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Mapping 'Human Heart' Proves an Epic Task : Movies: Vincent Ward traveled to the Arctic and beyond to make his film about two children whose lives are forever changed by a map maker.


"Map of the Human Heart" represents the high point of New Zealand-born filmmaker Vincent Ward's offbeat 15-year career.

It's a passionate love story, starring Jason Scott Lee as a half-Inuit, half-English youth; Anne Parillaud as a half French-Canadian, half-American Indian girl, and Patrick Bergin as an English cartographer.

With locales in the Arctic, Montreal and London and featuring a terrifyingly authentic re-creation of the bombing of Dresden, it has a truly epic scale.

As it turned out, the obstacles in filming "Map of the Human Heart," which opens citywide Friday, far exceeded those encountered in Ward's best-known film, the allegorical "The Navigator," a 1988 release depicting a group of medieval types burrowing their way through the center of the Earth.

Ward's work on this beguiling fable and on his first feature, "Vigil," a 1984 film celebrating nature in its eternal cycle of life and death as experienced by an imaginative, isolated New Zealand farm girl, was but a warm-up for his astonishing "Map of the Human Heart." The film opened the Palm Springs International Film Festival in January after having been shown in rough cut at Cannes in May, 1992.

Ward, who by age 24 had completed two short films, "A State of Siege" and "In Spring One Plants Alone," has made Sydney his base since making "The Navigator," the first Australian-New Zealand co-production. More than four years ago, the peripatetic director, whose writing credits include the story for "Alien," went up to the Arctic to begin research for "Map of the Human Heart."

Over breakfast, Ward, a dark-haired man with chiseled features and an easygoing sense of humor, recalled his many experiences with the Inuit.

"I popped into an open boat with an Inuit family--they prefer to be called that rather than Eskimo," Ward said. "I spent six days with them on the open sea and camping on the rocks. It's a great way to get to know people. I had just wanted to go up there on a visit--I had an anthropologist friend who had lived up there a long time. But disparate ideas started to jell, and when I went back to Australia I started writing a story about longing and loss. It was about an extraordinary bond between two children . . . that affects them the rest of their lives."

But, Ward, who collaborated with Australian playwright and novelist Louis Nowra, would come to draw much inspiration from his parents' own love story. His mother, now in her late 60s, was born in Hamburg to wealth as a German Jew whose family emigrated to Israel in 1932 when she was 8.

His father, who died at 84 during the shooting of "Map of the Human Heart," was a fourth-generation New Zealander of Irish Catholic descent--Ward was raised in his father's religion. His parents met in Egypt while both were serving in the British Army during World War II. "As a child my mother lived in a home with servants, but for her first two years in New Zealand she lived with my father, who was a farmer, in a one-room hut on wheels.

"But then I decided to change the hero to an Inuit. Then I started getting other ideas. I share a passion for maps with my anthropologist friend. To map someone else's territory is always the first step in possessing someone else's land--it's an almost sexual thing. My story became about how a white cartographer who came to map the Arctic affected the course of the lives of two children. There would be a collision between his way--European, scientific, logical--and the Inuit way, which is intuitive.

"In Inuit art the point of view always seems to be from the sky--like a map. Why? Because the Arctic is a vast, featureless area. You have to remember trails and landmarks in order to survive; you have to have a sense of the terrain as seen from above."

As the film, which spans some 30 years, unfolds the urge to conquer territory and the human heart, as personified by Bergin's character, the film employs a variety of map imagery--X-rays, the Lacombe Ladder (a chart by which a severe nun, Jeanne Moreau, reminds her young pupils how easy it is to go straight to hell) and actual maps, so crucial in World War II bombings.

Ward's film may be, on the personal level, a "map of love"--to use his description, but it is also strongly anti-war, anti-imperialist and pro-ecology. Ward's hero, played by Lee, an actor of Hawaiian-Chinese descent, has to learn that the human heart can need a map all of its own.

Whereas on the one hand "Map of the Human Heart" is complex emotionally, psychologically and ethnically, it was an ordeal to make, involving location-hunting in the Arctic during minus 45-degree weather--"so cold your eyelashes could start to freeze shut within two minutes." Ward had a scary moment when he broke his eye goggles. "But we never took chances," he said emphatically. "I am very careful about that: We spent half a million dollars on safety precautions."

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