Review: Danger Zone
- Vita Maria Drygas's IDFA entry offers a candid and multi-layered look at war-zone tourism
There never was a better time to be looking closely at war: as a concept, as an ideology, as a place. Vilnius-born filmmaker Vita Maria Drygas may have anticipated it with her debut feature Danger Zone [+see also:
interview: Vita Maria Drygas
film profile], which had its international premiere at IDFA in the main competition. The follow-up to her mid-length documentary, Piano, shot in the Ukrainian Euromaidan in 2014, deals with the phenomenon of so-called conflict-zone tourism in a frank and beguiling way by following four “tourists”.
Rick, of WarZone Tours, is the first person we meet at the beginning of the film, through his candid narration. Rick is American and confesses that when he heard the sounds of war for the first time, he felt at ease: “This is what I’ve been looking for.” An injury had prevented him from joining the army, so he found his fix elsewhere. His voiceover is paired with footage from Nagorno-Karabakh (as we’re told in the subtitles), shot from the front or back seat of a car navigating roads and checkpoints through a snowy landscape. Cut to Syria, where on a plain field, some children play while others are loading guns. Visibly excited by the presence of the camera, they make eye contact, point at it and get on with their games.
Danger Zone starts off as deceptively simple, with its unobtrusive camera following a certain person — a war-tourism professional — as he traverses spaces we’d normally deem not only dangerous, but also, in a way, sacrosanct. Accompanying a guide such as Rick already positions the viewer as both participant and voyeur. But something more complex is at play here and becomes clearer as the film unfolds. Helping someone access a war front line, from the (relatively) safe distance of an onlooker and without the responsibility that a soldier would have, means delivering a service; in today’s transactional world, moral ambiguities don’t rank too high on the priority chart.
Later, we meet Andrew Drury, a journalist, author and extreme tourist who takes a newbie under his wing, a younger man called AJ. Both of them are family-orientated and share a passion for adrenaline, so much so that, according to Drury, it cancels out the fear of dying. In her vlog entries, Los Angeles-based Italian Eleonora is brimming with the same enthusiasm, at first. But over the course of the film, we see her confront more and more obstacles and reflect on her own positionality. In one scene in particular, she ponders whether she’ll proceed with her Ukraine trip after the Russian invasion; her shaky voice and adamant determination seem at odds with one another.
More than just a portrait of four people and their transgressive sources of pleasure, Danger Zone is a film that remains elusive, but not because it doesn’t take a stance. Its openness and generosity towards its subjects speak volumes, without muddling the ethics of representation. Instead, its ambiguous quality refers to the shifts in perspective it offers to those willing to see them. The documentary toes the line between complicity and testimony in the most brilliant way - it addresses the sensationalist potential of its own images without taking advantage of them. As for global war tourism, it may be an industry that can’t be fought or brought down, but self-reflexive filmmaking, especially in the case of a self-conscious documentary, has the power to show things anew. Not objectively, since objectivity has always been an illusion projected over documentaries as a whole, but with brave interrogations and care for the other, whoever they are.
Danger Zone is a Polish production through Drygas Film Production and Next Film, with support from the Polish Film Institute, in co-production with the UK’s Dogwoof, which also handles the film’s world sales.
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