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Lensing the Horror

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Profile on director Christian Frei


Promoting Shaun of the Dead last year, director Edgar Wright shattered illusions everywhere when he reported that half the entries in Shaun's 'trivia' section on the authoritative Internet Movie Database was made up by fans, none of them the intention of the filmmakers.

It's a warning Christian Frei reiterates with a laugh on the phone from his native Switzerland; "It's an Internet lie," he says when asked why he makes two versions of his movies, one for TV. It seems someone's seen the 50 minute version of his critically acclaimed documentary War Photographer that was edited down especially for TV from the feature length version and assumed Frei just made the film twice – a rumour that's spread like a virus.

He's refreshingly good-humoured about it, being a filmmaker for whom truth is the cornerstone of narrative. "Fiction films are a little bit about cliché," he says. "What I like about documentaries is you learn about situations and people; it's about the complexity of issues and discovering situations that are really 'true'. You spend a lot of time and you have to deal with a lot of interference but with a lot of patience you get there."

Despite the at-times grisly nature of War Photographer, Frei employs the effective use of music and pacing to present a slow, sombre rhythm, reflecting what he believes is the truth about war as opposed to the fiction. "Fiction films about war are always about heroes, tension and adventure," he says. "The reality of war is quite different. I wanted to show the side to war where there's no tension, just sadness. These are the emotions I tried to deal with. Not 'what's going on' or 'what will happen next.'

"Sometimes it's very dangerous, but it's not the aspect of war which interested me most and it's even a bit false to push it like that because it's not always true. So the rhythm of the film is slow, there was never any tension added to the scenes."

Following photographer James Nachtwey around some of the worst places on Earth as Frei and his cinematographer Peter Indergand did, what was it like to peer so intimately into other people's suffering?

"We had to deal with the same ambivalent feelings that Jim had his whole life," he remembers. "It's not that you enjoy people suffering; it's just your job. There are moments when you put the camera down and care for those people or work to help them, but normally you have to accept the feeling – it's part of the profession. It's very hard sometimes, I didn't like that."

Frei's work was vindicated, culminating in a 2002 Oscar nomination for War Photographer. And with his current project peeling back the veil of fundamentalism, tolerance and culture against the backdrop of the 2001 destruction of the Bamiyantal Buddhas by the Taliban (which Frei believes the destruction of the World Trade Centres' twin towers was an eerie echo of), we need more filmmakers like him

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