Roughly translated, Hoka Hey means "let's roll"; or "a good day to die" in. The Sioux phrase is tattooed on the forearm of Jason P. Howe, a conflict photographer who spent 12 years of his career documenting four different war zones. Howe is the subject of a new film A Good Day To Die: Hoka Hey, by New Zealand director Harold Monfils. The film opens with footage of a now-famous incident, as Howe accompanies a troop of British soldiers in Afghanistan. The soldier behind him, Private Bainbridge, steps on an IED. Both his legs are amputated by the explosion. Howe tells the story in his customarily steady, bland tones: "The soldier running at the back there with the yellow bag which unfortunately has got Stephen's other leg in it," he says, as the photos flick through.
The scene sets the tone for the film as well as for Jason's life, much of which was spent matter-of-factly documenting human horror in various war zones, searching for perfect pictures. It's part adventure story, part romance, and part character study of a driven and damaged man rebuilding his life. Another photojournalist says of Jason in the film, "He was kind of a maniac, and an idiot, but the kind of maniacal idiocracy you fall in love with." We spoke to Kiwi director Monfils about making the film, which premieres in New Zealand at Doc Edge next week.
VICE: Hi Harold. I wanted to ask how you first met Jason, how you came across the story.
Harold Monfils: I wanted to make a biography, because it's something I've never done before. I spent a couple of months just researching people with incredible lives and incredible stories, and a war photographer was not on the list. One of my friends mentioned his name, and I started looking up Jason. His life read like The Adventures of Tintin. I figured let's go meet this guy and see what happens. We did a screen test, he was absolutely fantastic.
So was there a point when you'd been talking to him for a while and you were like, yep, this is the guy—this the story I want to spend the next however many years telling?
The decision was made after that first screen test. I'd already decided he's a great subject, let's keep on exploring this. How somebody grows up as a Jehovah's Witness, decides to leave home in his late 20s having worked in a camera shop, decides to go to Colombia and work on his own intimate project, documents the paramilitary, falls in love with this girl Marilyn who ends up being an assassin, goes to France to expose his pictures, meets another guy who brings him to Iraq.
So it was, how do you start in Ipswich, and end up in Afghanistan, after 12 years, after four wars? It was a discovery for me.
So why did he start?
A lot of people start this because they want to change the world, they want an opinion on it. Jason started because he wanted a big adventure. It was simple, straightforward.
You say you started making the film with a kind of Adventures of Tintin perspective, but then over those years of filming, how did your sense of the story shift?
The story shifted on November 11, 2011. It had started off being a two-year project, and was nearly hitting the two year mark. I'd already started editing. On November 11, the British military was doing IED [improvised explosive device] clearance in Afghanistan and Private Bainbridge steps on an IED. He was the eighth person to walk through the doorway, Jason was the seventh. So everybody's walked through and didn't trigger this. Private Bainbridge walks through the same doorway and steps on it. Jason is there, he takes pictures—the pictures of his career, really. So he tells me he has these pictures—and there's suddenly no ending, because I have to include these pictures.
But for a long time, the pictures don't come out.
The Ministry of Defence in the UK is saying, 'We don't want you to publish these pictures, you have to respect the privacy of the soldier'. Jason's wondering, I'm out there risking my life, and something happens and now I can't publish them? Private Bainbridge says he's happy for them to be published, signs a waiver. And then the goalposts change, because initially it's about privacy, now it breaks down to: you can't publish pictures of wounded British soldiers.
Then finally, after five years, we have an ending. I won't say what it is, but we have an ending.
In your interviewing process you're getting Jason to relive really traumatic things at times. What was that process like, guiding him through that?
I think by the time Jason and I finished working together he hated the idea of the film, he hated talking about his life, all he wanted to do was heal. Even during interviews it was tough. He would have to relive every moment, re-see every moment. He pushed through, but there were times when he would just lose it and say, 'Look, I wish this was fuckin over, I'm done with this, I don't want to talk about this any more'. When we did the last interview, I gave him a hug and I go, 'Dude, we're done'. And we both smiled.
I'm specific saying he has symptoms associated with Post-Traumatic Stress disorder, because he doesn't have the money to get diagnosed. They get paid shit. The money they're paid for a picture is crap, and the little money they make, they use for living costs. If you're 12 years on the frontline, going back and forth, you don't realise you're damaged. Until one day you wake up, and you're hypervigilant, you're paranoid, you have mood swings—all the symptoms associated with PTSD, but he's still never been diagnosed.
Do you think there's any sense in which making the film and that act of retelling was helpful?
I don't know, and I don't think Jason knows that either. At the moment he hates it. He supports the film, he wants people to see it but he doesn't want to talk about it.
I wanted to ask, the film deals with these incredibly thorny ethical issues—at one point Jason's trying to decide whether to accompany this Colombian assassin, who was also his girlfriend, to a murder—did that change your perspective on journalism, how he made those decisions?
Yeah, he's off on this big adventure in Colombia, meeting Marilyn, doing this love project about the war, his first war zone. He has no journalistic experience, so his decision—it's something he doesn't regret, as he says in the film. Being that wet behind the ears—a kid who grew up as a Jehovah's Witness in Ipswich—his exposure to these things was minimal. But he found that ethical line very early on.
Working with him over five years, so closely, was it difficult to balance your friendship with the film you wanted to make?
I wanted to make a film he was proud of. Now there's obviously things he's not 100 percent happy with, but it's part of the truth. Because Jason and I made a deal together that no matter what, we would follow the truth. We're not going to sensationalise the story either.
Did that ever feel like a tension for you, wanting to make something he was pleased with?
Oh it was definitely not PR for him. I had final call on all the decisions. That had to be the process, I don't believe filmmaking is a democracy. You can't have the subject saying, 'Oh no, don't talk about that.' That can't happen. So there's things he's not 100 percent happy with but he knows it's the truth and that's the deal I had. Stick to the truth, stick to the facts.
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