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February 9, 2019updated 30 Sep 2022 7:28am

A Private War director says film is an ‘homage’ to Marie Colvin and journalists ‘fighting for the truth’

By Charlotte Tobitt

A Private War, the new Hollywood film exploring the last ten years of Sunday Times war correspondent Marie Colvin’s life, is “sadly and tragically more relevant now than ever” according to its director.

Matthew Heineman (pictured with actress Rosamund Pike as Colvin) said he deliberately did not make a traditional biopic, instead focusing on creating a psychological portrait of Colvin and an examination of her struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Heineman told Press Gazette: “We’re living in a world of soundbites and fake news. At least in my country [the US], journalists are being denigrated and vilified.

“So for me the film is both an homage to this amazing journalist but it’s also an homage to journalism and to people out there like Marie, like Paul [Conroy], who are out fighting for the truth and shedding light on dark corners of the world.

“I think it’s quite an important message to get out in the world right now.”

Colvin was killed in Homs, Syria, on 22 February 2012 after artillery fire hit the makeshift media centre building where she was reporting on the country’s brutal civil war.

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In her almost 30-year career at the Sunday Times she interviewed Libyan dictator Colonel Gaddafi, lost her sight in one eye to shrapnel after secretly entering a Tamil Tiger-held area of Sri Lanka, and reported from the warzones in Iraq, East Timor, Chechnya and Kosovo.

Describing how A Private War differs from other on-screen portrayals of reporters, Heineman said: “Most films about journalism have heroic journalists trying to get a story, get the story out and then they solve some problem.

“This film is not about one story. It covers many different warzones, it covers many different stories that she told.

“It’s more of a psychological portrait of this incredible woman and what drove her to go to the most dangerous places on earth to tell these stories, and then the effects that that had on her.”

Colvin’s story has also recently been told in the book In Extremis: The Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin by Channel 4 News international editor Lindsey Hilsum and the documentary Under the Wire, based on a book of the same name by photographer Paul Conroy who worked with Colvin and was with her when she died.

But Heineman said he hopes A Private War is able to reach a wider audience to continue Colvin’s mission of getting people “to stop and to care and to think about the world we’re living in”.

“[Marie] really gave a voice to the voiceless and I hope the film in some small way carries on what she tried to do,” he said.

Heineman took on A Private War after its producers approached him following the release of his documentary Cartel Land about the Mexican drug war.

He said: “My mum was a journalist, my background was in journalism so it spoke to me in a very profound way and it just felt like it was a film that I had to make.”

He said that, “like her”, he has also carried a lot of what he has seen back home. His most recent documentary City of Ghosts followed a handful of media activists in Syria, going behind enemy lines.

“Although I never knew her myself I just felt quite close to her,” Heineman said.

Colvin’s family were shown A Private War at a private screening before the film’s premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September, and Heineman said her sister Cathleen’s reaction  was “one of the greatest compliments”.

He said she messaged him days afterwards, saying: “Even for a couple of hours I felt like I had Marie back”.

Rosamund Pike with Syrian refugees during the filming of A Private War. Picture: Altitude Films

Although Heineman took some artistic licence with Colvin’s story, due to the nature of making a feature-length film, he said his “north star every step along the way was Marie”.

“It was her truth and her emotional truth, and that I never tried to veer from, ever.

“Ultimately I tried to be as authentic to her and the warzones that she visited and the people that she spent time with as possible, painstakingly so to be honest – down to the type of rug in the media centre to the type of cloth that she wore when she was blown up in Sri Lanka, to the way Rosamund studied how she tensed her neck, to make-up and hair.”

Even the minor and background actors in the warzone scenes, filmed in Jordan in late 2017, were cast from real refugees from each location, including Iraq and Syria. Some of them told their real-life stories of war and loss while being filmed and “interviewed” by Pike as Colvin.

“Every single detail, every single pixel of every single frame of every single second mattered to me and an amazing crew in all the different departments working day and night for months trying to make the film as accurate and believable as possible,” Heineman said.

A Private War is in cinemas from 15 February.

Picture: Altitude Films

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