Over the last decade, television audiences have grown used to cable channels using their original programming to showcase ever-more explicit levels of sex, nudity, profanity, and slaughter. But for once HBO is putting its liberty from FCC broadcast rules and network ratings demands to better use with a series of documentaries that take viewers into the world’s most notorious hot spots.
A creation of filmmaker Michael Mann (Heat, Last of the Mohicans), Witness follows a select group of photojournalists as they try to document and clarify the conflicts going on in Mexico, South Sudan, Libya, and Brazil. The series’ first entry profiles veteran combat photographer Eros Hoagland as he tracks the drug cartel wars in Ciudad Juárez. “You want to get there before the police,” Hoagland explains en route to an execution site, “but not too soon or the gunmen will still be there.”
This kind of pragmatism can seem jarring at times, making the photographers appear almost inhumanely distant. This is particularly true when we see a young shooting victim—presumably a cartel operative—slowly bleed to death while a group of onlookers, including Hoagland and several police officers, do nothing to offer assistance. As the series progresses, however, we learn how much Hoagland and journalists like him are risking their lives to go out on assignment.
Occasionally the show suffers from a lack of context. The photojournalists are often so reticent to voice judgments about the people they’re snapping, we are left with the feeling that they see no rights or wrongs, and likewise no solutions. In a later episode, however, Hoagland reflects on the effect of his work and how, chaotic and tangled as the moments he captures are, he hopes they help draw truth out of corruption and lies.
Witness features bloodshed and bad language, but here they are simply part of the violence and disorder of a fallen world rather than additions meant to titillate. Given how sparse in-depth and on-the-ground war reporting has become in the last few years, HBO is offering viewers a journalistic service.