Women war correspondents is the theme of this week’s post as the Broad takes a look some films and books on these brave, often trailblazing, women reporting from the front lines. It’s by no means exhaustive – more like a brief tour through the topic in recent popular culture.
It’s no exaggeration to say that at one point women needed to fight for the right to report from war zones. The military, government, media organisations and even some male journalists all presented obstacles to women journalists reporting as war correspondents. Like many aspects of women’s lives, the war changed things and brought new freedoms and opportunities For instance, in the UK during the Second World War, the ban on women journalists accompanying Allied troops was finally lifted by the Foreign Office. The few women who did report from the frontlines were often a novelty and, while some of them have been recorded in print, there’s not much in the way of serious big screen re-telling of these women’s stories. Correspondents like Clare Holingworth and Marguerite Higgins, pioneers of the profession, but who are largely unknown today. Martha Gelhorn, American novelist and travel writer, was also a pioneering war correspondent and penned numerous books about her experiences, including The Face of War, a selection of her war reporting, Travels With Myself and Another about some of her world adventures and The Trouble I’ve Seen in which she recounts her first-hand experiences of the Great Depression.
While there’s many films about the exploits of male war correspondents, there’s only a handful about women. But the newer examples do provide a more complex exploration of the unique character, and challenges, of war correspondents who are women. The most recent is A Private War about Marie Colvin (1956 – 2012), an award-winning foreign affairs correspondent who reported for the English Sunday Times. Colvin was killed in Syria in 2012 while covering the Siege of Homs. The film takes us on a journey with Colvin, played by Rosamund Pike, from her reporting on the conflict in the Middle East, bearing witness to violence and unrest, to the emotional and psychological fallout in her personal life. It depicts her struggle with PTSD and attempts to explain what drove her reporting. Notably, a US District Court judge in Washington DC found the Syrian regime liable for her death and ordered to pay damages.
In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin is the biography of the renowned correspondent by her colleague and friend Lindsey Hilsum and captures the personal and professional story of this fearless but somewhat traumatised journalist. Interestingly, this Financial Times article by Hilsum looks at the myth making around Colvin and attempts to put the personal back into the story.
A collection of Colvin’s journalism has been published in this book, On the Front Lines, and includes her interviews with key figures such as Yasser Arafat and Colonel Gadaffi along with dispatches from East Timor, Chechnya, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Iraq.
One-time war correspondent, Janine Di Giovanni, penned this British Vogue article on Marie Colvin on the release of A Private War and the motivations of those who would report from some of the most dangerous places in the world. She also pays homage to those women who came before them, such as Clare Hollingworth, Martha Gellhorn and Lee Miller in the Second World War. Di Giovanni is captured in the doco Bearing Witness (below) during her time reporting from conflict zones and reflects on the challenges, and costs, for women who are mothers, or aspire to be a mothers, and war correspondents.
Australian women war correspondents
The history of Australia’s women war correspondents has been carefully documented by the historian Dr Jeannine Baker in her book Australian Women War Reporters: Boer War to Vietnam. It’s the untold but important story of Australian and New Zealand women war reporters who fought for equality with their male colleagues and filed stories from the main conflicts of the twentieth century. Baker recounts the history of the two women reporting on the South African War at the turn of the century, First World War correspondent Louise Mack on the fall of Antwerp in 1914. During the Second World War, Anne Matheson, Lorraine Stumm and Kate Webb covered the rise of Nazism, the liberation of the concentration camps, the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and the post-war era and the wars in Korea and Southeast Asia. As the book so rightly says, these women carved a path for new generations of female foreign correspondents who have built upon their legacy.
War correspondents on screen
A little more lighthearted is Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, the film featuring Tina Fey as correspondent Kim Baker who reported from Kabul in 2002. It’s loosely adapted from Baker’s memoir The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan. If you’re looking for a few more films like this, there aren’t many, but have a look at IMDB.
A Thousand Times Good Nights is a 2013 film featuring Juliette Binoche as a war photographer trying to reconcile her drive and passion to cover the truth of events in dangerous war zones with her family and her responsibility to them, and to stay alive.
Still on screen, Bearing Witness is a 2005 documentary by Barbara Kopple and Marijana Wotton that cover one year with five women journalists, including Colvin as well as photojournalist Molly Bingham, writer Janine Di Giovanni, journalist May Ying Wels and camerawoman Mary Rogers over 2003 in several hot spots of conflict around the world. It cuts between the five journalists, showing the hardships and risks in reporting from conflict zones and trying to tell the world.
This 2019 article from British GQ by Ayo Awokoya collected the experiences from some of the women correspondents working in the field more recently such as Rossalyn Warren, who spent five years reporting from conflict zones, Sulome Anderson, herself the daughter of two war correspondents, Alexis Okeowo, now a staff writer at the New Yorker, and Rukmini Callimachi, who was the Isis correspondent for The New York Times.
Naturally, there are many other women who have, and are, correspondents reporting from conflict zones. This is just a notable few. Yet, in bringing stories like Colvin’s to the big screen it marks an important shift from a few ‘girls at the front‘ to a deeper understanding of women on the frontlines.