Drama Explores Wounds of War
Dart Center Executive Director Bruce Shapiro moderated "The Secret Life of War Reporters" with Emma Daly, Santiago Lyon and Donald Margulies on Feb. 8, 2010 at the Columbia Journalism School in New York City.
If objectivity is a fundamental characteristic of journalism, is it ever okay to stop observing and become involved with those who are clearly suffering? That's one of many journalistic issues raised in Donald Margulies' "Time Stands Still," now playing in a Manhattan Theater Club production on Broadway to critical acclaim. The play was subject of a February 8 panel discussion, "The Secret Life of War Reporters," at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, sponsored by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. Margulies, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, joined a real-life journalistic couple — Emma Daly and Santiago Lyon — to discuss the question of objectivity, the nature of journalists’ obligations to their craft and the risks and consequences of doing dangerous work.
Margulies' play explores the lives of Sarah and Jamie, a journalist couple just home from Iraq, played by Laura Linney and Brian d'Arcy James. She, a photographer, was maimed by a roadside bomb; he, a writer, is emotionally traumatized by the suffering he has witnessed and embittered by the cynicism of mainstream media outlets that don't seem interested in publishing his work. The play serves as a focal point for a host of issues faced by journalists who do the difficult work of covering war and documenting human suffering.
Lyon, now global director of photography for the Associated Press, covered the war in Bosnia and himself was injured in combat. Like Margulies's character Sarah, after his wounds healed, he opted to return to the war zone.
What drew him back? "That laser-like focus on the task at hand, combined with the exhilaration of living in a place where your life is in danger and dramatic things are happening," he said. "I think under the umbrella of believing what you do and believing in the intrinsic value of what you do — all of those things combined.
Watch Santiago Lyon and Emma Daly answer three questions about journalism, trauma and the difference between their lives and the play.
The play, set in Sarah and Jamie's Brooklyn loft, examines how the couple comes to terms with war, the craft of journalism and their commitment to each other in conversations with friend and editor Richard (Eric Bogosian) and his much-younger girlfriend Mandy (Alicia Silverstone).
In conversation with the idealistic Mandy, Sarah initially makes sense of her actions as a photographer by casting herself as a conduit through which wartime atrocities can be seen. Sarah's hope is that by capturing these graphic images on film, the world will see and ultimately help those who have suffered.
Yet Sarah cannot escape the guilt that accompanies her relentless drive to capture the suffering of others on film: Experiencing a flashback while on her first non-combat assignment since she returned home, she's reminded of an IED explosion at a market that she had rushed out to shoot. After describing to Mandy taking pictures of a woman with charred clothes sticking to her melted skin who was yelling at her to stop shooting, Sarah begins to weep. "I live off the suffering of strangers; I've built a career off the suffering of people I don’t know."
"All [my plays] deal with a question of who owns a story, who owns an image; in 'Time Stands Still,' it’s a sense of fear in exploiting others to feed a career," said Margulies during the panel. "So I think the dilemma or conundrum of being an artist, and being a participant in society and an observer of a society at the same time, is a theme I keep coming back to."
Daly, now the director of communications for Human Rights Watch, reported extensively on the war in the Balkans in the 1990s for The Independent and the New York Times. She expressed empathy for Sarah's dilemma:
Are you there just to bear witness for its own sake or is there some other purpose to carrying out this role as a journalist? That is one of the real difficulties that you’re confronted with always as a journalist in a place like that. The basic equation is that the worse it is for them, the better it is for the story.
Jamie deals with his issues in a different way than Sarah. Sharing Sarah's vision of affecting change through truth-telling early in his career, the physical and emotional toll of a decade spent documenting human suffering has become too much to bear. Jamie exhibits some of the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and — like Mandy — questions the humanity of journalistic detachment.
As he tries to write a piece based on his notes from the war zone, tormented by having to relive every detail, Jamie also is working on a piece about horror films. Throughout the play, James is watching cheesy horror films late at night or before Sarah gets home.
One evening, Sarah angirly asks, "So you’ve replaced real horror with fake horror?" In response, James explains that after experiencing so much real horror in his time as a war correspondent, he finds solace in the fantasy of it; it’s a kind of release for him.
"It seemed to make a lot of character sense, to me, that that would be what James would choose to do," Margulies observed. "He's still writing, but he’s still processing images of horror, and that felt like a good and right transitional choice for him."
Sarah and James, Daly and Lyon — not to mention countless other journalists formerly and currently in the field — all face choices. There is a choice over whether or not to get involved by helping those suffering at the risk of their journalistic integrity, or over the extent of their involvement. There is a choice between a life of safety and comfort and a life of stress coupled with excitement. There are choices between publishing a shocking and graphic photo or a more palatable one that may not communicate the entire story. And finally, there’s a choice between telling a difficult story and an easy one.
An audience member at the panel discussion asked the playwright what choices storytellers are supposed to make when the story they feel compelled to tell evokes distress, outrage and anger — like the journalists on the panel and in the play. Margulies replied, "What I try to do is tell the truth."
This is how I build conflict, because these people are in disagreement, and yet I have to invest in each of their points of view equally.
At the end of the play, Sarah is preparing to leave for a war zone after making the ultimate choice, essentially choosing dangerous photojournalism over a slower-paced life with Jamie. Margulies was asked by panel moderator Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center, whether that image is a hopeful one.
"I think it’s a realistic image. Whether it’s hopeful is arguable, but I think that her choice is what she feels is her place in the world, and, in that sense, it is a positive ending," he said. "But again, I’m showing the collateral damage of such a choice and the associated sacrifices and compromises."
"The key to me is that it was a choice," said Daly, "and not that she was left alone and had nothing better to do."