On February 22, 2012, London Times foreign correspondent Marie Colvin and her photographer Paul Conroy were in the ground floor of a multi-story building in Baba Amr, a neighborhood in Homs, Syria, that was being used as a press center when a shell scored a direct hit that left her dead and Conroy badly wounded. Two new films are focused on their experience as the last foreign journalists reporting from Homs that was the first of the liberated areas to be reconquered by the regime mostly as a result of the asymmetric warfare that has drowned the revolution in blood. “A Private War” that opens in NY, Washington, and Los Angeles theaters today (screening information: https://www.aprivatewarfilm.com/) is a narrative film with biopic elements hoping to explain how a 56-year old woman with bad knees could have ended up in such a precarious situation. “Under the Wire”, a documentary that opens at Village East Cinema on November 16th, is much more Paul Conroy’s story and serves as a complement to the narrative film. Watching the two in tandem will remind you of the need for an independent press that is committed to telling the story of people under siege, particularly the women and children who Colvin made it her life’s mission to defend through her journalism.
Within five minutes, “A Private War” begins painting the portrait of a woman who lived on the edge. Chain-smoking, boozing late into the night, and using profanities that would make a truck driver or a hip-hop artist blush, Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike) is a larger-than-life personality whose patch covering her left eye accentuated her desperado image. One gets the sense that someone with such a self-destructive streak might have died long before Baba Amr, if journalism on behalf of the weak and the defenseless had not given her a reason to live. Without that mission, she might have been a casualty of booze in the same way that drugs caused Jimi Hendrix or Janice Joplin to die young.
Colvin certainly was a product of those turbulent days. Someone who smoked pot and went to Washington for Vietnam antiwar protests, she was not that much different from other Yalies like the Clintons. Unlike them, her goal was to use her talents for the common good rather than private gain. Of course, the coveted position of writing features for the London Times that allowed her to live in a townhouse on the Thames could not be overlooked.
The film depicts her as someone who liked “living large”. She enjoyed the prestige that attended her body of work covering conflicts all across the planet and was not loath to remind other reporters lower in the pecking order who was on top. In one scene, she is in Iraq in the early 2000s listening in on an American officer giving embedded journalists their marching orders about where they can and cannot go. She tells Conroy not to pay him any attention. They will go where the story leads them. In this instance, it is a mass grave of Saddam’s victims. This scene, as a number of others, closely adheres to the actual event as it was filmed in “Under the Wire”.
Both films are filled with graphic depictions of the wounds suffered by both journalists, some so grievous that you cannot help but cover your eyes. On April 16, 2001, Colvin was with a group of Tamil Tiger guerrillas in Sri Lanka crouching down after they came under fire from government forces. Worried that she might be killed, she took the risk of standing up and yelling “Journalist, journalist” to protect herself. Instead, they fired an RPG at her that punctured a lung and damaged her left eye permanently. Over a long career, Colvin took enormous risks to gather material for a story. If you are tempted to conclude that some kind of death-wish led her to places like Sri Lanka or Baba Amr, you should be reminded that this is the way that war correspondents operated for most of the 20thcentury. For example, Bernard Fall was killed by a landmine while accompanying United States Marines on a patrol in 1967.
Whatever your position was on Syria, you have to wonder about the tendency of some reporters to act as if there was no story worth covering in rebel-held territory. Being a correspondent might have meant staying at a four-star hotel in Damascus and being embedded with the Syrian army. If fear of losing one’s life to a barrel bomb or missile explains this, it is understandable but if it was ideological bias, then it is unforgivable.
“A Private War” was directed by Matthew Heinmann, who has only made documentaries in the past, including “City of Ghosts” that I reviewed for CounterPunch last year. It documents the takeover of Raqqa by ISIS, a brutal and totalitarian conquest that was just as much of a blow to the revolution as the bombs that fell on Baba Amr. Like “A Private War” and “Under the Wire”, it identifies with the young and idealistic activists who were swamped under by Islamist militias that had little interest in the democratic goals of the Arab Spring.
