The director Renny Harlin and star Andy Garcia talk about art imitating life in their new film on Georgia's 2008 war with Russia.
Playing with crossfire: Renny Harlin on making 5 Days of War
What happens when a renowned director of action movies portrays a real-life conflict? Until last year, the Finnish filmmaker Renny Harlin was best known for films with sensational themes. He had directed Bruce Willis in Die Hard 2, hung Sylvester Stallone from a great height in Cliffhanger and predated the current pirate craze with Cutthroat Island. But now Harlin, whose film before this was 12 Rounds, starring the American wrestler John Cena, is behind a different type of action film, one that draws on a very real conflict.
5 Days of War - also known as 5 Days of August in some countries - stars Rupert Friend as Thomas Anders, an American war journalist whose life is saved in Iraq by a Georgian soldier. Later, Anders goes to Georgia to cover the hostilities that erupted in 2008 between the former Soviet republic and its Russian neighbour. However, when he is caught in the crossfire as the conflict worsens, it becomes clear that his desire to report what's going on has now become a fight for survival. Joining Friend in the cast is Andy Garcia, who portrays the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili.
The film's cast is littered with well-regarded actors: Friend, the rising British star of films such as The Young Victoria and The Kid; the veteran Hollywood actor Val Kilmer; and Garcia. With many early reviews praising Garcia's performance, Harlin points out a curious moment of serendipity in the casting process.
"It was funny with Andy," the director recalls with a smile. "He not only looks like the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, he also happens to be his favourite actor."
"I heard about that," Garcia confirms. "I would hope that my casting was based on more than that, but it's nice to hear, going into a project."
Indeed, Harlin is full of praise for the American actor, who adds another side to his already diverse career, which has seen him act in films such as The Godfather 3 and The Untouchables. "We cast Andy because he's a great actor, I always wanted him for that part," Harlin explains. "With all of the cast, I knew whom I wanted, and I think we got everyone. I didn't want a huge star, or someone who would distract from the material; I wanted actors who could bring these roles to life and make it believable to an audience that this really happened. I think we found those actors, and I think it shows when you see the film that it doesn't feel fake. The emotion is there on the screen."
Garcia drew on the emotion of the real conflict to inform his performance. "It was difficult not to feel moved by what happened, but that made it easier to find the character and find the performance," the actor explains.
As with any film set in a real conflict, there is the obvious problem of dealing with potential bias in the way the story is told. From the beginning, this was always a concern of the director's. "Of course, I was concerned in some respects. Whenever you portray real-life events there are people who will accuse you of taking sides, of making one party the 'heroes' and the other the 'villains'. As an artist, and as a human being, you also have a point of view, so what we did was try to make a movie based on the facts."
One could argue that "facts" can be just as unreliable as opinion, given the adage that history is written by the victors. "Our film draws on facts published on UN and EU websites, which anyone can access for themselves," he insists, "but there will always be people who dispute certain points, that is art and that is life, and sometimes it's difficult to seek the truth when so many different versions of what happened exist."
So, why make the film when there is that minefield of ill-feeling and biased testimony? "What drove me on was the passion I felt for the project, after visiting the place, feeling what these people had been through, it became an important project for me, because the world didn't care very much. These people were crying out for help and not many people listened."
Garcia believes the film may serve as a warning as well as a learning experience for cinemagoers: "Hopefully, people will see this as an anti-war movie, something that shows the tragedy involved on a ground-level when nations are attacked, when it's not just on the news but on your street, happening right in front of you. I think we all hope that the message of the film is to respect individual freedoms of people around the world, and of sovereign states around the world."
The film centres on the world of war journalism, and Garcia is very impressed by the way the film handles the subject. "These aren't like sports journalists, or paparazzi, or even political journalists, who tend to observe what's going on in their field," he says. "War journalists are part of what's going on around them, they can't stand behind a screen and just watch. Lots of brave, intelligent people go into these conflicts and don't come back - often it isn't their fight, they're reporting for a country that isn't involved in the conflict, but they do it so the world can see what's going on, what wrongs are being committed around the world."
In making the central character, played by Friend, a war journalist, Harlin wanted to shine a light on the heroism that goes on daily by members of that profession. "What interested me was the unsung heroes of this war, the journalists, who put themselves in the worst possible situations to inform us, and bring us information. I don't think they get enough credit for what they do. We tried to tell their story because, even in this conflict, about six journalists were killed. We show their bravery and we try to portray what they do."
The film has enjoyed considerable success critically upon its release in other territories, with many praising Harlin's handling of the conflict in a way that is informative and palatable for today's mainstream audiences. Whether it's enough to bring the appropriate focus to this kind of event is debatable, but the director hopes it will go some way to raising awareness.
"There are many conflicts happening in the world, these days it happens more frequently - Egypt, Libya - so I don't know if any film can solve all that. But I hope this will go some way to showing people that this goes on, that people are suffering and still suffering in lots of countries. Working on this movie made me passionate about these issues, it made it more than just a job for me. So if this film can bring out a similar feeling in the people who watch it, then that is a good thing."
5 Days of War will show on screens across the UAE from Thursday