Giving the guys a lesson in true grit

Two female directors show their mettle with tales of war and terrorism
The Hurt Locker

Forget the blockbusters. The most exciting movie of the summer is not Public Enemies or Terminator Salvation or The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3. It’s a tough little film called The Hurt Locker, Kathyrn Bigelow’s nail-biting thriller about an American bomb disposal squad in Baghdad. Strangely, there are still very few female directors making mainstream movies, and the number of women directing films about war and terrorism is even more scarce. And yet, along comes another one—Fifty Dead Men Walking, which opens July 31.

Like The Hurt Locker, Fifty Dead Men Walking is a gritty suspense drama about a group of men who become walking targets in the chaos of urban guerrilla warfare, where battles are fought in residential neighbourhoods and no one can be trusted. It too is directed by a middle-aged woman, Ottawa-born filmmaker Kari Skogland. Her previous movie was The Stone Angel, an earnest adaptation of Margaret Laurence’s CanLit classic. But in watching the taut, visceral drama—starring Jim Sturgess as an IRA informant and Ben Kingsley as the British cop who recruits him—you’d never guess that this U.K. co-production is a Canadian movie, or that its director is a woman.

What gives these films a rare sting of authenticity is that they’re based on first-hand experience and shot on location, in or close to the trouble spots where the stories take place. Mark Boal, who wrote the The Hurt Locker, spent several weeks embedded with a U.S. bomb squad in Baghdad, and Bigelow (Blue Steel, Point Break) shot the film in Jordan, sometimes very close to the Iraq border—most movies about the war on terror tend to be shot in the safety of Morocco. “We were staging American soldiers shooting Muslims in a Palestinian refugee camp at three o’clock in the morning,” recalls Boal. “Some of the actors had rocks thrown at them,” adds Bigelow. “I was scared out of my wits every day. It’s such a lethal environment because the violence is so hard to predict—you don’t have an enemy in uniform and a pile of garbage can be used as a weapon.”

090722_benkingsleyAlso on Sir Ben Kingsley talks with Brian D. Johnson about the art of acting.

That sense of danger is palpable onscreen. That’s also the case with Fifty Dead Men Walking, the true story Martin McGartland, an IRA police informant in the ’80s who’s now in a witness protection program. The film was shot in the same Belfast neighborhoods that had been shattered by violence 20 yeas ago, and the wounds were still fresh (as is evident with the recent renewal of rioting in Belfast). While the onlookers were largely supportive, one night Sturgess was smacked in the head by a stone. “You suddenly realized,” says the young actor, “there were people there who still had a certain amount of feeling about what happened.” Still, filming in Belfast “was the special ingredient that brought the film to life,” says Kingsley.

Skogland navigated a tricky shoot with “great strength, intelligence and charm,” says Kingsley, who added that she brought a “a female eye to this tragedy, knowing that women and children are implicated.” The female perspective, he says, plays out beautifully: “At the centre of the film you have a baby being born. Then you see women and children in the streets, watching in doorways, sitting like a row of birds on a wall, and casually joining in the destruction, burning cars and property.”

Both Skogland and Bigelow preserve a kind of Swiss neutrality. “I am not making a political statement,” says Skogland. Meanwhile, Bigelow says The Hurt Locker “is not a partisan movie” but concedes that it is “inherently political—it shows how the best intentions can’t overcome the logistical nightmare of trying to occupy a country that doesn’t want you there.” But both women understood that the best anti-war movie is one that takes you there.