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BERLIN (Reuters) - Just before filming started on "Heart of Fire," most of the cast quit out of fear. Since completion, the movie has been under attack, its lead actress is seeking asylum in Europe, but the makers are unrepentant.
The movie by Italian director Luigi Falorni about a young girl's experience as a child soldier in Eritrea has been criticized for distorting history, but after a press screening in Berlin on Thursday he said the work had been misunderstood.
Critics say Eritrean forces did not use child soldiers in their 30-year struggle for independence from Ethiopia, but Falorni said his movie was a work of fiction and the issue of child soldiers was not at the heart of his film.
"Today in 2008, we have an image of child soldiers which is very fixed," he told a news conference at the Berlin Film Festival. "I don't want to equate Eritrea with Uganda or Sierra Leone. This was not actually about politics for me.
"I wanted to make a film about hope, about a girl caught up in a war, what she sees, and what she learns. It wasn't my intention to make a film about children who are kidnapped ... and forced to eat the body parts of their enemies."
The movie was based on an autobiographical account by Eritrean author Senait Mehari -- who has been attacked herself for misrepresenting the war -- but Falorni and the producers said the book was just the inspiration for a fictional account.
Set in the early 1980s, the film charts the recruitment of Awet (played by Letekidan Micael) and her older sister into a militia battling a rival faction also opposed to Ethiopian occupation.
Journalists repeatedly questioned the factual basis for the story during the news conference, with one Eritrean saying:
"This film is shaming 30 years of Eritrean struggle. In Eritrea, when we fought, we never used children."
However, Falorni rejected this, and stressed how impressed he had been by the "heroism" shown by Eritrea.
"In Eritrea there were children who fought. And they did so willingly. The official version is that they were sent back to school. There are pictures which show the opposite was true.
"If I'm attacked for not providing an authentic picture of things, then I must defend myself, and I will," he said to loud applause, which was led by the critical Eritrean journalist.
Having been refused permission to shoot in Eritrea, the film was made in Kenya -- but shortly before it was due to start, most of the cast walked out amid threats and "telephone terror" from Eritrean officials, according to producer Andreas Bareiss.
Eritrean officials were not immediately available for comment.
"Just before filming was to begin we had no cast, apart from the girl, her sister and a few of the minor roles," said Falorni. "We were on the verge of having to give up."
Instead, Falorni recast several roles with Eritrean refugees from a nearby camp, although two leading parts were taken by Ethiopians who were dubbed into Eritrea's Tigrinya language.
Throughout the production, Micael, who is now in Europe seeking asylum, was an inspiration, Falorni added.
"With all the problems we had on this production, she was its light and its great fortune," he said, declining to say in which country the young girl now was. "She had an energy and enthusiasm that pushed us forward. She was really incredible."