A tribute to war reporting
'Flowers' tells of the search for a missing reporter inside a battle zone
LOS ANGELES — Art can heal, says actress Andie MacDowell, who was unhappy about her life when she accepted the lead role of Sarah Lloyd in "Harrison's Flowers."
This is a film about a woman who travels to the former Yugoslavia to find her journalist husband, who has disappeared on assignment during the early days of a civil war.
"I was depressed when I started," the actress says. "I was happier in some weird way by the end of the filming, because I was able to put my life in perspective."
The film follows Sarah and two other photojournalists as they search for the missing husband and also find themselves documenting a brutal war. While the film hangs on MacDowell's determination to find her husband, given its release only weeks after the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl while on assignment in Pakistan, it is a particularly timely testament to the challenges faced by journalists during wartime.
"This is a tribute to all journalists who are dying," says French filmmaker Elie Chouraqui, who directed the movie. "I knew something like this would happen because journalists are putting themselves in these situations all the time."
While the timing is merely coincidental, Mr. Chouraqui says artists must anticipate reality all the time.
"An artist has to be in advance of the things that will happen in a culture," he says. "You have to sense that things are going a certain way to be able to tell of things that people need to know."
While the images are a powerful and an unflinching account of point-blank killings and mass murders that happened in the disintegrating Yugoslavia of 1991, Chouraqui says he is not trying to make an overtly political film.
"I'm not a journalist or a politician," he says. "I can only make a movie." However, Chouraqui adds that this choice can be equally powerful. "People will listen more easily to a filmmaker than a politician."
He hopes, like Ms. MacDowell, that people will view their lives differently after seeing the film.
"I would love people getting out of the theater to realize that they are living in peace and appreciate it," Chouraqui says. "This state may seem natural, but violence is more natural to the way we are. It takes an act of will ... to choose peace instead of war."
As with any film that tackles human behavior in wartime, "Harrison's Flowers" already has faced accusations of inaccuracy because of its stark portrayal of the depraved behavior by the advancing forces and its depiction of MacDowell's character as someone who wades into the midst of a war with little, if any, awareness of the gravity of her situation.
Chouraqui says a feature film is not a documentary. But that does not mean it is not truthful. "A good film is a true story because it gets to the essence of human behavior," he says.
For instance, he says, one scene that has been criticized as unrealistic in which journalists dressed in camouflage gear prepare to cross a battlefield is actually based on real people and events.
Another particularly emotional scene, which some suggest does not show the professionalism of a hardened reporter, depicts a photographer freezing when he comes under sniper fire. He is unable to move, and his companion is shot while rescuing him.
"That scene is actually based on real events that happened to an actual reporter," Chouraqui says.
Actor Adrien Brody, who plays the photographer who is shot, says many journalists have a sense that the world doesn't fully appreciate the role they play in conveying information about difficult or unpleasant events.
"My mother is a photojournalist," Mr. Brody says. "I can relate to these characters very easily."
Experienced journalists defend the depiction of the reporters and photographers in the film and the battles they witness.
"If anything, the atrocities are understated," says Sarah Harbutt, director of photography for Newsweek magazine, the publication for which MacDowell's character and her husband work.
Also, she says, the Sarah Lloyd character played by MacDowell begins her search before much is known about the civil war. She faces great physical vulnerability trying to communicate developments to the outside world, a situation many journalists in foreign countries face.
The timing of Mr. Pearl's death underlines the danger, Ms. Harbutt says. "The Pearl killing brings attention to the situation [that] the legitimate press faces in getting unpopular news out."