Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo are shocking anomalies in the history of film, famous as much for how they were made as for what you see onscreen. You’ve heard Herzog tell the stories: filming in dangerous river rapids, pushing a real boat over a mountain, stealing monkeys off an airport tarmac. The behind-the-scenes stunts make the movies what they are, giving what you see a kind of mythic aura.
Narrative films, especially Hollywood films, are almost never filmed in conditions like these today. Escape From Tomorrow and Snow on tha Bluff are the only recent examples I can think of where filmmakers didn’t follow every safety precaution in the books. Otherwise, a little inclement weather is as bad as it will get. Tom Cruise is allowed to risk his life, but the PAs and script supervisors still need access to porta-potties and fresh cream cheese at the craft table.
Australian feature Jirga comes as a nice change of pace. It’s the first time since I saw Herzog’s early films where I thought, “I can’t believe they made this.” Its main character is Mike Wheeler (Sam Smith), an Australian veteran who journeys to an Afghan village. His goal, as we learn, later on, is to atone for killing a man in the War On Terror. After a scheduled shoot in Pakistan didn’t work out, the filmmakers moved to the Kandahar region in Afghanistan, which is a dangerous place to be if you’re a Western filmmaker. Much of the War in Afghanistan has been fought in Kandahar, and it still has a large Taliban presence.
“His goal…is to atone for killing a man in the War On Terror.”
The great irony is that despite filming in a volatile area in Afghanistan, writer/director Benjamin Gilmour doesn’t fetishize the region’s reputation like every Hollywood film set in that geographically ambiguous place known as “the Middle East.” What does every film and show from Homeland to Argo have in its first shot of “the Middle East?” An ominous ambient hum, maybe some plucking on a sitar. Jirga has none of that. There are no dramatic spikes of music as someone wearing a hijab appears, no shady bazaars full of huge men going “ooga booga booga.”
Instead, the opening scenes in Kabul show a city of bustling commerce, glamorous tailors and antique shops, hospitable hotels, and good food. It’s when we get to Kandahar, though, that the landscape takes over as the reason to see Jirga. Gilmour also serves as the film’s cameraman, and you can see how inspired he was not just by Herzog’s daredevil methods, but the themes of his early films. Gilmour’s hypnotic landscape shots hammer home the vastness, beauty, and cruelty of nature. Kandahar, in his eyes, is serene, hypnotic, brutal, and hostile to human life. I was completely gobsmacked by some of the scenery in the latter half of Jirga.
As impressive as Jirga is on many counts, as a piece of storytelling, it leaves something to be desired. The narrative is simple. Mike is going to Kandahar. He encounters obstacles: the unwillingness of his cab driver to take him there, the harsh environment, the Taliban. He makes it to the village and confesses. The story is basic and undramatic, entirely predicated on Mike’s internal state.
“Gilmour’s hypnotic landscape shots hammer home the vastness, beauty, and cruelty of nature.”
But where Herzog had his psychotic lead actor Klaus Kinski to channel his main characters’ mania, Sam Smith doesn’t bring what’s needed to the role of Mike Wheeler. His performance is fine, but he remains a gruff, stoic cipher, a man on a mission. He doesn’t bring that extra something to let us into Mike’s guilt and self-hatred. I suppose it’s better to underact than overact in a role so sensitive, but because of the lack of drama, it’s hard to connect with Mike for most of Jirga’s running time.
Only in the final stretch of Jirga does Smith really show some emotional range, and as dramatically inert as the movie preceding them is, these scenes work really well. They’re just aggressively sad. The journey has some saggy spots, but the destination is worth it in this film.
Jirga is not going for subtlety. Its heavy-handed message about guilt, responsibility, and forgiveness is outright stated to the audience. It’s very idealistic, and you might not buy it. But you will remember the experience of having your eyes opened to a new part of the world.
Jirga (2018) Written and directed by Benjamin Gilmour. With Sam Smith, Muhammad Shah Mairoh, Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad, Amir Shah Alash, Arzo Weda.
7 out of 10