Acclaimed documentary filmmaker MATT HEINEMAN has devoted much of his career to exploring the darker side of humanity—war, drug cartels, terrorism. We caught up with the BRUNSWICK GRAD following the Greenwich International Film Festival screening of his first feature film, A PRIVATE WAR, and quickly learned that his dedication to telling the tough stories is stronger than ever
While making A Private War, a feature film about the celebrated war correspondent Marie Colvin, who was killed during the Syrian Civil War in 2012, director Matthew Heineman enlisted Iraqi, Libyan and Syrian refugees to play small but important roles in the belief that only they could deliver the authenticity required. In one scene, Iraqi women weep and wail as a backhoe claws up the desert dust to reveal a mass grave. “These women were reliving real trauma,” Heineman tells us from his apartment in New York. “Those tears and those wails were real, and at the end of that day, when the sun was setting and the bodies had been unearthed, they started pounding on their chests and doing this prayer for the dead. That wasn’t scripted—that wasn’t planned.”
Late in the film, Colvin, played by Rosamund Pike, has snuck into the city of Homs to cover the Assad regime’s bombing of its own citizens. Colvin and her photographer, Paul Conroy, played by Jamie Dornan, enter a makeshift clinic where a man has brought his badly injured boy. The man playing the father was an actual refugee from Homs who Heineman discovered while filming in Jordan. “This man’s two-year-old nephew was shot off his shoulders at a protest in Homs and bled out right in front of him,” Heineman reports. So when the little boy in the film dies and the man shouts, “Wake up, my son! Why, God, why?” he is a vision of authentic pain. “The trauma and grief that he brought onto the set were almost unbearable.”
The scene so disturbed Rosamund Pike that she walked off the set. Consider: Pike has acted brilliantly in more than thirty feature films and earned an Oscar nomination for her performance in Gone Girl (2014). And Heineman, by contrast, was a Hollywood rookie: A Private War, which came out last fall, was his first dramatic film. Yet he wasn’t really a rookie. In the comparatively hardscrabble world of documentaries, Heineman was a supernova, “one of the most talented and exciting documentary filmmakers working today,” according to a Sundance Film Festival jury. Cartel Land (2015), a spellbinding film about vigilantes doing battle against the Mexican drug cartels, won Heineman an Emmy Award and an Oscar nomination. His next doc, City of Ghosts (2017), which follows citizen journalists as they expose the horrors of ISIS in their home city of Raqqa, Syria, earned him another Emmy nomination. If Heineman knew one thing well, it was the piercing rawness of a true moment on film—the sort of moment that can’t be scripted. “I tried to bring as much of my documentary ethos to the narrative process as possible,” he says. On the set, that meant creating “an environment where real life could occur.” Still, A Private War wasn’t a documentary, and something in the clinic scene aroused Pike’s moral antennae.
“I’m not sure I can handle this,” Heineman recalls her saying. “The lines between documentary and fiction are so blurred. Are we exploiting this man?”
Reached by phone, Rosamund Pike confirms the story. “The man was obviously transported back, and the grief that came out of him was so painful and so extraordinary—sort of this howl of a cry. And I thought, My God, is this okay, what we’re doing?”
She describes the man’s bewildered look as the doctor—who really was a doctor—pumps the boy’s chest in vain. “It’s like you forget the cameras are there, and it’s almost like you’re in something that’s horribly and horrifically real,” Pike says. “You know, this is cinema, but this is trading on people’s real stuff. As actors, we often live through real stuff again, but we understand it’s coming—we know that we dice with our emotions for a living, and sometimes they play you hard.” She pauses. “But this man is not an actor.”
On the set, Pike needed time to collect herself. “I felt a kind of cocktail of emotion that I couldn’t fully process, a combination of anger, upset… I didn’t know where to put my feelings.”
