Is "Jirga" a white savior movie about Afghanistan? "We have a lot to feel guilty about"

Salon talks to Australian director Benjamin Gilmour of "Jirga" about digging for truth about the war in Afghanistan

Published July 26, 2019 5:00PM (EDT)

"Jirga" (Benjamin Gilmour)
"Jirga" (Benjamin Gilmour)

The intense, minimalist Australian film, “Jirga,” written and directed by Benjamin Gilmour, takes its title from the word for an Afghan court of tribal elders. This drama, which was Australia’s Oscar entry last year, opens July 26 in New York before playing other cities; it will be available on VOD in late October.

A pre-title sequence depicts a military raid on an Afghan village where Mike Wheeler (Sam Smith in a compelling performance) kills a man during his mission. Cut to three years later, when Mike returns to Kabul on another mission—to return to the village and seek forgiveness from the widow and child of the man he killed.

As Mike tries to get to Kandahar, he is repeatedly told that it is too dangerous. Even the driver he hires (Pashtun actor Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad) refuses to take him where he wants to go. Mike’s journey is fraught with peril, from wandering alone in the desert to an encounter with the Taliban. He eventually arrives in the village where a Jirga is held to determine Mike’s fate: punishment or forgiveness.

Gilmour immerses viewers in the story, often using a hand-held camera to follow Mike through the crowded streets of Kabul, or on his travels to Kandahar. The film is only partially subtitled, allowing the audience to share Mike’s inability to communicate — as in his exchanges with his taxi driver — or when he meets the Taliban. Moreover, the film contrasts Mike’s desire to recompense the family members for the death he caused with the local rituals and customs, such as how to make a proper apology.

Via WhatsApp from Australia, Gilmour talked with Salon about his experiences in Afghanistan, digging for truth about the war, and “Jirga,” which he describes as, “an example of what is possible not just between nations at war, but also in our own lives.”

How did you learn about Jirgas, and what made you develop a film around this tribal court of Afghan elders?

I first learned about Jirgas as part of an education by a Shinwari tribesman who took me in and gave me protection in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan in 2004. I spent ten months there when I was making my previous film, “Son of a Lion,” and I met with the tribes(men) and they advised me making the film. We spent days, nights, weeks, and months chatting, and they told me about the history of Afghanistan and Pashtun culture and history. I became very interested in this warrior-poet culture. It really appealed to me. They could embrace the artistic, sensitive side while being known for their courage and fighting prowess. This appealed to me because the type of masculinity I was exposed to [growing up] in Australia was about football and beer and the suppression of anything soft and poetic. As someone who loved music and culture, I never felt at home in my culture, but suddenly it was OK to be the man I wanted to be. So, I was very drawn to Pashtun culture, and part of that was their tribal code of conduct: Pashtunwali. An important element of that is the Jirga, a traditional assembly of elders that makes decisions according to the teachings of this tribal code.

Can you talk more about your experiences in Pakistan and Afghanistan?

My girlfriend [now wife] and I had been backpacking in Pakistan in 2001. We wanted to cross into Afghanistan but were told it was dangerous because of the Taliban. We had our motorbike impounded at the Pakistan-India border and we had to spend the night with a man who was with the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), and he was forthcoming about all this intrigue about the Russians and Mujahideen. He said a spectacular event is about to happen that will draw America into a war. We didn’t think much of it at the time, but after 9/11 we were wondering if he was referring to that.

In 2004, I made “Son of a Lion” in the tribal areas of Pakistan undercover because I couldn’t get permits. During the publicity tour for the film, I spoke out against the Pakistani government and the military behind it and their role in supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan, playing a double game taking money from the U.S. to fight “terrorists” but funneling it back to their proxies. Later, when people heard about [“Son of a Lion”] in Pakistan, a kidnapping attempt was made on the star of the film and he ended up having to flee the country.

When Sam Smith and I returned to Pakistan in 2017, in the hope of shooting “Jirga,” ISI blocked us and tried to stop us from making the film. They produced a file on my previous visits to the country, and my motivations, and they were suspicious about our intentions. So, we had to change tactics and do what we didn’t think we’d ever be able to do—which was shoot the entire film [“Jirga”] in Afghanistan.

Mike is repeatedly told his mission is dangerous. Yet in your determination to make this film, you engaged in some pretty risky activity. Can you talk about what you encountered making “Jirga”?

The greatest risk taken on this film was made by the Afghans, voluntarily and passionately. They were on board and believed in what we were doing, showing a different side to their country and their character. They are well aware of how they are depicted in the rest of the world, and any opportunity to show a different side—to collaborate with foreigners in a country where there are suspicions—is quite remarkable; that they would take that leap of faith with us. We [Australians] can leave if things had gotten too difficult, but they had to stay.

We faced the threat of the Islamic State. There were operations that had Afghan Army (ANA) and Taliban fighting side by side against Islamic State Khorasan Province, known locally as Daesh. Which is another reason the Doha peace talks are so vital—because the Taliban are an effective force against the rise of the far more dangerous Islamic state.

There were two men leaving our shoot location, this incredible cave complex, and they were apprehended and accused of planting explosive devices (IEDs). We had to move locations. We were also worried about ‘friendly fire’ because we had men playing Taliban and we knew there was constant surveillance of the location and we worried we would suffer a missile from an armed drone that we would be mistaken for Taliban although we were shooting with actors.

You immerse viewers in Mike’s experience—shooting with a hand-held camera, keeping things claustrophobic even in the expanse of the Afghan desert. There are some incredibly beautiful scenes in the desert. How did you conceive the film visually?

