Jirga review: Writer-director Benjamin Gilmour’s second film gets up close and personal with the intricate wounds left behind by war.

Jirga review
Image credit: Courtesy of TIFF

Jirga review [TIFF]

It was no passing thought, or artistic frivolity, that caused Jirga to become the film with the most hyper-intense and fitful sense of ‘nearness’ any audience member will experience all year. Closer to a documentary, visually, than to a considered story (although it is bristling with intent) producer and star Sam Smith, along with his director, were forced to shoot the film entirely in secret, on location starting in Jalalabad, after funding fell through and threats of ISIS and Taliban observation on themselves and their — very much political — film became clear (scenes had to be cut because of explosives rigged at that particular’s day’s filming spot). Gilmour was shooting the scenes largely by himself, with a camera he bought himself; while the cast was found on the streets they walk upon, with the wonderful Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad as a particular high point as a charming taxi driver with an ear for music. And to the consternation of the heart rate of anyone on set or watching as a viewer, much of the distant echo of gun-fire, and helicopter blades is also quite real.

The easy rapport between the subjects and the camera suggest Gilmour’s masterful ability to make extremely risky, quick-fry shooting work. The handheld takes us through the streets as if we were perched, like a grain of sand, on the shoulder of Smith’s Mike Wheeler — the Australian soldier r returning to find and make amends with the family of a civilian Afghan man he killed during the raid of a village south of Kabul years prior.
On his journey for, if not forgiveness, than the rightful consequence of his actions, Wheeler, and therefore we, encounter plenty of the spectrum of human feeling. As much as he is sheltered, fed and advised by coyly curious civilians, the dual dread-horizons of the Taliban, and of the pain of the family he will have to face soon, add a shivery edge of urgency to even the most carefully curated scenes of harmony (a flamingo pedalo ride with Ustad’s taxi driver on a valley lake-top only just staves off the anxiety).

Jirga review
Image credit: Courtesy of TIFF

The film takes what is arguably its most empathically audacious turn when the Taliban do catch up with Wheeler on his journey back to the village. Restraining itself, still, from the kind of heavy philosophical dialogue that would break the natural spell of a largely improvising cast and crew, this section of the story still manages to come up with the most believable and touching bridge between geo-political beings that it possibly could. This story is dealing with characters, not perfect ones, but certainly not caricatures either.
Utopic ideals of the In-Common over separatism have gone out of fashion in film and in politics, it seems, but I’m sure we would all do well do be as reverent of our humane ability to connect, as Gilmour, and his open-hearted film, clearly are.

It isn’t easy to do, but Sam Smith, much like the film as a whole, sticks with subtlety. After that initial opening scene of his dawning horror on a soldier’s night vision cam the moment of the killing, he is operating mostly at a gaunt, withdrawn blankness that only dissolves in extreme pleasure (like playing guitar with his spirited taxi driver) or pain. It certainly captures the eroding nature of guilt of that immensity, but also allows the culture and the performances around him to fill up space and shine. It’s easy to appreciate the way he, as a character, and a lead simultaneously holds back and leans into the Afghan story unfolding him before him. What else can someone do, when hearing first-hand of western cultures atrocities (“parents, brothers, sisters…but to you, just another accident” a reluctantly forthcoming extremist, Amir, attests of those killed by the American drone strikes), but listen.

The narrative drifts mesmerisingly between incidents of difficulty as Wheeler tries to find the village from that night — first his driver won’t take him south into Taliban territory, then his own capture slows the proceedings — but it’s when we get there in the last act that the strong sense of intent really comes through in a gutting payoff.

In the Village Jirga (a council of judicial elders) elusive concepts of culpability and justice in a war-torn nation is explored, and during a small, almost wordless moment with those Wheeler had so long-sought, Gilmour examines the intricate movements of fear and guilt, grief, and hope, with startling intimacy.

Where other war films, particularly American ones, have left barren, whitewashed corners at the edge of every frame —fearing nuance at the expense of easier studio friendly narratives – Jirga is something closer to reality. We cannot look away from what we really are, in all our horror, and all our tenderness, within the fray of corruption and violence.

Delivering its indictment of imperialism, terror, and war not in sermon, but in it’s touching detailing of the people who survive after the brunt of it, this is a very special film. As Wheeler has learned the hard way: no one, no matter who they are or where they stand, can be denied their humanity. At least not when you’re up this close.

Jirga review by Abi Silverthorne, September 2018.

Jirga was reviewed at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. Click here for all of our coverage.

Jirga review