Tales from Conflict Zones

Directed by Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land and City of Ghosts), A Private War is based on the life of Sunday Times war correspondent Marie Colvin, played here by Rosamund Pike. During her life, she reported from the frontlines of conflicts across the globe, from Sri Lanka to The Middle East, revealing the story of the human suffering in war. In 2012, while continuing to fearlessly give a voice to the voiceless, she was tragically killed in the besieged Syrian city of Homs. In conversation with ASFF, Heineman discusses his narrative feature debut and the necessity to be mindful of Colvin’s legacy and the trauma of war.

ASFF: While A Private War is your narrative feature debut, and a distinction is rightly made between the documentary and narrative forms, it does not necessarily need to be seen as a departure for you. 
The world is becoming much more malleable and so many narrative films are employing documentary techniques, and so many documentaries are employing narrative techniques. There is much more of a crossover between the two art forms, and in some ways,  I’ve tried to make my documentaries feel like narratives, and I have tried to make my narrative feel like a documentary. 

ASFF: The use of the camera would have been crucial in creating the intersection between documentary and narrative. In Marie’s PTSD episodes as well as the scenes of conflict, the cinematography creates a feeling of intimacy or closeness towards Marie for the audience. 
I wanted to make you feel like you were on the ground with Marie, experiencing that world up close and personal. We very much wanted to employ documentary techniques, both in how we shot and edited the film. Again, it was to make you feel that you were there with her on the ground, feeling the bullets whizz by you, feeling the tension and the drama of civilians she was speaking to, the widows in the basement or the homes, and the mass grave in Iraq. Bob Richardson who shot the film with me actually started out shooting documentaries, and so it was exciting for him to go back to his documentary roots, and for me to bring that ethos into this narrative world. 

It was very important to me to portray PTSD as an injury of war that doesn’t just happen to soldiers, but civilians and journalists, as well as other people. And that juxtaposition of her life in the field and at home was quite important to me in exploring the intrusive thoughts and images that are the hallmark of PTSD. So in that sequence in which she can’t shake those images, it is quite emotional and it feels very personal to me because they are things that I’ve experienced. In the script these sequences were much more linear, then in the edit room we played around with them in an effort to mimic the experience of what it’s like to process these horrific images, to try to get inside of her head for the audience to understand and experience what it feels like to have PTSD.

ASFF: Marie placed a emphasis on her words creating compassion between her readers and the human suffering of war. For A Personal War to be a success, to honour her spirit, surely it must evoke compassion from the audience?
A huge goal of mine was to as you said, to make people stop and care as Marie tried to do. It’s so easy to keep these conflicts at arms length, to be complacent and she had this amazing ability to create an empathetic connection between her readers and people far away, and that’s because she didn’t necessarily care about the size of a bomb or the size of a gun. She cared about a human being, about humanising these conflicts and telling the stories of civilians who are so often caught in the crossfire, and whose stories aren’t told. She fought to give a voice to the voiceless and she died doing so. In some small way, I hope that the film carries on her legacy and gets people to stop and think, and to care about the world we are living in.

ASFF: As people we so often learn and understand in contemplation, and so did the editing act as a contemplative period in which your perspective of Marie changed or deepened?
My perspective of her changed throughout the entire process of making the film; I’m not sure that it changed in the editing of the film. I had already gone through an enormous journey of understanding, of trying to learn by researching and talking to as many people as possible to create a multidimensional portrait of this beautiful, courageous and complicated woman. Every person I spoke to added a different shade or fabric to create this character for me. And so, that process began when I first started on the film, and it ended when I locked the film. 

In cinemas 15 February.

Casper Borges

1. All stills from
A Private War.