Day 6

'War was her sanctuary': Marie Colvin biopic explores the cost of bearing witness to conflict

The biopic about late journalist Marie Colvin examines her struggle with PTSD and alcoholism. Documentarian and director Matthew Heineman aimed to make the film as authentic as possible.

A Private War examines the late journalist's personal battles with PTSD and alcoholism

English actor Rosamund Pike plays the late war correspondent Marie Colvin in A Private War. (Paul Conroy/Aviron Pictures)

Director Matthew Heineman doesn't like the phrase "to bear witness," but his new film A Private War does just that.

The film pays tribute to the civilians of war-torn countries that the late, intrepid journalist Marie Colvin (played by Rosamund Pike) tirelessly covered.

But in examining the human costs of war, it also touches on the very real impacts that human tragedy has on those who document it.

"[Colvin] was someone who was filled with fear — someone who didn't love being at the front lines. But she felt compelled to go there," Heineman told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

A Private War follows the famously stubborn journalist as she reports on some of modern history's most devastating conflicts, including Syria's civil war.

Colvin died in 2012 when a rocket hit a makeshift media centre in the Syrian city of Homs. Her family alleges she was targeted by the Syrian regime as part of a campaign to kill journalists covering the conflict.

While Colvin's actions may seem fearless to some, the film reveals her personal battles with post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction.

"The big tension in the film is that every neon sign was blaring saying, 'Stop! Stop! Stop! You can't keep doing this,'" Heineman said.

"But she couldn't. This was her calling, and she felt that if she wasn't going to do it, then no one else would."

Fact vs. fiction

Heineman, an Oscar-nominated documentarian, aimed to make his first narrative feature film as authentic as possible.

The film's conflict zone scenes were shot in Jordan. Heineman went to great lengths to ensure that the refugee characters in the film were portrayed by real-life refugees from the country in question.

In one scene, officials excavate a mass grave in Iraq while a group of women searching for lost loved ones stand by. The women, portrayed by Iraqi women refugees, wail as a skeleton is pulled from the ground.

"These women start pounding their chests and they start chanting, and it's just prayer for the dead," Heineman said. "That wasn't planned, and that wasn't scripted, and it is this very human moment."

Director Matthew Heineman speaks with Pike on set. (Keith Bernstein/Aviron Pictures)

In another scene, Colvin interviews refugees huddled in a shelter in Homs, Syria. Those refugees, again, were played by Syrians who fled the city during the war.

The scene was a challenge for Pike who, according to Heineman, worried about exploiting the refugees and questioned the film's blurred lines between documentary and fiction.

"You have this human instinct to want to give someone a hug or to give them a space, but your job is to document these moments ... as it was Marie's job," Heineman told Pike.

Inner turmoil

Beyond A Private War's critique of armed conflict lies a wider message about the role of journalism in society.

"In an era where journalism is under attack, where truth is under attack … I think it's so important to celebrate people like Marie who are out there fighting for the truth," he said.

Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike) and Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan) drive through a war zone in this still from A Perfect War. (Aviron Pictures)

There's no doubt that Colvin did just that, holding world leaders to account by entering war zones and uncovering the truth about what was happening to civilians under their violent rule.

"I think her goal was to take something that most people kept at arm's length — to take a conflict that seemed so far away — and try to humanize it and try to put a human face to it," Heineman said.

Colvin — who lost her left eye in a grenade strike while covering the Sri Lankan civil war — spent her career jumping into the middle of dangerous conflicts, but she also struggled with nightmares and heavy drinking.

I think she would be devastated that what she died for has persisted until this day.- Matthew Heineman

And yet, Heineman believes war was where Colvin felt most comfortable.

"War was her sanctuary," he said, adding that she had a hard time balancing her work and her "domestic" life.

Six years after Colvin's death, the Syrian conflict that claimed her life continues.

"I think she would be devastated that what she died for has persisted until this day," Heineman said.

"That half a million civilians have been killed in Syria; that Assad is still in power — I think she'd be devastated."


To hear the full interview with A Private War director Matthew Heineman, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?

now