‘Never Look Away’ Review: Lucy Lawless’ Directorial Debut Is an Unflinching Look at the Life of Photojournalist Margaret Moth

It’s not uncommon for a documentary to begin by explaining what it’s actually about, since although the medium tends to attract audiences who are already interested in the subject there’s always somebody in the theater who needs a primer (or, as is more common in the 21st-century, somebody on the couch.)

Lucy Lawless takes a different tactic, starting her new documentary “Never Look Away,” premiering at Sundance, not with a quick summary of who Margaret Moth is and why she’s one of the most significant figures in modern journalism, but instead with an interview from the man she dated when he was seventeen years old and she was thirty.

It’s the sort of info drop that doesn’t paint Moth in a very good light and revealing it later would play like a unsettling twist, so Lawless — working with a difficult subject, a video journalist who wasn’t often on camera — gets it out of the way up front. Moth, Lawless reveals, was a troubled person who escaped an extremely abusive childhood. She did LSD and heroin with her lovers, she insisted on open relationships where only she was allowed to date other people, and she pursued adrenaline-charged war zones like a starving lion pursues an easily-distracted gazelle.

And she also broke down in tears for hours when nobody was looking and drew illustrations of her youth that would disturb even The Babadook.

By getting Margaret Moth’s least heroic stories out of the way first, Lawless challenges her audience to consider Moth’s whole life story — even the unflattering parts — as an extension of her inner pain. For a debut documentary filmmaker the former “Xena: Warrior Princess” star makes tough choices and makes them boldly, and her film is more complicated and engrossing for it. Like the people in Moth’s real-life periphery, audiences will just have to deal with her from every angle.

And nobody, to hear former co-workers like Christiane Amanpour tell it, shot better angles than Margaret Moth as a CNN video reporter who captured daring footage of deadly conflicts like the Persian Gulf War, the Bosnian War and the 2006 Lebanon War. While her fellow journalists ducked for cover, she kept standing, getting the shot at all costs. When it looked like their building would be bombed to oblivion, Moth’s peers sought shelter in the basement. She was on the roof, ready to capture the horror up close and personal. (It was a false alarm, but yikes, regardless.)

The frustrating thing about “Never Look Away” is that all of Margaret Moth’s colleagues have incredible stories about her daredevil journalism but for the most part none of it was on-camera. For the most frightening moments, Lawless re-enacts them via models, giving both bird’s eye and intimate views of devastating attacks that would threaten to destroy Moth’s life, and very nearly did.

Margaret Moth was an award-winning journalist, born in New Zealand, who broke barriers and lived defiantly and, Lawless argues, desperately. “Never Look Away” successfully avoids the path of the toothless hagiography, opting for an empathetic and candid approach. The people in Moth’s life were impressed by her spirit and tenacity even while they were shaken by her self-destructive, emotionally fraught behavior. The people in the audience probably will be impressed and shaken, too.

It’s tempting to seek connections between Lucy Lawless’s acting career, in which she played a bold and charismatic action hero, and Margaret Moth’s life story, as if by telling the tale of a real-life adrenaline addict she could come to better terms with her own image and impact. Lawless avoids this interpretation at every turn and never makes “Never Look Away” look directly at her.

Were it not for a few moments where her off-camera voice asks pertinent questions Lawless would disappear completely. Her debut documentary is a deeply committed and engrossing work, even when Lawless is working with fewer resources than she would probably like, and hopefully foretells of more films to come.

“Never Look Away” is a sales title at Sundance.

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