(From L to R) Philippine actor Sid Lucero, French actress Isabelle Huppert and Philippine director Brillante Mendoza pose on February 12, 2012 in Berlin during a photocall for the film "Captive" in competition at the Berlinale Film Festival. ©AFP PHOTO / GERARD JULIEN

(BERLIN-AFP) – Isabelle Huppert stars as an aid worker snatched by Islamic extremist group Abu Sayyaf in Filipino director Brillante Mendoza’s “Captive”, which premiered at the Berlin film festival Sunday.

The French-Filipino-German-British production is based on the 2001 kidnapping of 20 foreigners from an upscale beach resort on the island of Palawan, in which at least five died during the over a year-long ordeal.

The 58-year-old French screen icon plays Therese, a Christian volunteer and one of the original group taken at gunpoint by the Al-Qaeda-linked outfit.

She said the gruelling conditions while filming, including five days on a small boat at sea and a fortnight in the jungle, as well as Mendoza’s working style in which he revealed little of the script to the actors until the last minute, made for a one-of-a-kind shoot.

“It was the most incredible and extreme experience I’ve ever had in my life as an actress,” Huppert said after a packed press preview that drew polite applause.

“The strength of his way of filming is how to create a kind of chaos that maybe only he knows how to control and he pushes the actors to such an extreme that actually we were… in a state of extreme surprise — we never knew what was going to happen when we were shooting.”

A festival favourite, Mendoza entered the competition in Cannes in 2008 with “Serbis”, set in a rundown family-owned movie house, and captured the best director prize there the next year for “Kinatay” about a student who falls in with a gang. It was then that Mendoza met Huppert while she was jury president.

For “Captive”, Mendoza, 51, kept the foreigners including Huppert segregated from the actors playing the militants until the first day of shooting to heighten the cultural gap between them.

He interviewed survivors, Abu Sayyaf members and troops before making the film, which mixes a documentary style with shocking physical close-ups, including a baby’s birth, that have become his trademark.

Mendoza even recruited some actual soldiers to play in film.

“I remember at one point Isabelle asked me if some of the Abu Sayyaf members were real,” he laughed. “It’s true,” Huppert said smiling.

After their terrifying abduction at the resort, the hostages are caught several times in crossfire between the militants and the army, including a nightmarish scene at a hospital where they have taken shelter.

A grim jungle trek ensues as the group loses hope that the government is doing anything to ensure their release, just as the military seems to indiscriminately fire on their camp with little regard for their lives.

And while their captors treat the women initially with respectful distance, as the months drag on, some are raped and taken as “wives”.

But there are lighter moments when the rebels share jokes and moments of compassion with their captives, some of whom even begin to identify with their cause as they witness the poverty and brutality that led them to take up arms.

“In most of my film I try to be as faithful as I can,” Mendoza said.

“As a film-maker one should never take sides, one should show what is really happening… even if it goes against your own beliefs and philosophy as a film-maker.”

The southern Philippines has long been plagued by outlaws who kidnap people for huge ransoms. The most feared of these is Abu Sayyaf which has been tied to the worst terror attacks in Philippine history.

Founded with seed money from Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in the 1990s, Abu Sayyaf says it is fighting for its own independent state or sub-state.

“Captive” is one of 18 films vying for Berlin’s Golden Bear top prize, to be awarded Saturday.