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From Johannesburg to the Kodak Theater
J-school grad Dan Krauss' documentary about photojournalist Kevin Carter is nominated for an Oscar

| 01 March 2006


Dan Krauss (Wendy Edelstein photo)
 

When filmmaker Dan Krauss traveled to South Africa to shoot a documentary in 2003, he knew he was on to something big. His instincts were remarkably good: On Sunday, Krauss will stroll down the world's most famous red carpet at the 78th Annual Academy Awards in Los Angeles - as a nominee.

The Death of Kevin Carter: Casualty of the Bang Bang Club, which Krauss produced as his master's project in the Graduate School of Journalism, is one of four films nominated in the Best Documentary Short Subject category.

Most news photographers are familiar with Kevin Carter, a South African photojournalist who committed suicide after documenting the horrors of apartheid in black townships. "He was the photographer who saw too much," says Krauss. "His was a cautionary tale that we whispered among ourselves about the dangers of becoming too sensitized to your subjects and to witnessing extreme violence."

Krauss comes by the editorial "we" honestly: He worked as a photojournalist for nearly a decade before deciding to study filmmaking at Berkeley. "There were stories I wanted to tell that I couldn't tell with a still camera," he explains.

When Krauss started to dig into his project, he found there was more to Carter's story than he had imagined. At the outset he'd known that Carter had won a Pulitzer Prize for his photograph of an emaciated Sudanese child and an all-too-well-fed vulture, and that he had committed suicide shortly after receiving the prestigious award. Krauss calls the process of making his documentary "a journey" - one that took him from the small kernel of these initial notions to the "very broad parable" the film became.

A gap just long enough

Krauss began researching his film by making telephonic connections with South Africans who were outside Carter's circle, and eventually making contact with the photographer's family; his girlfriend of many years, Julia Lloyd; and her 16-year-old daughter, Megan, whom Carter had fathered. In late 2003, Krauss traveled to South Africa to interview Carter's colleagues, friends, and family. The 10-year gap between the 33-year-old photographer's death and the making of the film, Krauss says, was "long enough so that people had mostly healed from the wounds of Kevin's death, but not so long that they couldn't remember the important details of his story."

Those Krauss interviewed also had had adequate time to assign some meaning to Carter's life and death, a goal the filmmaker says he shared: "None of us wished his life to be seen as a terrible waste. We all felt there was some meaning we could pull from it."

Just months before Carter killed himself in July 1994, Ken Oosterbroek, his best friend, was killed by a stray bullet in the Thokaza township. Along with Carter, Greg Marinovich, and Joao Silva, Oosterbroek was a member of the Bang Bang Club, a group of four photojournalists who banded together to document violence against blacks during the final years of apartheid. Oosterbroek's death contributed to Carter's self-destruction, says Krauss. While the Pulitzer is "the prize every photographer seeks," at the same time it was "a very heavy burden" for Carter, who may have felt a responsibility to continue to capture similarly powerful images.

In addition, Krauss says, Carter shouldered "enormous guilt at being celebrated for making this image of a girl whose fate was uncertain and who was clearly suffering." Meanwhile, apartheid was crumbling. And while its demise was something that Carter was committed to witnessing and documenting, that event, and Nelson Mandela's ascendancy to the presidency, left a void in his life. Carter and the other press-corps members who had covered the long struggle soon longed to be engaged in their old mission, says Krauss.

In addition to experiencing a sudden lack of purpose, Carter was haunted by the sights he'd seen and the images he'd made, and wrestled with ethical questions relating to how, or whether, a photographer or journalist should engage in the conflict he's covering. Indeed, he himself came in for pointed criticism over the circumstances surrounding his Pulitzer-winning photo; he said he had waited 20 minutes to take the picture so that the image would frame the way he envisioned it - more than enough time, his critics said, to move the girl out of danger.

"Kevin's story is really about a man who's tormented by questions of his own morality," says Krauss. "Should he put down the camera and do something about the violence he's witnessing? Or is it more beneficial to document what he's seeing?" Such questions, he says, are the stuff of endless debate in journalism circles, crucially familiar to practitioners today in Iraq, Afghanistan, or anywhere there's conflict.

Getting to the big show

Making The Death of Kevin Carter was one journey; the film's path to an Oscar nomination was another. The documentary racked up wins at the Los Angeles International Shorts Festival, the San Francisco International Film Festival, and, most significantly, New York's Tribeca Film Festival. After being named best short documentary at Tribeca last spring, the film was acquired by HBO. The cable network helped Krauss qualify his film for the Oscars, a process that involved transferring it to 16mm film from videotape, screening it in a Los Angeles movie theater for a week, and filling out a prodigious amount of paperwork.

In early November, Krauss learned that his film was one of eight to make the Motion Picture Academy's short list in the Best Documentary Short Subject category. (The list eventually narrows to between three and five films each year; four nominees are contending for top honors on Sunday.) Then, on Jan. 31, Oscar nominations for 2006 were announced. "We had three full months of stewing, nail-biting, and waiting anxiously to see whether we were nominated," recalls Krauss.

Knowing that the nominations would be posted on the official Oscars website, Krauss woke up early on the appointed day and pushed the refresh button on his computer time and again until he finally saw the page updated. "I jumped out of my seat, my wife covered her face and screamed, and my dog ran upstairs and cowered," he recalls; the rest of the day was filled with a flood of congratulatory phone calls and e-mails.

Whether or not the documentary based on Kevin Carter's life and work wins the Oscar this weekend, his name may soon become familiar to more people: DreamWorks (think Munich, Match Point, Memoirs of a Geisha) has optioned Krauss' film and may produce a full-length feature about the photojournalist's life. If the project gets the green light, Krauss will serve as an executive producer, and the research and narrative structure he used in his film will inform the longer movie.

Krauss views the outcome of the upcoming star-studded awards ceremony with as much equanimity as anyone poised to greet Joan and Melissa Rivers can muster. "I think 90 percent of the Oscars is getting nominated," he says. "If you can take home the little gold man, great - but if not, I'm still going to be happy."

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The Death of Kevin Carter: Casualty of the Bang Bang Club will screen March 6-9 at the Balboa Theater in San Francisco. For information on the film and other screenings, visit kevincarterfilm.com. The Academy Awards will be broadcast on Sunday, March 5, on ABC-TV, starting at 5 p.m.