Human suffering through the eyes of a war photographer

By Sonia Nair
Catherine Keener in War Story

War Story | Mark Jackson

War Story is a delicate portrait of the post-traumatic life of an embattled war photographer – superbly portrayed by film veteran Catherine Keener – that peels back multiple layers of grief.

Keener’s character Lee is shown taking refuge in an isolated hotel in Sicily, Italy as she struggles to come to terms with a life-altering incident that director Mark Jackson only ever alludes to. The film creeps along slowly, with the many long and unflinching shots of Keener in solitude occasionally bordering on laborious. The close-ups of Lee’s badly bruised back are but a hint of what may have taken place that caused Lee to be the way she is.

Jackson reveals information bit by bit, as we slowly learn that Lee was jointly imprisoned and tortured alongside her colleague Mark, who it quickly becomes apparent was more than a mere colleague. Later on, Lee encounters a pregnant Libyan refugee girl by the name of Hafsia, who adds tension to the otherwise languid cinematic pace as Lee attempts to help Hafsia undergo an abortion and migrate to France in a bid for her own redemption.

The relationship between the two female leads is an interesting one, as Hafsia’s distrust and apprehension slowly gives way to a budding companionship between the two. Lee seems to gain as much from the relationship as Hafsia does; forced to confront her demons with an unlikely acquaintance by her side opens her to interactions she wasn’t ready to have, while Hafsia gains a mother figure in Lee who genuinely seems to care for her wellbeing.

Keener is accorded the leading role in this film, but to say she commands the screen would be an understatement. Her every move and facial expression assumes a magnified importance as director Jackson foregoes words in favour of unspoken moments that go to the heart of Lee’s tortured existence.  The shots are claustrophobic and unsettling as Lee shuts out all light from her room, isolates herself from well-meaning friends and strangers alike, and when she does choose to venture into the outside world, engages awkwardly with passers-by.

That aside, the film is a hard watch and occasionally veers into showing too much and saying too little. Lee’s vocation of taking photographs is eventually her salvation, as Jackson decides to end his film on an open-ended, yet hopeful note.

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