One of these activists from Baba Amr figures heavily in “Under the Wire”. Wa’el is a man in perhaps his early 30s who has a stylish beard and a man bun. He looks for all the world like a graduate student at Columbia but for all we know, he could have just been an ordinary citizen of Baba Amr. As head of the media desk, he worked closely with Colvin and Conroy and much of what makes “Under the Wire” so valuable is his testimony.
When Colvin broached the subject with Wa’el of working for the London Times as her assistant, he politely refused. Why? He explains that he had seen too many Syrian activists become subservient to the foreign press after going on their payroll. He would be happy to work with Colvin—thrilled really—but only under the condition that he works for free. Wa’el was like many of the people who constituted the vanguard of the Syrian uprising. They were idealistic, brave and committed to peaceful change. In driving them out of the country or killing them, Assad has only succeeded in sealing the doom of his own country. When the choice is sycophantism and an early grave, most people will just pick up and move to Europe or some other region as Wa’el did years ago. If they are the best of the youth who had the courage to speak up, who will help Syria navigate the desperate conditions that faces it—a combination of economic and ecological ruin fostered by Baathist misrule.
This is really Wa’el and Conroy’s film. We only hear briefly from Colvin who is increasingly overwhelmed by the desperate situation they face. In keeping with her long-standing commitment to those living under siege conditions, she convinces Conroy to return to Baba Amr to file one last dispatch before seeking refuge from relentless bombing. The only way to reach the neighborhood is to walk through a dark, miles-long drainage pipe that is so close to the ground that you need to stoop to make your way. After Conroy is wounded, he is borne through the same tunnel under conditions that would haunt him through the rest of his life. The time spent in this unfortunate town might have even broken the spirit of Marie Colvin if she had not succumbed to Assad’s bombs.
Ironically, director Chris Martin’s last film was co-directed by John Pilger, the 2007 “The War on Democracy” that detailed American intervention in Latin America that can be seen on Vimeo for free. I am positive that it will help make sense of Brazil, Venezuela, and Honduras. Of course, I find it regrettable that Pilger has failed to make the effort to understand what motivated someone like Wa’el to oppose Assad but his past work stands on its own merits.
We learn that Marie Colvin kept a copy of Martha Gellhorn’s The Face of War everywhere she went like some people carried bibles. This was a collection of newspaper articles by one of the 20thcentury’s most celebrated war correspondents who was also Ernest Hemingway’s third wife. (A film titled “Hemingway and Gellhorn” can be seen on Amazon but it was rated only 50% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. Caveat emptor.) As she approached 80, Gellhorn began to slow down physically but not enough to prevent her from covering the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989.
It is a shame that Colvin died so young. Since the London Times is behind a paywall, you were not likely to see her articles being aggregated on the leftwing of the Internet—of course, the bias toward Assad probably had a lot to do with that. Her last dispatch from Baba Amr on February 19th, 2012 before her death reveals the loss to journalism and, more broadly, human rights in general left in her wake:
They call it the widows’ basement. Crammed amid makeshift beds and scattered belongings are frightened women and children trapped in the horror of Homs, the Syrian city shaken by two weeks of relentless bombardment.
Among the 300 huddling in this wood factory cellar in the besieged district of Baba Amr is 20-year-old Noor, who lost her husband and her home to the shells and rockets.
“Our house was hit by a rocket so 17 of us were staying in one room,” she recalls as Mimi, her three-year-old daughter, and Mohamed, her five-year-old son, cling to her abaya.
“We had had nothing but sugar and water for two days and my husband went to try to find food.” It was the last time she saw Maziad, 30, who had worked in a mobile phone repair shop. “He was torn to pieces by a mortar shell.”
For Noor, it was a double tragedy. Adnan, her 27-year-old brother, was killed at Maziad’s side.
Everyone in the cellar has a similar story of hardship or death. The refuge was chosen because it is one of the few basements in Baba Amr. Foam mattresses are piled against the walls and the children have not seen the light of day since the siege began on February 4. Most families fled their homes with only the clothes on their backs.