Heineman drew her aside. “I said, ‘This is something I deal with on a daily basis in my documentaries. And our job, as was Marie’s job, is to capture those moments.’” He went on, “We have this human instinct to want to give somebody a hug or to give them space. But if this man didn’t want to be here, he wouldn’t be here. He wants his story told.”
“Actually,” Pike says now, “I think that’s absolutely right—if you’re after the truth, your obligation is to document, as Marie did.” The moment sealed a bond of trust between director and lead actor. “He was a total support,” Pike continues. “You know, there’s a lot of crap about trust in our business. Everyone’s always saying they trust each other. But I really did trust Matt, and that’s why I went deeper. You have to trust someone in order to go to the really painful places.”
Likewise, Marie Colvin’s theory of war reporting was to go to the painful places—the human places, where the innocent suffered; only then could you capture war’s brutality with enough righteous force to gain the world’s notice. “There are great journalists who do the geopolitics, there are great journalists who do the military aspect of war,” photographer Paul Conroy tells us from London. “But both Marie and I thought the best way to bring home the horror of war is from the people who have the least ability to avoid it—the women and the kids.”
Conroy, who was badly injured in Homs, watched much of the filming on location in Jordan as a consultant; but he hadn’t viewed the final scene. In it, the Syrian forces deliberately target Colvin (who, hours before, had reported live via satellite link that Assad was bombing civilians and lying about it) and score a direct hit on the makeshift media center where she’s sequestered, killing Marie and French photographer Rémi Ochlik. Conroy, a hole blown through his leg, finds Marie dead in the rubble. Then the camera pulls upward, into the sky, and we see a vision of apocalyptic destruction spread out before us.
In a London screening room, Jamie Dornan said to Conroy, “You don’t have to see this.” But he stayed. “It kind of caught me when I was watching it,” Conroy says. “I was emotional. And all I said to Matt was, ‘Look mate, I really need a cigarette before I comment.’ So I popped out for a smoke and I came back in and gave him a big hug. And I said, ‘Well done, mate. You really did us proud.’”
THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST
Matt Heineman never set out to be a filmmaker. “I sort of stumbled into it,” he says. “I didn’t know a lot about film.” Born in Washington, D.C., he grew up in Darien in a family of lawyers and intellectuals. His grand-father, Ben W. Heineman, was an adviser to President Lyndon B. Johnson who declined Johnson’s offers to make him ambassador to the United Nations and secretary of commerce, but, keenly interested in social justice, did serve as chairman of the White House Conference on Civil Rights. Matt’s father, Ben Jr., was a Rhodes scholar, editor-in-chief of the Yale Law Journal and law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart. Today he’s a writer and a senior fellow at Harvard Law School. Matt’s mother, Cristine Russell, is also a writer, specializing in science and the environment, and a lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School. (The Heinemans live in New Canaan when they’re not teaching at Harvard.)
In 2001 Matt graduated from Brunswick—enhancing the private high school’s reputation for turning out filmmakers. Rod Lurie (The Contender, the TV show Commander in Chief) and Neil Burger (The Illusionist, The Upside) graduated from Brunswick in the 80s. After studying history at Dartmouth, Heineman applied to Teach for America, a nonprofit that sends talented teachers into low-income areas, but was, providentially, rejected. “I didn’t even know you could be rejected,” he says with a short laugh. “From there I was sort of left scratching my head.”
So Heineman did what many an untethered young American does: hit the road with friends. He brought along a video camera and learned how to use it with the aid of a trusty how-to guide. More enterprising than your average person, Heineman conducted interviews throughout his three-month tour—with everyone from low-level drug dealers to cancer researchers to Mark Zuckerberg—and shaped these interviews into a documentary portrait of his generation titled Our Time. One moment of creative awakening came in New Orleans, shortly after Hurricane Katrina, as Heineman followed a man back into the devastated Ninth Ward to see what remained of his house. “They’d just opened the Ninth Ward to residents, so he was going to see it for the first time—and I’ll never forget the power of this very intimate, emotional moment for this man, and being able to capture it through my lens,” Heineman says. “I look back at that moment as when I knew that this was something I wanted to do forever.”
