Media Heroes, Deconstructed

in 26th FilmKunstFest Schwerin

by Hans Christian Leitich

Barbara Eder’s second feature film had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival 2015. The choice of such a huge marketplace is quite an unusual step for an Austrian film, but not so much for the director: her graduation film from Vienna’s Film Academy, Inside America (2010) – a grim realistic portrait of a group of high school students in a small Texan town close to the Mexican border – showed her interest in international topics rather than regional ones, and that film had already screened in Toronto and South by South West.

Thank You For Bombing shows in three episodes how the job of reporting live on TV from a war zone can deform the personalities of the journalists involved. The so-called heroes of the modern media world are deconstructed: we are introduced to a case of long-term trauma; to one of a female one-upmanship at almost any price; and to one of a prototypical male adrenaline junkie. Indeed, substance abuse is a well-known problem in the profession.

Usually, one would expect stories like this to come from Hollywood’s liberals: Roger Spottiswoode’s classic Under Fire (1983, starring Nick Nolte) comes to mind, and Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2016, starring Tina Fey) is a more recent example. As in the case of the South African-Canadian co-production The Bang Bang Club about a group of photo-journalists reporting from the townships during the late Apartheid years (2010, directed by Steven Silver), Barbara Eder had to overcome the problem that comparisons with big US-productions come only naturally; so her task is not just to imitate them on a smaller scale, but to find her own point of view, her own narrative method. She chose to resist the temptation of resorting to moral statements and experimented with feature-film story-telling.

The three short stories of Thank You For Bombing are loosely connected by an incident which really happened in Afghanistan in 2012: US soldiers burnt some copies of the Quran, which had been used by prison inmates to write messages to each other; rumours and protests followed, which quickly developed into a wave of heavy riots. In fact, Eder’s original plan was to make a documentary about that specific example of media war. The printed recollections of the long-time Austrian war journalist Friedrich Ortner served as a source of inspiration here. Only when it turned out that it would be impossible to get permissions and find interview subjects willing to speak openly, the film project turned into a fictional one.

In the first episode, an Austrian veteran of war journalism (Erwin Steinhauer) gets orders to fly over to report from expected battles, although he still suffers heavily from the Balkan wars, where he was kidnapped and his cameraman killed: He is obsessed with finding and identifying the responsible war criminal, even among people at Vienna airport, where he gets stuck. The episode is told in what has become classical Austrian art-house style with long takes and moments of uneasy silence, reminiscent of Michael Haneke’s school of filmmaking so well-established at Vienna’s Academy.

In the second episode, shot on location in Afghanistan, a young female TV reporter (Manon Kahle) is over-ambitious to succeed in the boys’ club which is her job: an all-American girl, she is ready to play all the boys’ games. She risks a lone trip to find Afghan eyewitnesses of the Quran burning, and then confronts the hidden US soldiers who did it. Step by step the story moves into downright exploitation movie-making, both in content and in style. Heavy scenes of humiliation and torture culminate in a very dark final joke.

In the final chapter, an established colleague of hers, well known for his battlefield reports (Raphael von Bargen), proves incapable of handling the time of armistice and peace negotiations well; his temper gets in his ways, and his job is threatened. In a desperate attempt to find the scenes he personally needs, he hires an Afghan driver in order to make a trip to the Taliban forces. Appropriately, this short story is filmed in a rather conventional, action-movie style.

These three episodes are not flawless; at times they lack plausibility. But what saves them from B-movie territory is the careful choice of actors, largely unknown in the film world, who manage to insert specific energies into their strictly two-dimensional characters. Erwin Steinhauer, a Viennese stage comedian and TV personality since the 1970s, slips into a convincingly sullen, bipolar art-house personality. Manon Kahle, a US-actress and singer based in Berlin, visibly enjoys the gutsy professional holidays from the rather soft TV series in which she is usually cast. And German-born Raphael von Bargen, an acclaimed and award-winning stage actor in Vienna’s classical theatres, can prove that for some film parts the art of energetic stage acting is just the right thing.

It is telling that Whiskey Tango Foxtrot was written as a comedy, since in reality the business is a frankly cynical one. It is no secret that commercial news channels find themselves in considerable financial troubles when the world goes through a phase of peace and harmony. The film title Thank You For Bombing is therefore well-chosen and cynical at once.

Edited by Birgit Beumers