I’ve always been a fan of getting close to the subject. I didn’t intend on shooting the film myself as cinematographer. Initially, we had a Pakistani producer fund us, but we were blocked when the funding was pulled, and we were harassed to leave the country by agents of the Pakistani secret service. We stripped [the film] back and made it a simple through-line, more intimate. But in shooting it myself, the advantage was that what I pointed the camera at was what I want the audience to see: an intimate dance with the action. As I was shooting, I was feeling the emotions I was hoping the audience would respond with. For example, when Mike comes face to face with the widow of the man he killed in the raid. I made sure we kept the actors apart until the moment they meet on screen. We didn’t know how they would react, and surrounded by dust and heat, you feel like you are there, living it in the moment. As that scene plays out, I could barely focus because I had tears shooting it. So that’s a good sign if you’re feeling that emotion when you are shooting something that it will work on the big screen.

The film shows Mike and his taxi driver finding common ground through music even though they don’t speak each other’s language. I like this message in the film, that people should be patient and learn from one another, rather than judge or attack them for being different.

That became something in the shooting that we weren’t aware of in the screenplay. Because Mike and the taxi driver did not share a common language, it became an illustration of what I see as what is possible between the West and a country like Afghanistan where we speak a different language not just literally, but culturally and politically. There is a possibility of connection despite our differences. Mike is from a completely different world, but he and his driver find a way of bonding over music to create an understanding and a connection. It involves listening and trying to understand what the other wants and feels.

Do you think “Jirga” is a “white savior” film in that it has an Australian bringing money to recompense a widow and child?

Absolutely, I think it could be said the film is about white man’s guilt. I agree with that, and don’t have a problem with that. Some people would describe it as negative, but I think we have a lot to feel guilty about in that country. It starts out as a white savior film, but Mike learns that he cannot buy his forgiveness and redemption. He has to arrive vulnerably and make an authentic apology. I never wanted his character to try to seek redemption. He is like so many veterans with PTSD and moral injuries, where his option is to go back into the source of his guilt and horror to make it somehow right—even if that means his own death. He is half-expecting to be punished with death when he reaches the village. This came up in discussions with the Afghans. They are offended by ‘condolence payments’ the U.S. has made during the course of the war. Families are paid $2,500 as the value of a death of a civilian. Money is viewed as dirty and has corrupted so many of their people who have worked for foreigners.

What observations do you have about how Mike’s masculinity is presented in the film? I like that Mike is not a typical macho jarhead. His vulnerability and sensitivity make him more, not less believable.

There are a few points I’d like to make about that. In picking—not that I had a broad choice here because not every actor wants to travel to Pakistan with a director who made only one film—but I didn’t want to go for the stereotyped, clichéd, square-jawed Hemsworth-style type actors. Not all soldiers are like that. Platoons are a diverse group. I wanted to reflect that. As a character, he makes a very unusual and unexpected decision to go back, and that’s a different type of courage we don’t see in films about war. I was intent on telling a story of a much deeper courage, which is a moral courage, and being able to apologize and get down on your knees and be humble and have remorse. This image of the soldier as being strong and untouchable and resilient and heroic…I despise the word hero. That word makes us uncomfortable in Australia. It’s done masculinity a disservice because men try to live up to that expectation of hero, and they can’t be that all the time and forever. It overlooks the fact that soldiers, these super brave superheroes, are vulnerable and affected by guilt, trauma, depression and loneliness. We need more of the poet and less of the warrior.

How did you work with Sam Smith on the role? Did he realize what he was getting into when he signed on for the film? There are some pretty intense scenes for him to play!

Yeah, Sam had a pretty rough time. There were moments in Jalalabad. A day before we reached the city, Kerry Wilson, an Australian aid worker, was kidnapped. The Australian Consulate called my Afghan phone—I’m not sure how he got the number!—warning us to get out of the city. It was dangerous, and we had just arrived at the hotel where Wilson had been staying. We were warned to leave on a regular basis, and we were told to shoot in Morocco or Turkey. But we didn’t have the money. For our safety, I asked the ambassador to send .jpg screen shots of Google Earth with our coordinates to the Americans so we wouldn’t suffer friendly fire from helicopters and drones. I don’t know if that happened, but we got out alive. It was tremendous pressure for Sam. I am a paramedic. Sam is an actor. He was in a pretty bad way. There were moments he was like Captain Willard in “Apocalypse Now,” in his hotel staying up all night with a knife in his hand. There was active combat going on kilometers away. I felt guilty for putting him in this situation. When I wanted to help him with valium or to talk, he said no, it was what his character needs. The sleep deprivation and fear he was under during the shoot—you see that on screen. I worried for him. I got authenticity not just with non-actors but with the lead as well.

The climax of the film involves a decision to punish or forgive. The film espouses the idea that “forgiveness is better than revenge.” Can you discuss the ethics of these Afghan people who are the victims of war crimes? There is a line in the film where Mike is asked why he cares about this one man when thousands were killed.

What’s interesting in Pashtun tradition and their pashtunwali is this tenet called Nanawati, which dictates that an enemy or someone who has committed a crime against your family—stealing land, murder, whatever—and is genuinely remorseful and apologizes, you are obliged to not only forgive them but offer them shelter and guard them with your life. It’s restorative justice. There is history of this action in Scottish highland clans, too, and in many other indigenous cultures.

This is why the Taliban treats Mike the way they do—he’s a man who has come back from the safety of his country without air cover and the protection of fellow soldiers. He’s gone out on a limb and put himself in harm’s way to offer an apology. His moral courage appealed to the Taliban in that instance.

How would you have reacted if you had been in Mike’s shoes? Would you have gone back to apologize/seek forgiveness even if it meant possibly losing your life?

Yes, I think I would if I’d taken a life. I’ve not been in that situation.

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

MORE FROM Gary M. Kramer

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