“Hoka hey!” It’s a commonly held misconception popularised by Buffalo Bill and his travelling show, by dime novels and B-movies, by the organic mythology of the Old West, that this Sioux saying that Crazy Horse used to fire up his warriors to make Custer’s Stand his last at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, means “Today is a good day to die!” The actual meaning is closer to “Let’s do it!” but like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, when the legend becomes truth, you print the legend!
A thought-provoking shot of pure adrenaline that lays bare the highs, the lows and the minefield, both literal and moral, of conflict photography, A Good Day To Die, Hoka Hey is a fitting title then for Harold Monfils’s intimate portrait of British freelance war photographer Jason Howe.
Inspired by the life and work of Vietnam War photographer Tim Page (interviewed here as a friend and grizzled mentor), Howe sold all of his possessions and hit the road looking for adventure. Ending up in Columbia, he shot both sides of the civil war, embedding himself first with the FARC rebels, then with the government paramilitaries, before entering into a dangerous relationship with a young woman who eventually turned out to be a feared professional assassin, his documenting of her life earning him fame and her a brutal death when her compadres executed her for being a rat.
Interviewed by Monfils at his rural Spanish home, Howe comes across as something of a burnt-out case, almost the dissolute hero of a Graham Greene novel, living a monastic existence, alone with his dogs and his demons, his flatly delivered, matter-of-fact recounting of his experiences in the world’s war zones – finding Sadaam’s bunker in Iraq, coming under fire in Columbia, witnessing incredible carnage in Lebanon – betrays the PTSD he, like many of his fellow photographers (interviewed here), obviously suffer from.
Its an image somewhat at odds with the archive footage of Howe in his prime horsing around with his soldier brother while embedded with British troops in Afghanistan or blowing off steam in drink-and-drug-fuelled Bangkok benders, the crazy adrenaline junkie his friends remember throwing himself in harm’s way to get the perfect shot far from the haunted veteran Monofils interviews.
Filmed over a number of years, Monofils charts the slow awakening of Howe’s conscience, his humanity. Disenchanted with his calling after a tour in Beirut and witnessing the crazy/brave camaraderie of his generation of war photographers superseded by a new breed of venal combat paparazzi, war voyeurs whose brutal, dog-eat-dog tactics and tabloid sensibilities disgust him, force him to consider retirement.
After some soul-searching, Howe returns to the field, is embedded within a squad of Scots Guards patrolling Afghanistan’s notorious Helmand Province where he faces his greatest challenge, the battle to document one maimed soldier’s fight to recover from near fatal injuries, a battle that brings Howe into direct conflict with the British Government who don’t appreciate stories about wounded soldiers. Forced to choose between his career and doing the right thing, Howe finds himself finally taking a side…
Angry, gut-wrenching and ultimately fascinating, Monofils’s searing, intimate portrait of Howe may just be the first truly important film to come out of the War in Afghanistan.
Movie Review: A Good Day To Die, Hoka Hey
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