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As the title would suggest, the war story Kajaki: The True Story dramatizes a real-life incident when a squad of British soldiers endured a harrowing experience, resulting in multiple casualties after venturing into an Afghani minefield by mistake in 2006. It is a scrupulously realistic, painfully tense cinematic experience that doesn’t stint on the gore, the agony or the heroism, making for an impressive feature debut for director Paul Katis, who comes from a corporate filmmaking, advertising and television background.
Even more notable, however, is the film’s release strategy. Because it will be self-distributed in the UK (opening Nov. 28 on over 80 screens, a substantial spread by local standards) by a bespoke company (Alchemy Releasing), the filmmakers will be able to channel a substantial cut of their profits to four charities devoted to helping veterans. Creating a virtuous circle, the charities are helping to niche market the film to potential audiences, and altogether the project is generating a healthy head of publicity in media outlets such as News International-newspaper The Sun, and others.
All of that makes the film almost critically unassailable. To cast any doubts over its quality, and therefore potentially put off viewers from seeing it for themselves, would almost be tantamount to kicking the prosthetic leg out from under a wounded veteran.
It’s a relief that one can report that, strictly in aesthetic terms, it is indeed a well-made piece of work, executed with better-than-average levels of craftsmanship. However, if one puts considerations about its fundraising aside, then it has to be acknowledged that it’s inescapably, given its grounding in fact, dramatically somewhat repetitive. Some of the performances are less polished than others. Most importantly, like The Hurt Locker to which it will inevitably be compared, the film scrupulously refuses to take any stance on the ethics of the conflict depicted, opting instead to focus exclusively on the soldiers’ ground-level experience of war. Of course this “apolitical” stance is political in itself, and while it’s understandable, especially given the picture was made with input from the armed forces, some viewers may find the embedded perspective problematic.
Indeed, the script by screenwriter Tom Williams (who also wrote the couldn’t-be-more-different romantic comedy Chalet Girl) takes such pains to capture how regular soldiers speak, the first half hour of the film is nearly incomprehensible to someone unfamiliar with military jargon. It doesn’t help that several of the soldiers have broad, regional British accents, but after a while the gist is pretty clear.
The men of the Army’s Third Battalion, the Parachute Regiment (aka “3 Para” as they describe themselves) have been stationed near the Kajaki Dam for some time, and have settled into an easy camaraderie with one another, led by responsible but not strict Scotsman Corporal Mark Wright (relative newcomer David Elliot, whose had roles in local soap Emmerdale and Outlander). Medic Paul “Tug” Hartley (Mark Stanley, yet another Game of Thrones alumnus) and his friend Lance Stuart Hale (Benjamin O’Mahony. The Other Boleyn Girl) spend much of their time playing chess with used water bottles, while the other men banter, attend to duties, and look at pornography, roughly in that order.
Not long after they’ve exchanged fire with the Taliban and spotted an illegal road block nearby, a patrol led by Hale sets out to survey the area around a dry valley near the base. Hale steps on an old Soviet landmine, and blows his lower leg off. Wright, Tug and more men come to his assistance, and Wright calls for a helicopter to evacuate the wounded Hale. But while clearing a landing site for the chopper another soldier, Corporal Stuart Pearson (Scott Kyle from Ken Loach’s The Angel’s Share) steps on another mine, losing one his legs.
It just keeps getting worse. Although the men are clearly frightened and rattled, Wright keeps his head and continues to lead with moving selflessness, even after a Chinook helicopter causes yet another mine to explode that seriously injures him and two more of his men.
By the end of what’s actually around an hour of running time – but which feels, given the grueling intensity, much closer to the three-hours the men endured as they waited for help – seven men in all are gravely injured, and one of them dies by the end.
Williams and Katis take pains not to blame the men themselves, and underscore that they follow procedure correctly; the almost absurd degree of casualties seems to be a result of bloody bad luck and nothing else. As if to suggest that even amid all this chaos a clear chain of command and self-discipline kept things under control, DoP Chris Goodger opts for a classical, stable shooting style with none of that handheld frantic whooshing about that nearly every other cinematographer favors for battle scenes these days. Using wide-angled lens, foreground and background are kept in equal focus in such a way as to add a surreal dimension to the imagery while also racking up the tension as viewers brace themselves for yet another explosion that could happen anywhere in the frame.
It would all be too unbearable to watch if it weren’t for the technical polish displayed, and the believable use of humor from the men, as they tease and taunt one another to break the tension, refusing to spare even the feelings of the wounded. Elliot and Stanley in the two biggest, pivotal roles impress the most, and the rest of the corps are good although some of the younger players exhibit less confidence. Nevertheless, one can sense from the whole ensemble a palpable commitment to honor the bravery and humanity of the real soldiers they’re incarnating, and whatever one might feel about the war in Afghanistan, their sacrifice is undeniably moving.
Production companies: A Metro Int., Alchemy Releasing presentation of a Pukka Films production, in association with LipSync Productions
Cast:David Elliot, Mark Stanley, Scott Kyle, Benjamin O’Mahony, Bryan Parry, Liam Ainsworth, Andy Gibbins, John Doughty, Paul Luebke, Thomas Davison, Grant Kilburn, Jon-Paul Bell, Malachi Kirby, Ali Cook
Director: Paul Katis
Screenwriter: Tom Williams
Producers: Paul Katis, Andrew De Lotbiniere
Executive producers: Gareth Ellis-Unwin, Alexa Jago, Alec Mackenzie, Lee Vandermolen, Norman Henry, Peter Hampden, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross
Director of photography: Chris Goodger
Production designer:Erik Rehl
Costume designer: Phaedra Dahdaleh
Casting: John Hubbard, Ros Hubbard
No US Rating, 108 minutes
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