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Never Look Away Review: Ode to Journalism

War photographer Margaret Moth holds a videocamera with an explosion behind her in a still from the documentary film Never Look Away

Lucy Lawless’ Never Look Away profiles the tenacious Margaret Moth and her remarkable story as a camerawoman covering conflicts for CNN.

Director: Lucy Lawless
Genre: Documentary, Biopic
Run Time: 115′
Sundance London Screening: June 10, 2024
Release Date: TBA

Lucy Lawless – the New Zealand actress known for playing a warrior princess in the TV show Xena – has made her directorial debut profiling a warrior photojournalist. Never Look Away is a documentary telling the remarkable story of Margaret Moth, a fellow Kiwi who covered conflicts around the world for CNN as a camerawoman before passing away in 2010.

Lawless uses footage shot by Moth herself, alongside candid interviews with friends, colleagues (including CNN reporter Christiane Amanpour), siblings and romantic partners. And she uses them to give us a sense of the one-of-a-kind tenacity Moth possessed.

A punk spirit is immediately established in the opening credits, with images of battles set to Heart’s ‘Barracuda’. Before you wonder if this might be glamorising war, we move right along to the start of Margaret’s journey. She was the first female camera operator for TVNZ before moving to Houston and working in local news. Then, in 1980, Ted Turner formed CNN and effectively began the 24-hour news cycle. Margaret is hired a decade later, with her first assignment being the Persian Gulf War. The film stresses how war can be a disorientating and traumatising experience. How do you cope when reporting on a fierce warzone? For some, it can be scarring. For Margaret, it was exhilarating.

Fearless is the obvious word to describe her, and it is used several times by Never Look Away’s interviewees. But sometimes words are obvious for a reason. The title comes from an incident during the Georgian Civil War that best represents Maragret’s character. When gunmen began shooting at a crowd, all the cameramen hid behind cars – except Margaret. She never looked away from danger, instead showing a determination to get ‘the shot’ and show everything from the most dangerous places on Earth. However, there are only so many times you can risk your life and come out unscathed.

War photographer Margaret Moth holds a videocamera in a black and white still from the documentary film Never Look Away
Never Look Away (Kaleidoscope / 2024 Sundance Film Festival London)

That is proven in Sarajevo in 1992, when Margaret covers the Bosnian War. It was a brutal conflict where Serbian forces shot at civilians and journalists from ‘Sniper Alley’. Then, one day, whilst travelling in a convoy, she is suddenly shot in the jaw. It changes her life. And yet, once she recovered, she incredibly returned to action.

Interestingly, despite her achievements and bravery, Lawless does not go down the hagiographic route for Margaret. Instead, she is portrayed as a complicated individual. Jeff Russi, one of her former lovers, recounts that the first time he saw her was smoking a pipe in her home full of antiques. She possessed a noticeable aura with her bright blue eyes, accentuating eyeliner and big black hair like Joan Jett. That attracted Jeff and led to acid trips, partying, punk clubs and skydiving. Was she hedonistic? Almost certainly. Boring? Never. Their relationship will be troubling to some (he was 17, she was 30). But that was one of multiple flings she had with different men, including French soundman Yaschinka.

These were open relationships in the sense that only she was the one who could date other people. However, beneath that was deep anger and trauma, partly stemming from a past she kept secret (and which the film begins to unearth halfway through).

Lawless does engage with some unique devices. The most captivating are the large digital dioramas, built by Wētā Workshop and used for some big action moments. There are also scribbles, pastel filters and some dramatic interludes with actors. The latter is a weird choice – as are some of the accounts about the Sarajevo shooting, with multiple men saying how Margaret lost her beauty. That moment emphasises how the film relies too much on other opinions of Moth (there are archive interviews with her, yet they are only featured briefly). Mainly, these moments feel unnecessary because Moth is a compelling enough figure on her own merits.

Never Look Away: Trailer (Kaleidoscope)

That is proven as soon as the film focuses on her return to the frontline. Covering the West Bank and the destruction caused by Israeli forces there and in Lebanon, Margaret held forces to account for their war crimes with her weapon of choice: a camera. Although, as one interviewee argues, her camera was more like a spotlight that shone a light on the human impact of conflict.

“I feel my riches are my experiences,” Moth says in one interview, and Never Look Away accomplishes its goal of showing those experiences. It may be a fairly standard portrait of a figure, but Lawless is helped by the fact that her subject was such a larger-than-life presence. A woman as dedicated to her work as she was uncompromising, for better and worse. As a result, we get an informative and faceted documentary that is both an interesting examination of Margaret Moth and an ode to courageous journalism.

Never Look Away was screened at the Sundance Film Festival London, taking place on 6-9 June, 2024 at the Picturehouse Central in London. Read all of our Sundance reviews!

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