In November, 2010, Marie Colvin stood in St. Bride’s church, London – located on Fleet Street, it’s known as the journalists’ church – and talked about the story of war. She wore her distinctive eye patch, the legacy of a targeted grenade attack while covering the civil war in Sri Lanka, and a double row of pearls.
Conflict had changed over the years, The Sunday Times correspondent said, and become more technologically complex, but its consequences had not: “Craters. Burned houses. Mutilated bodies. Women weeping for children and husbands. Men for their wives, mothers children.”
The American journalist said that it was the war correspondent’s job to witness and record and question: “Our mission is to report these horrors of war with accuracy and without prejudice. We always have to ask ourselves whether the level of risk is worth the story. What is bravery, and what is bravado?”
Fourteen months later, she would be killed by Syrian government shelling in the besieged city of Homs alongside a French photographer, Rémi Ochlik. Her own long-time photographer and friend, Paul Conroy, was badly injured in the attack.
Ms. Colvin and Mr. Conroy had been smuggled into the city by members of the rebel Free Syrian Army. They were among the very last journalists in Homs, reporting on a situation so perilous that it rattled even a veteran correspondent who had spent her professional life in conflict zones. (Over the past seven years, 123 journalists have died in Syria according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.) And yet, for Ms. Colvin, it was essential to tell the world what she was seeing – families huddled in basements, dying children, a population under siege. Just hours before her death, she went on CNN to tell Anderson Cooper: “It’s a complete and utter lie that they’re only going after terrorists…. The Syrian army is shelling a city of cold, starving civilians.”
Her death shook the small world of war correspondents, but had reverberations far beyond. Then French president Nicolas Sarkozy called it murder. Ms. Colvin’s family launched a lawsuit against the Syrian government, claiming the attack was deliberate, and that she was targeted. The tragedy brought a new audience for her reporting, but there’s also no escaping the brutal fact that the war she died trying to publicize continues to rage on, six years later.
What is bravery, and what is bravado? Ms. Colvin asked that question and a trio of movies will attempt to answer that by examining her singular life, and the complexities she embodied. She was in many ways a personality perfectly designed for the big screen – sweary and tough, vulnerable and funny, a survivor of PTSD and countless war zones who loved her friends and beautiful clothes.
“She had complete confidence in her own abilities, but then at times intense vulnerabilities and self-doubt, moments of tremendous heroism and moments of utter collapse,” says actress Rosamund Pike, who plays Ms. Colvin in the new film A Private War. “She just lived with such big-hearted humanity, as well as fierceness. To keep going back, and see the things she saw.”
A Private War, which will screen at TIFF Friday and Sunday, is one of three films telling Ms. Colvin's story. Another biopic directed by Denmark’s Tobias Lindholm is in development. Finally, there is the new documentary Under the Wire, based on Paul Conroy’s memoir of their long-time collaboration.
Ms. Pike is a 39-year-old Brit, playing an American woman raised on Long Island who was 56 when she died. In her trailer on set, she surrounded herself with pictures of Ms. Colvin: The way the reporter always carried her notebook in her hand and not in her backpack; her body language as she interviewed Moammar Gadhafi, leaning forward expectantly while holding her shoulders back a little in resistance.
And in her ears, constantly, she played Ms. Colvin’s distinctive, low-pitched voice. “I love her voice,” says Ms. Pike, over the phone from London. “Her voice is so cool, the way she stressed words” – here the actress slips, perhaps unconsciously, into her subject’s American accent – “like war. It has a weight in her mouth that it doesn’t have in mine.”
“Of course,” says Ms. Pike with a laugh, “she also swore like a trooper.” That, too, is part of the Colvin legend – the swearing, the drinking, the disregard for expense reports or bureaucracy, the expensive lingerie worn in the crummiest war zone. And the dark, ever-present sense of humour.
Marie Brenner’s 2012 Vanity Fair profile, the source for the film’s script, offers one particularly amusing anecdote. In 1999, Ms. Colvin was reporting from the East Timor city of Dili. “For four days straight,” Ms. Brenner writes, “she broadcast the plight of 1,000 victims, mostly women and children, trapped in a siege that had killed thousands of Timorese. 'Who’s there? … Where have all the men gone?' her editor in London asked when she announced that she and two female Dutch journalists had stayed behind to help the stranded refugees. 'They just don’t make men like they used to,' she replied."
Ms. Colvin refused to abandon those civilians just as, 13 years later, she would be unwilling to abandon the people of Homs. Things she had witnessed, such as a baby dying in a makeshift clinic in the neighbourhood of Baba Amr, she needed to share. Shortly before she was killed, she wrote to her editor at The Sunday Times: "I feel strongly that we have to include these stories of the suffering of civilians to get the point across.” She sent an e-mail to a friend: “I did have a few moments when I thought, ‘What am I doing?’ Story incredibly important though.”
The fact that the story Ms. Colvin died to report is continuing, and largely ignored by the world, is not lost on Matthew Heineman, the director of A Private War.
“It was so tragic filming those scenes at the end of the movie,” Mr. Heineman says over the phone, as he’s putting the finishing touches on the film before its Toronto debut. “Knowing that despite all that she fought for, and all that she sacrificed in covering the horrible atrocities of Homs and Syria, it persists till today.”
For those scenes, which were filmed in Jordan, Mr. Heineman used Syrian refugees as actors, many of whom had survived the siege of Homs. “They weren’t shedding tears about some scripted event, they were telling their own real stories,” he says. “I wanted to create as authentic a picture as possible. And these amazing non-actors wanted this story to be told.”
Mr. Heineman has been, until now, a documentary filmmaker. His last film was City of Ghosts, about the anonymous collective of Syrian citizen journalists who call themselves Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently. For him, A Private War is a continuation of a project begun with the earlier film – to celebrate the work of journalists in the field, even as the number of war correspondents shrinks, due to budget cuts and safety concerns.
“To me the film is an homage obviously to Marie, but also to journalism. It’s especially important in this day and age where truth is malleable, and journalism is under attack. And it’s also an homage to the people of Syria and people everywhere in war zones who are simply caught in the crossfire.”
Mr. Heineman recently screened A Private War for Ms. Colvin’s family, who had initially been resistant to the project (her sister Cat told the website Deadline last year that the film’s script was “factually inaccurate,” and that the family would be cooperating with Mr. Lindholm on the rival film.) “It was an extraordinarily emotional experience,” he says. “It was nice to be able to share this with them.’’
Ms. Colvin’s story will soon be told from various angles. It will be shared with the world, and her work justly celebrated, even at the same moment that the stories she thought were truly important are far from the public imagination. As she said in St. Bride’s on that day in 2010, “The real difficulty is having enough faith in humanity to believe that enough people, be they government, military or the man on the street, will care when your file reaches the printed page, the website or the TV screen. We do have that faith, because we believe we do make a difference.”
Rosamund Pike and Matthew Heineman will appear at the second annual Tina Brown Women in the World Summit in Toronto on Sept. 10 at the Telus Centre. Other speakers include Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and IMF managing director Christine Lagarde. Tickets can be purchased on the Royal Conservatory web page, or watch it live at www.theglobeandmail.com starting at 1:00 p.m. ET.