CJ Werleman speaks to the Australian filmmaker Benjamin Gilmour about his film Jirga in which a soldier returns to Afghanistan as a civilian in search of forgiveness and redemption after killing an innocent man.
On Monday, the Taliban detonated a car bomb a few hundred feet from the Uzair High School in Kabul, Afghanistan, leaving more than 40 dead and 116 hospitalised with serious injuries.
The attack came just two days after negotiators from the US and Taliban commenced a seventh round of peace talks in Qatar and thus serve as a deadly reminder that the war – which has now lasted 18 years and taken with it the lives of 32,000 Afghan civilians – continues to roll on even if those in the US have long stopped paying attention.
The war has lasted so long that the US military is now recruiting soldiers that were yet to be born when their predecessors first put their boots on the ground in Afghanistan a month or so after hijacked planes struck the cities of New York and Washington DC in 2001.
“They were briefed to imagine that this was genuine scenario, that this was a soldier who had killed one of your tribesmen, and who had come back voluntarily to confess [his crime]”Benjamin Gilmour
More than 140,000 British soldiers have been deployed to fight al Qaeda and the Taliban, alongside the one million or so US military personnel who have been rotated in and out of the country.
The cost in treasure and blood to Afghanistan, the US, the UK, and its allies has been told so many times that it almost seems like lives and money no longer matter. It explains why the “Forgotten War” moniker continues to stick.
“We’re here because we’re here. We’re here because another unit came here and set up, and we replaced them, and no one knows what else to do.”
These are the words of US Specialist Robert Soto as documented by the prodigious war correspondent CJ Chilvers, who perfectly narrates the idiocy and folly of the US-led coalition’s military strategy in his book The Fighters: Americans in Combat in Afghanistan and Iraq.
There have been countless efforts by Hollywood to capture the stubborn arrogance and hubris of US military planners who remain committed to the idea a foreign occupying force has the capability to defeat an indigenous insurgency through winning “hearts and minds” – despite the fact that no foreign military ever has.
But, with fewer than 10,000 US troops remaining in country, and with the Trump administration – like its predecessor – in desperate search for a politically palpable exit, filmmakers are looking to portray the psychological and moral injuries veterans of this conflict will long have to endure.
A new film titled Jirga – an Afghan name that describes the village justice system – opens in the US later this month, providing a unique insight into how soldiers handle Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Written and produced by Australian filmmaker Benjamin Gilmour, the plot narrates the fictitious account of an Australian Special Forces soldier named Mike Wheeler (played by Sam Smith of the long-running television hit series Home & Away), who returns to Afghanistan as a civilian in search of forgiveness and redemption after killing an innocent man during a night-time raid he took part in three years earlier.
Seeking forgiveness for his crime, so that he can move on with his life by putting the demons in his mind and soul to rest, he voluntarily places his life in the hands of the village elders, the family of the man he killed, and their system of justice.
One of the many remarkable aspects of this film is that it was shot entirely on location in Afghanistan, including Nangarhar, which happens to be the deadliest province for US soldiers during the past couple of years, with a third of all 21 US military combat deaths in 2016 occurring there as a direct result of extended operations against both the Taliban and groups associated with ISIS.
Using a combination of local Pashtun actors and non-actors, one of the pivotal scenes in the movie – set in caves used by the Mujahedeen during its resistance to Soviet occupation in the 1980s – was shot within firing distance of ISIS and Taliban positions, according to Gilmour.
“It was guerrilla-like [film] shooting,” Gilmour told me. “We couldn’t operate with a traditional schedule where everything is planned out and all the pieces are put in place months in advance. We had to be ready to jump into a Land Cruiser, and go across the mountains outside of the town, unload the actors and roll camera.”
“We’re here because we’re here. We’re here because another unit came here and set up, and we replaced them, and no one knows what else to do”CJ Chilvers
In Jirga, Gilmour has achieved many things, but no less than providing audiences with a documentary-style insight into actual tribal life of the Afghan people, whom tend to be typically portrayed as either faceless monsters or meaningless canon fodder in run-of-the-mill Hollywood portrayals.
In the climatic moment of the film – which is set and shot in an actual Afghan village using real Afghani non-actors – in which Wheeler faces his ultimate verdict at the jirga for having confessed to the killing of the local man, Gilmour explained how almost nothing you see and hear in the scene came from script.
“What you see on the screen is everything that comes from those elders,” said Gilmour. “They were briefed to imagine that this was genuine scenario, that this was a soldier who had killed one of your tribesmen, and who had come back voluntarily to confess [his crime], and a heated discussion [regarding Wheeler’s fate] ensues.”
In capturing and illuminating the humanity and kindness of the Afghan people and at the same time drawing attention to the deep moral wounds that are carried by so many of the conflict’s veterans, Jirga will challenge the way we have come to think about our involvement in foreign wars.
If so, this will ultimately be Gilmour’s greatest accomplishment.