Next, Heineman (with noted documentary filmmaker Susan Froemke) made Escape Fire: The Fight To Rescue American Healthcare (2012). The film lucidly depicts the United States’ healthcare dysfunction and showcases Heineman’s love of complex subjects. But even as he gained filmmaking expertise—Escape Fire won him his first Emmy nomination—Heineman never seemed to think of himself as a creature of the movies. He utters a sentence that’s hard to imagine any other filmmaker uttering: “I am by no means a cinephile.” Okay, but what films are his bellwethers, his north stars?—Citizen Kane? The Godfather? Pulp Fiction? He hems. He haws. He says, “I’d be lying if I said I got into film because of X, Y, or Z.”
One film that did make a mark was the celebrated 2005 documentary Murderball, about quadriplegic men who play extremely competitive wheelchair rugby. “I remember thinking, Wow, documentaries aren’t always the sort of medicine I remember seeing in history class,” he says. “They can be exciting, they can have characters that pop off the screen, they can have narrative arcs, and all the same drama that features have.”
A MATTER OF TRUST
Headlights chop through the Mexican night, illuminating a wasteland of sagebrush. Masked young men carrying assault rifles pile out into the darkness and roll barrels full of chemicals off the bed of their truck. Amid a cloud of fumes, they cook up a batch of crystal meth destined for the American market. “What can I say?” the leader asks in Spanish, throwing his hands in the air. “We come from poverty. If we were doing well, we’d be like you, traveling the world and doing good, clean jobs.”
This is the opening scene of Cartel Land; you can hardly believe these guys allowed Heineman to record them. “That was months and months and months and months of building trust and gaining rapport,” he says of the film, and by extension, of his method. Only dogged persistence allows him to be present for such telling scenes. At one point, we see grieving villagers lowering the caskets of murdered children into dusty graves. At another, we land smack in the middle of a gunfight between vigilantes and cartel members (it’s Heineman holding the camera as the bullets fly). At still another, we see (well, hear; the camera is at a discreet remove) the postcoital love talk between the charismatic but married leader of the vigilantes—Dr. José Manuel Mireles—and the hot young groupie he has shamelessly picked up.
Overall, we see an intricate, morally uncertain story unfold through Heineman’s poetic lens. There’s the vigilante in southern Arizona who fashions himself an American David versus the Mexican Goliath, though we only see him chasing a couple of desperate aliens around a very quiet Western front. Deep in Mexico, where the real Goliath is, there’s a police force both cowed and corrupted by the cartels. There are the vigilantes who resort to criminal tactics—including torture—to try to bring drug dealers to heel. And there’s the film’s putative hero, Mireles, the “good” vigilante whose fame ultimately goes to his head; when he refuses to disarm, the government claps him in jail.
In City of Ghosts, we always know who the bad guys are. What’s complicated is the situation: It all began during the Arab Spring of 2011 as Syrian citizens rose up in protest against the brutal Assad regime. When the regime responded to even small acts of defiance—like graffiti writing—with torture and killing, civil war erupted, with powerful proxies on both sides: Russia, Iran and Hezbollah supported Assad; and the U.S., France, UK, Turkey and Saudi Arabia backed the citizen rebels. Ramping up the complexity to a hellish degree, ISIS then waded in, establishing itself in Raqqa and creating a three-way war.
But it’s the good guys who we follow—the citizen journalists collectively known as “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently,” or RBSS. They try to stay one step ahead of ISIS but don’t always succeed. Some are caught filming and killed. Others remain undercover in Raqqa, at great peril: ISIS’s white vans roam the streets, ferreting out satellite signals. RBSS cofounder Naji Jerf, a professional newsman known as the father of Syria’s citizen journalists, is hunted down in Turkey and murdered in broad daylight.
