically. The tale of Iraq, only he himself could talk of. Undoubtedly there was a reason Michael was personally chosen by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, founder of ISIS, as the recipient to his propaganda killings.
The experiences Michael chronicles are not for the young or faint-hearted. The atrocities of war are on full uncensored display. This is provocative and extremely powerful uncensored footage. Ware rips off the buffer the curtain of war has given the Western audience. It’s impossible to not think differently about war when you see the ugliness of life in such a place in a way no 6pm news bulletin or commentary in a newspaper could ever hope to convey.
The film and Ware himself deserve high praise. Ware’s job there was beyond dangerous but it is a job that is a necessity of war. These war time journalists are surely just as brave as the soldiers themselves, risking their lives every day. A now infamous story, Michael himself was captured by the forerunners of ISIS; they unveiled the same Islamic flag seen so often behind beheading victims. Whilst waiting to have this gruesome act committed upon himself, he is unwillingly freed by his captors when a turf war is threatened. The final scene of the film takes us to Ware’s self confessed darkest place. A place many of us would never have to face and one that speaks volumes of human character. ‘Only the Dead have seen the end of War’ is a phrase misattributed to Plato. Michael is not one of those dead, and one hopes this film is something of a catharsis for Ware himself.
Only the Dead recently screened at the Melbourne International Film Festival.