'Jirga': Film Review | Sydney 2018

More well-meaning than involving.

A soldier looking to make amends returns to Afghanistan in this feature from Australian director Benjamin Gilmour.

The only Australian film in official competition at the Sydney Film Festival, Jirga tackles a subject very much in the local news: Australian military involvement in civilian deaths. Shot on a consumer camera in the mountains of Jalalabad by writer-director Benjamin Gilmour, the film looks like a low-budget handheld documentary. And if it were factual, this story of an Australian soldier who returns to Afghanistan seeking to make reparations might have exerted a certain fascination. But as a fictional feature, it feels a little obvious and even patronizing: a redemption story by an Australian filmmaker that lets its Australian protagonist off the hook in a manner too neat to be dramatically interesting.

Gilmour opens with night-vision footage of a real-life military strike. The sequence ends with a shot of a soldier, Mike (Sam Smith), removing his goggles to stare in horror at what he's done. Three years later, Mike returns to Kabul with wads of cash strapped to his body and a mission to apologize to the family of the man he killed.

Enlisting the help of a taxi driver (Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad), he travels to Bamiyan, where the two pal around on a large pink pedal boat and sing songs over the campfire. Mike convinces the frightened cabbie to drive him to Kandahar, but the bromance ends abruptly when they're stopped by Taliban fighters at a checkpoint. Mike bolts from the car and flees. What happens to the driver next is pointedly not in the film's purview.

Captured by the Taliban and taken to one of their cave hideouts, Mike witnesses the execution of two hostages, but is allowed to live when he informs his captors of his plan. One of them, the leader's right-hand (Amir Shah Talash), brings him food, and Gilmour is careful to paint a human portrait of Taliban fighters. One of the director's aims, per the production notes, was to counter “the Islamic terrorist stereotype” as perpetuated by “American propaganda.” 

The Taliban eventually take Mike to the village he raided three years before, advising him to leave the cash behind before he enters. Mike is taken to the home of his victim's widow, where he apologizes tearfully before being summoned in front of the jirga, a court made up of village elders. His fate is to be decided by the son of the man he shot, a boy no older than 10. Smith summons a genuine sense of remorse as well as heart-thumping fear in these scenes, which end exactly the way you think they will. But for the most part he has little to do other than look morose.

Scenes are in Pashto with subtitles and in broken English, with Mike's conversations halting at best. Gilmour has described the film as a fable, which perhaps explains why the character registers more like a vessel for a moral lesson than flesh and blood, with the audience locked out of any sense of his interior life.

Skirting the line between documentary and fiction in a manner reminiscent of the Jalalabad-based Aussie filmmaker George Gittoes (thanked in the credits), the filmmaking could most charitably be described as artless, with a medley of shaky thousand-pixel close-ups providing a sense of detail that doesn't quite extend to the script.

Production company: Felix Media

Cast: Sam Smith, Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad, Amir Shah Talash, Baheer Safi, Arzo Weda, Inam Khan

Writer-director: Benjamin Gilmour

Producers: John Maynard, Amir Shah Talash, Gull Hussain Baizada

Executive Producers: Bridget Ikin, David Gross

Cinematographer: Benjamin Gilmour

Editor: Nikki Stevens

Sound designer: Liam Egan

Music: AJ True

Venue: Sydney Film Festival

78 minutes