Weaving together his own footage with RBSS’s, Heineman gives us startling access to the inferno that was Raqqa. We see people executed at gunpoint in Freedom Square; we see their heads mounted on the pikes of a fence like so many pumpkins; we see a little boy knifing off the head of his teddy bear—a jihadi in training, not yet out of diapers. As one RSBB journalist put it, “Children are ISIS’s firewood.”
One of the most disturbing scenes, however, takes place in Germany, where a handful of RBSS journalists have been granted asylum after ISIS began killing them in Turkey. We’ve come to know these young men in all their bravery, humanity and suffering—and yet they find, in the orderly streets of Berlin, masses of anti-refugee demonstrators waving black flags and chanting, “Deport them, deport them!” and “These pigs will learn to run!”—a chilling echo of America’s own nativist drift. The Syrians answer the demonstrators with quiet dignity, holding signs that say “Aleppo Is Burning.” “No other film has so convincingly, or so urgently, illustrated the role that media will play in our fight for the future,” wrote David Ehrlich of IndieWire.
Documentary filmmakers seldom cross over into feature films, perhaps because features are a different animal. They require scripts, actors, sets, storyboards, a shooting schedule and a crew of hundreds. Still, after the success of Cartel Land and City of Ghosts, the Hollywood offers came in and were rejected—until A Private War. “I felt an enormous kinship to Marie,” Heineman says. “Similarly to her, in my career I’ve tried to take very complicated subjects and put a human face on them.” (The Greenwich International Film Festival recognized just this quality in 2017, when City of Ghosts won Best Social Impact Film. Heineman donated the $10,000 prize to RBSS, according to Ginger Stickel, the festival’s executive director.)
Artistically, the challenge was to create a truthful dramatic narrative while avoiding the sort of base-touching fidelity to biographical events that renders so many biopics flat. “I did not want to make a biopic,” Heineman says. “For me, the film is a psychological thriller in which we’re coming to understand what’s driving this woman to go to the most dangerous places on earth to tell these stories.”
TELLING THE STORY OF THE STORYTELLERS
Marie Colvin, born in Queens, raised on Long Island and schooled at Yale, spent most of her career reporting from conflict zones for the London Sunday Times. In 2001, while covering a civil war in Sri Lanka, she was sneaking through a cashew plantation at night when a grenade detonated, puncturing a lung and blinding her left eye. From then on she wore a black eyepatch that enhanced her swashbuckling reputation: She also drank, smoked, and cursed, all in profusion, and wore delightfully incongruous La Perla bras under her flak jacket.
She was not immune to the demons of war; at one point she had to be hospitalized for PTSD. Yet she always threw herself back into the fray. Why? It’s clear that Colvin is profoundly moved by the plight of war’s innocents and angered, or at least worried, by a jaded public’s indifference: “These are not just numbers,” she’d say. “I want to tell each person’s story.” But the deeper motivations remain properly mysterious—properly, because Colvin herself struggles to understand them. The film shows her living it up among her friends in London until the old itch inevitably takes hold, and then she’s off to another horror show.
Paul Conroy surmises that covering war was “just in Marie’s DNA.” Her thirty-year career took her to Chechnya, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, East Timor, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, among other warring places. But nothing compared to Homs. “We knew what we were getting into,” Conroy says, “because back in Beirut [before crossing into Syria] we logged on to the camera that was on the roof of the media center, and we could see quite clearly the destination we were heading to—you know, just wrecked to pieces by shells.”
Homs was physically cut off from the world by a full division of the Syrian Army. There existed, however, a secret route into the city through a three-kilometer-long storm drain; Marie and Paul scraped and hunched through it, emerging into the Baba Amr neighborhood as it shook under ferocious bombardment.
Did Colvin have second thoughts about coming to Syria? “Categorically, no,” says Conroy. “She would never have been deterred. The best way to explain that is, Marie turned to me and said, ‘Why should we run? They can’t run’—[about] the women and the kids that we found in Baba Amr.”
