A new documentary, Kandahar Journals, tells the story of Canadian Louie Palu’s experience as a photojournalist covering the war in Kandahar from 2006 to 2010. Directed by Louie Palu and his co-director Devin Gallagher, the film takes the viewer into the psychological space of a photojournalist and draws a contrast between the reality of life on assignment and everyday life in North America. Palu’s personal journals from the experience provide the narrative spine of the story. We had a chance to see the film in advance of its premiere. Sometimes surprising, sometimes haunting, but always respectful, this film makes war more concrete. Yet the documentary does not sensationalize the violence; Palu shows only what is necessary for the viewer to have a glimpse into the life of a photojournalist in a war zone and how living through war changes people. Palu admits that it’s impossible to truly convey what war is like to those who have not experienced it, and he even says, “The more I see, the less I understand.”
The film’s world premiere was September 24 at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. Kandahar Journals will also be presented through screenings, TV broadcasts and festivals. It will be broadcast on CBC’s documentary channel on October 6 (9 p.m. EST) and shown at in Washington, D.C., at the National Gallery on November 7.
We recently had the opportunity to ask Louie Palu a few questions about this film and his work.
Photo Life: What motivated you to make this film?
Louie Palu: The first thing that motivated me was knowing I had very rare video footage of a lesser known front in the war in Afghanistan where Canada had their combat mission in Kandahar. There is no documentary that shows what really went on there, so I felt I had to do something with the footage especially since I was an independent witness. Actually, documentaries shot in verite and real time on Canadians at war are very rare. As production on the film advanced, making the film became therapeutic for me. I had to face many questions about my personal trauma witnessing and documenting the war. My co-director Devin Gallagher and writer Murray Brewster helped me unlock many things from my mind I had never realized including my family’s connection to the Second World War and their own trauma being passed on to me. I also had to face the hardest reality, which for me became accepting the fact of the inability of photography to communicate the reality of war.
PL: After watching Kandahar Journals, what do you want the viewer to feel?
LP: The way we constructed the narrative was so that my experiences and my camera became a window to the war for the viewer. We created a term for our editing process called “psychological space,” and we experimented with what that would look like if you were in a photojournalist’s mind while they experienced trauma, violence and reflection in their aftermath. We also wanted people to be connected to the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan and the human cost of the war. On a more personal note, we want people who see this film to understand what trauma is for all of us. In addition, it was important to us to make a film that was a raw and unromantic view of the war. Consequently, the look and sound of the film is technically perfect, but the feel of the film is dark, chaotic and collage-like to reflect the disorder of war. The less glossy the film looked, the better because there is nothing about war that we want the viewer to feel is beautiful.
PL: What have been your biggest challenges personally as a photographer?
LP: The biggest challenge I face is losing hope in our ability to be empathetic, generous and good to one another. My biggest challenge is remaining positive, and I have to work hard at it every day; there is not a day that goes by that something from the war does not pass through my mind. Sometimes it’s hard to keep positive when you have seen people being cruel to one another.
PL: What’s next for you?
LP: Next year, 2016, will mark my 25th year as a professional documentary photographer so I have several exhibitions planned in my hometown of Toronto with some of my favorite curators and photo editors. I am hoping to travel some of those exhibitions throughout Canada and the U.S. I am also back to shooting assignments again. I just got back from the Arctic actually, and I have a few more ideas for more films I am developing.