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A Good Day to Die: Hoka Hey, the documentary by Harold Monfils chronicling the work of war photographer Jason P. Howe begins with Jason jumping out of a Chinook helicopter with a squadron of British soldiers into Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in November 2011. They immediately have to traverse a minefield. Jason photographs the scene. Then, they sweep a compound for enemies, explosive devices or materials, weapons et cetera. Jason photographs the scene. Moving through a second compound, one of the soldiers – stepping through a doorway many of the other soldiers, and Jason as well, had already passed through – triggers an improvised explosive device (an IED), blowing his leg off. Jason photographs the scene.
They then have to get the injured soldier, along with his separated leg (“at the end of the day, we don’t want to leave it behind because then the Taliban would probably use it as trophies and that…”) to another Chinook, this time taking enemy fire across an open field. Jason photographs the scene. In fact this entire sequence, recalled in voiceover by Jason and by members of that quadron, is being illustrated for us entirely by Jason’s pictures. It’s a scene which manages to convey brilliantly well and at extremely close quarters the brilliance of the British armed forces but there is little here of the jingoistic romance of war as seen all too often in war movies (particularly older war movies). “It was quite strange,” recalls a corporal, “Because when I was treating the casualty all I could picture was me and my son playing football in the garden.” These men are scared for their lives, their futures. And that was just their first day of that particular operation. It was also the tenth anniversary of Jason’s life as a war photographer. Many of Jason’s days had been like this, all around the world. Colombia, Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan. In A Good Day to Die: Hoka Hey, we’re about to see a number of them.
At the heart of A Good Day to Die: Hoka Hey is the tale of how Jason taught himself to become a photojournalist, in his own words: “Not by attending some theoretical university course, or taking portraits in a cosy studio, but by pitching myself in at the deep end.” So what was the deep end? For Jason, it meant going to Colombia and placing himself in amongst the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), a Marxist guerilla outfit operating in various parts of Latin America in opposition to numerous government-sponsored right-wing paramilitaries and funded by a variety of unsavory means including kidnap, ransom, extortion and drug production and distribution. Here he was able to photograph plenty of harrowing images of the decades of conflict in Colombia but, hoping to build a more rounded picture both narratively and photographically, Jason went looking for the FARC’s principal nemeses, the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC). What he found was Marylin.
When Jason met her, Marylin was a civilian living in the Colombian capital of Puerto Asis, with friends in the AUC (or simply “The Paras”). Jason stayed with Marylin and her family as he photographed the strife in Colombia from an opposing perspective and, as he did, he and Marylin became close. Eventually Jason had to briefly return to the UK but, upon going back to Colombia, he found that Marylin had since become an active member of the AUC. This didn’t curtail his further research in Colombia however and, as his work began to garner critical attention, he was encouraged to go photograph the war in Iraq. After six months in Baghdad he returned yet again to Colombia to find that Marylin had graduated to becoming a full-blown assassin for the AUC, killing traitors to the cause. Beyond this, however, she was also operating as a contract killer, happy to execute anyone for whom anyone else might pay a price. Does this budding romance have a happy ending? I guess maybe it would if A Good Day to Die: Hoka Hey was a fictional piece. But it’s not.
A Good Day to Die: Hoka Hey is a hugely episodic look at a number of conflicts across the globe, as seen through Jason Howe’s lens. It’s also a look – I mean, a REAL look – at the horror of those conflicts, up-close and personal, and a look at just how personal the documenting of these horrors can become. Harrowing in several places, but recommended nonetheless.