Marie customarily filed her stories on Friday. On Tuesday, February 21, the air strikes grew so savage and the deaths so numerous that she and Paul understood they probably wouldn’t live until Friday: Reporting on the civilian slaughter in Homs became an immediate necessity. “That led to the decision that we ought to do broadcasts on CNN, BBC and [Britain’s] Channel Four,” Conroy says. “We spoke to the activists and said, ‘Look, if we report this live, we’ll likely bring recriminations, bad recriminations.’ And they said, ‘That’s why we’re here. Go ahead and broadcast.’ Six hours later Marie was dead.” She was fifty-six years old. (This January a U.S. court determined that Colvin was indeed deliberately killed—the “bracketing” pattern of the rocket fire suggested a zeroing in—and ordered the Syrian government to pay Colvin’s family $302.5 million. The judgment could pave the way for prosecuting the Assad regime for war crimes.)
It would be easy to sanctify Marie Colvin in death: Her bravery and her devotion to victims of war do strike average mortals as superhuman. But A Private War resists that temptation. Rosamund Pike, nominated for a Golden Globe for her portrayal, says, “I wanted to put a woman on the screen who had all the complications—a courageous, brilliant, impassioned, committed person, but one who has flaws.” That Heineman had never worked with actors before was no drawback in Pike’s eyes; in fact, she came to view his documentary approach as a distinct asset. “I knew Matt Heineman would be the one to take an unflinching look at her, and not just give us hagiography.”
“In none of my films am I interested in creating one-dimensional portraits of people,” Heineman adds. “We are all complex human beings, driven by myriad emotions, feelings and thoughts. And so it’s always been very important to me to embrace the complexity of the human condition.”
In the broader view, A Private War—which is based on a 2012 article in Vanity Fair magazine by Marie Brenner—makes a timely case for journalism. “In one way or another, journalism is under fire,” says Conroy, citing President Trump’s ritual defamation of the press, the Saudis’ brazen, largely unpunished murder of the Washington Post’s Jamal Khashoggi, and the sheer number of journalists killed on the job (eighty-four last year) or imprisoned (about 330 as of March).
“For me,” says Heineman, “the film is not just an homage to Marie, but also to journalism—the importance of journalism, true journalism—to people who are out there fighting to shed light on dark corners of the world.”
The depressing coda to Colvin’s story is that, seven years later, the Syrian Civil War drones on, with Bashar al-Assad still solidly in power. “I think she’d be devastated,” says Heineman. “I doubt she ever would have thought the conflict would persist until today, with over half a million people killed since she died.” Conroy agrees, but adds: “If she had survived, there’s no way on this planet she wouldn’t be there now.”
THE NEXT WAVE
Heineman has been working without cease for years. When we talked to him, the unmarried thirty-six-year-old was “actively trying to rest,” but confessed he isn’t much good at it. He hopes to do some surfing in Los Angeles. But he speaks of surfing in a slightly longing tone that suggests he won’t get to it anytime soon—not with all the demands of a career in full bloom upon him. Last year, in addition to A Private War, he completed a documentary series about America’s opioid crisis for the Showtime program The Trade; now he’s at work on a second series, about human trafficking. Further, he’s developing two new feature and two new documentary projects about which he is not ready to divulge particulars.
This January, Heineman did pause long enough to visit town for a sold-out screening of A Private War, hosted by the Greenwich International Film Festival. “It felt exciting and strange and fun to be back,” he says. “It was really nice to screen for friends and family, and old teachers, and a lot of people that I hadn’t seen for a while.” The event put him in a reflective mood. “When I was twenty-one years old, I heard [the renowned documentary filmmaker] Albert Maysles speak,” Heineman told his audience. “And he said, ‘If you end up with the story you started with, then you weren’t listening along the way.’ And I think that’s good advice for filmmaking and good advice for life as well. Be open to the story changing. Be open to the wonderful, happy accidents of life. If you told me when I was at Brunswick that I would be where I am right now, I’d laugh.”