Jirga (2018)

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Image via miff.com.au

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This unusual and well-meaning Australian film by Ben Gilmour follows an ex-soldier as he attempts to contact the widow and children of a civilian he killed in Kandahar, Afghanistan, whilst on deployment.

Mike Wheeler (Sam Smith) is part of a raid on a rural village where, on instinct, he shoots a figure in a doorway. The unarmed man is dragged away by his wife and children and, with hindsight, Wheeler recognises the fear and misinformation that caused him to shoot. Three years later, he arrives in Kabul with US dollars taped to his body and a single-minded determination to travel to Kandahar to make reparation.

Filmed in documentary style with a small mobile camera following Smith through streets crowded with oblivious locals, the line between reality and fiction is blurred. Smith is the only non-Afghan actor in the film and often the dialogue that spins around him is untranslated, leaving us feeling, like Wheeler, vulnerable strangers in an unfamiliar land. When he tries to convince a driver to take him to Kandahar, it’s clear from the driver’s emphatic gestures that this is too dangerous, even for a local.

It’s hard to accept Wheeler’s hubris in attempting such an ill-informed gesture. We understand the guilt he is trying to assuage, the fragility of his mental state after confronting his own culpability but his knowledge of custom, language and the needs of the dead man’s family seem woefully inadequate. As he treks across barren countryside without even packing a water bottle, I couldn’t help losing sympathy with his plight.

The strength of the film is in the small vignettes of Afghan culture. The extended scenes as Wheeler and his driver camp out at a dam, sharing food and music without speaking each other’s language are mesmerising and whenever we hear the stories of loss of the locals – from Taliban fighters to the village elders who conduct the ‘jirga’, the tribal council – we understand the message the film is trying to convey. Afghanistan seems to be a man’s world. Even though it is a widow Wheeler is trying to compensate, she is given only a scant scene and she is the only women in the entire film.

The landscape is as alien as the moon without a single blade of grass to break the monotony of greys and browns. I couldn’t help wondering how much better the film would have looked in black and white, accentuating the harsh details of life and lifting us clear of the insipid beigeness of it all. Smith is an awkward Wheeler, perhaps in keeping with his character but often skating the surface of emotions. More intriguing are the others he meets, although they often match him for impassivity.

There is a lack of dramatic tension to the narrative, unusual in that the premise is inherently dramatic. Wheeler seems to wander and it is only in the final scenes that we get a true sense of suspense. I left the cinema underwhelmed by Wheeler’s story but affected by the reality of the real victims of war.


Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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