David Frankham's 'Witness: South Sudan' Debuts on HBO

David Frankham’s four-part HBO Documentary series, “Witness” has a segment on South Sudan’s Arrow Boys, a voluntary militia. (Veronique de Viguere/HBO)

by Christopher A. Daniel

David Frankham takes pride in good storytelling.

His HBO Documentary Series, Witness, takes a candid look at the conflict photojournalists’ quest to provide first person accounts of various parts of the world plagued by social ills. The four-part series, co-executive produced by director Michael Mann, is the offspring of Frankham’s discontent with news sources and their disconnect from the stories they report. “I’ve been kinda tough on the news lately, but it’s obviously a different format,” he says. “I was feeling very numb about the news summing up very complicated situations into very simplistic black and white, good vs. evil scenarios. You’re watching these newscasters, and most of them have never been to Somalia.”

The Los Angeles native and 12-year veteran of directing commercials made his way to Atlanta for the BronzeLens Film Festival’s “Cinema and Social Justice” screenings. The self-proclaimed news junkie recalls seeing reports on Somali pirates following the birth of his now three-year-old daughter. He questioned the editorial decisions of the investigative reporters. “Why are we not getting the story from these photographers on the ground?” he asks.

The documentarian took matters into his own hands. He self-funded a 15-day trek to Juarez, Mexico with a five-person crew and produced a 30-minute short on the nation’s high-profile drug wars, which was shortlisted by the Academy Awards in 2011. Michael Mann immediately became a champion of Frankham’s vision after seeing the film short. The series (hour-long segments) developed into excursions into Libya and Rio de Janeiro. “[Michael’s] a master and one of my heroes in filmmaking,” Frankham says. “[Michael] challenged us when discussing the photographers, specific conflicts and events. He was constantly reminding us to keep it a character-driven, experiential film and to not try to do too much.”

The South Sudan installment, airing November 19, follows pregnant French photojournalist Veronique de Viguerie. She accompanies the Arrow Boys, a voluntary militia, in the villages post-Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) imperialism. She gets to know the natives personally, experience death on-site and hears of their hardships. “It’s very important to understand both sides, to understand what’s going on and to create an immersive experience where all of these films leave you with more questions than answers,” Frankham says. “I can’t give it to you all in 100 hours, but I want to engage on a human level.”

With the internet and downsizing of various news organizations, opportunities for the media to embark on global reports are steadily dwindling. Frankham reflects on the deaths of Tim Hetherington, Oscar-nominated photojournalist and director behind Restrepo, and Chris Hondros, another Pulitzer Prize-nominated photojournalist, during production in Libya. He says their passion and dedication to deliver the stories make Witness a landmark program. “There are a lot of conflicts that need this kind of attention along with people putting themselves in harm’s way,” Frankham says. “There are less and less photographers getting these assignments, and it’s harder to be a conflict photographer. ‘Witness‘ expands the medium.”

Witness is a watershed moment for Frankham’s career, investigative journalism and documentaries. HBO fully endorses his creative and political liberties. He aspires to create a movement. “I hope that we continue to do more of them,” he says. “There are a lot of people interested in conflicts all over the world, and they want a more in-depth conversation.”

Christopher A. Daniel is a pop cultural critic and music editor for The Burton Wire. He is also a contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.

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