On the eve of his return to campus last Friday, Matthew Heineman ’05 reflected on how much his life has changed since College. No longer a history major unsure of his future, Heineman arrived with a center-stage spot at the Hopkins Center for the Arts, facing a sellout crowd captivated by A Private War, his latest film. “It’s exciting,” he told us. “And it’s funny to be back in a completely different context.”
When Heineman graduated from Dartmouth in 2005, he’d hoped to be a teacher—but a rejection from Teach for America forced him to reconsider. So instead, with two Dartmouth friends (and a video camera) in tow, he embarked on a three-month trip around the country to interview young people about their lives. That was Heineman’s version of film school. Using footage from the trip he created Our Time, his first film.
After that, Heineman dove into filmmaking and never looked back. He worked on a series about Alzheimer’s for HBO and co-directed an Emmy-nominated documentary about American healthcare that premiered on CNN. He then directed two critically acclaimed documentaries: Cartel Land (2015), which chronicled vigilantes fighting cartels near the US-Mexico border, and City of Ghosts (2017), which followed a group of citizen-journalists documenting the horrors of ISIS-controlled Syria.
In the span of a few years, the young filmmaker garnered an Academy Award nomination, two BAFTA nominations, two Emmys, two Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary Awards from the DGA, and most recently, a nomination for Outstanding Directorial Achievement of a First Time Feature Filmmaker (making Heineman and Martin Scorsese the only filmmakers ever nominated for both narrative and documentary DGA Awards).
With A Private War, which screened at the Hop on Friday, Heineman has added a narrative film to his prolific resume. When he was originally approached with a draft of the script, it wasn’t the first time he’d been tapped to make a Hollywood film—but it was the first script to spark his interest. The film profiles journalist Marie Colvin, who went to great lengths to expose the horrors of war during a storied career before she was killed in Syria in 2012.
Having spent extensive time filming in conflict zones himself, Heineman felt an immediate connection to the story. “I empathized with Marie Colvin and her desire to humanize conflicts around the world, which is something I’ve tried to do in my career,” he said. “I empathized with the effects those experiences had on her, how she carried them with her when she got home.”
And so instead of venturing out with a camera solo or with a small group as he had previously, Heineman was surrounded by a massive crew and Hollywood stars like Rosamund Pike and Jamie Dornan. Yet drawing from his documentary background helped Heineman imbue the film with its much-lauded sense of raw authenticity. For example, he hired real Syrian refugees as extras, some of whom even veered off-script to tell their own true stories. “I try to make my documentaries feel like narrative films, and in some way, I tried to make my first narrative film like a documentary,” he says.
Heineman admitted that not everything had changed since college; the curiosity that drives his films has always been there. “I had no idea I wanted to be a filmmaker,” he said. “But studying history, I was taught to be analytical. I had a general sort of curiosity about the world—which is part of the DNA of being a filmmaker.”
It reminds him of advice he heard early in his career during a talk from filmmaker Albert Mayles: “If you end up with the story you started with, then you’re not listening along the way.” That’s been Heineman’s ethos: “to allow the story to evolve, to be open to the wonderful accidents of life and not be dogmatic or rigid,” he said. “It’s something I held true to my heart every step of the way in my documentary career—and when making this film.”