Jirga is an important film on a number of levels.
Produced on a shoestring budget, under extraordinary circumstances, it touches on subject matter most mainstream movie studios wouldn’t touch.
This is primarily because it goes against everything we are supposed to believe about our place in the world and the apparent righteousness of the wars joined by our military.
While most Hollywood movies made about Western military involvement in this complex region show gung-ho forces, brimming with machismo and rectitude, fighting the good fight and crushing the bad guys to bring “peace, democracy and freedom” to oppressed folk, Jirga takes a rather more realistic tack.
It is increasingly clear that Western-instigated wars have more to do with plundering natural and state resources, establishing regional strategic control, boosting the aggressor’s military-industrial fortunes, and over-throwing regimes and governments that don’t fit the Western business model.
Often the soldiers that fight in these wars come to realise the conflict into which their governments have thrust them are a sham, and regularly illegal under international law.
This dilemma is rammed home even more severely when, through doing what soldiers do, they kill and maim innocent people in a theatre of war that has no genuine moral or logical raison d’erte. This exacerbates internal conflict within many of the young men and women doing the fighting.
Several recent wars in the Mideast, not to mention others like Vietnam, are examples of such cynical institutional deceit – and for those at the butt end of a barrel, it can be psychologically devastating. Guilt, depression, PTSD, addictions, and increasingly, post-service suicides are the result.
Jirga’s simple but engaging contemporary plot follows an Australian soldier, Mike Wheeler (Sam Smith), who, having left the army, is determined to return to a Pashtun Afghan village where three years earlier he was involved in an incident his conscience will not allow him to forget. It’s soon obvious he is a man on a mission seeking forgiveness, and even takes wads of US dollars to help make amends.
Visiting certain parts of Afghanistan is dangerous for any westerner, and the stoic Wheeler soon finds out that his undertaking is not going to be easy. The plot thickens as he makes his way across remarkable landscapes crawling with Taliban fighters to complete his pilgrimage to meet the Pashtun.
Writer/director Benjamin Gilmour, producer John Maynard, and lead actor Sam Smith have done an inspired job at bringing Wheeler’s personal pilgrimage to life.
Fans of the TV soap Home and Away may recognise Sam from his stint in the series, however his troubles in Afghanistan are somewhat more harrowing and grave than any shenanigans at Summer Bay.
He plays the somber, somewhat taciturn, former trooper convincingly and with real depth, effectively conveying the sense of guilt and suffering no doubt felt by countless soldiers throughout history. His trek comes across as a purging journey of self-punishment.
Gilmour previously produced and directed the 2007 film Son of a Lion, an Australian-Pakistani drama set in Darra Adam Khel in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The film tells the story of Niaz Afridi, a Pashtun boy who wants to go to school instead of carrying on the family business of manufacturing firearms.
The name Jirga refers to a traditional assembly of leaders that make decisions by consensus and according to the teachings of Pashtunwali. It predates modern-day written or fixed-laws and is conducted to settle disputes among the Pashtun people and surrounding groups.
Ultimately, this singular film shows both sides of the conflict, and the invaders come out looking worse than the set-upon and long-suffering Afghans – certainly not how Hollywood would have done it, or our very own government spin-doctors, for that matter. Indeed, one man’s journey back to the killing fields says a great deal about the insanity of war in general.
There is also a rollicking story behind the making of Jirga.
It turned out quite a different film to what had had been planned. In fact, the story of how they got it all in the can is arguably as good as the film itself. Gilmour has even written a book about the experience called Cameras and Kalashnikovs. It’s quite a tale.
Originally scheduled to be filmed in Pakistan, the Pakistani secret service (ISI) blocked the production after reading the script and refused to issue filming permits, leading their Pakistani financier to withdraw support as well. Things started to fall part.
“We were in quite a bind but decided to go to Plan-B and film it ourselves in Afghanistan,” Ben told the audience at Luna Leederville, where he and Sam held a post-screening Q&A last week. “But the next hurdle was to obtain visas to get into Afghanistan, which isn’t easy either.
“Basically the Pakistanis were putting a great deal of pressure on us to leave the country, so it was pretty stressful.”
The two men told entertaining tales about how they were hounded by the bumbling ISI operatives.
“Agents followed us on motorbikes, were hiding in bushes everywhere and one was even dressed up like beggar to keep an eye on us,” recalled Sam, chuckling.
The men finally managed to get permission to enter Afghanistan by using Ben’s German passport (he has dual German and Australian citizenship). The authorities had no issues with Germans, but Australians are a different story.
“Australians used to be popular in the region, but aren’t any more because of our military involvement there. We have become persona non grata.”
Gilmour said they also had to change their story about the film they were making. “We told them that we were filming a nature documentary and they didn’t seem to have a problem with that!”
He reluctantly became the cinematographer on the film, using very limited equipment for a feature film project.
“We went to a shopping mall and bought the last Sony A7S camera in the shop and we used that to shoot it,” he said.
They engaged local people to play all the roles, and despite having no acting training at all, they were very convincing. In one scene, a fellow who couldn’t even drive drove Mike Wheeler’s cab!
“We rented the taxi from the real cabbie, a guy called Paddle Pop, and he wasn’t too happy with the arrangement,” said Sam. “His car come out a bit the worse for wear, but it worked out fine.”
They borrowed real AK47 rifles for props off the local police. Sam got an unexpected beating from over-enthusiastic “actor” locals in one scene and they had to be on the lookout for the real Taliban attacks during filming.
Yet despite their real-life Afghan trials and tribulation (Screen Australia stumped up supporting funding), the film was made and is already a success. It won the coveted $100,000 Film Prize at the recent CinefestOz here in WA.
Gilmour says the primary take away from making the film in Afghanistan was one of “enough is enough.”
“The message we got right across the country from the people was that it is high time foreign troops left Afghanistan,” he said. “It’s primarily a fight against occupation.
“As you see in the film, Western money and wealth is held in contempt. The US military has shelled out what they call ‘condolence payments’ to the relatives of people killed by its personnel in the fighting. It’s an average of $2500, an obvious insult to the Afghans.
“They just want their country back.”
Films like Jirga may well help their cause.
Then, like the Persians, Macedonians, Ottomans, British, Russians and others armies that come and gone before them, the Coalition (Australia included) will leave Afghanistan too, having achieved nothing apart death, destruction and human misery.
That’s war for you.
Now showing at Luna Leederville and Luna on SX, Fremantle.
Watch the trailer…