Raindance 2019: Director Benjamin Gilmour On The Life-Threatening Journey To Make ‘Jirga’

Benjamin Gilmour’s Jirga tells the story of an ex-soldier’s return to Afghanistan to find the family of a civilian he accidentally killed during the war.

Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge spoke to Gilmour to learn more about the film, the remarkable stories behind its production, giving an alternative to Hollywood’s perspective of war, and much more.

Jirga will have its UK premiere at the Raindance Film Festival in London (20 and 21 September). For ticket info

Q: One of my favourite things about the Raindance Film Festival is hearing of independent films that rival or surpass ‘Apocalypse Now’ for bizarre production stories. ‘Jirga’ is definitely one of those films. Can you tell us some of the hurdles you faced in making ‘Jirga’?

A: Well that’s a honour of a comparison! But yes, the production of Jirga did feel at times like what I imagine the journey making Apocalypse Now would have felt like.

We had the risk of ambush and kidnapping by Taliban and Islamic State Khorasan Province, both active in Nangarhar where we shot most of the film. We risked ‘friendly fire’ from US drones and gunship helicopters, especially as we were traipsing over mountains with actors dressed and armed like Taliban. And we were shooting in areas where it was unclear if they were mined or not. The conditions put enormous pressure on us. As the production went on it felt like the heat was being turned up.

Q: You were originally set to make a film in Pakistan, but things didn’t quite work out… How did yourself and actor Sam Smith come to the decision to push on with the project and take a risk by filming in Afghanistan?

A: The film fell apart in Pakistan before production. We planned to shoot in the Khyber Agency, along the Afghan border. We had a production designer flying in from London and cinematographer from Australia due. The film was being financed by a businessman in Islamabad. But the Pakistani secret service (ISI) denied us a permit to shoot and the financier pulled out his money.

We were stranded in the capital with no money, no security, no permit. Sam was about to get on a plane back to Sydney. But after a difficult conversation (mainly around honour and not wanting to leave without exploring every last option) we decided to do what we never thought was possible: try making the film in Afghanistan. It was always my ‘Plan B’, albeit a dodgy one.

This plan amounted to little more than a couple of phone numbers given to me by Aussie artist George Gittoes, who had a small team of Afghan filmmaker friends in Jalalabad. We bought a Sony A7SII and flew to Kabul. In a guest house Sam and I re-wrote the screenplay with our new Afghan collaborators and started shooting on the fly within a week of arrival.


Q: How did yourself and Sam cope the danger, uncertainty and pressure of these unexpected circumstances?

A: To paint a picture for you, in Jalalabad, eastern Afghanistan, Sam was slowly going mad in a shitty hotel room, spooked by low-flying choppers and the frequent sound of gunfire and mortar rounds in the hills through the night. It got to the point where he was hardly sleeping and just sat by the door with a knife.

I wasn’t game to check on him, unsure of what he might do without realising. Of course I had no desire for Sam to suffer like that, no director should. But as a result of the conditions we were shooting in, Sam’s performance feels very tortured and very real. Making Jirga was a case of life imitating art.

For me there was one moment I really felt might have been my end. We were shooting on a remote road when a drone appeared from nowhere and hovered about 10 meters above our heads. At that point I expected a hellfire missile, but thankfully it never arrived!

Q: Did those pressures seep into the film in any way?

A: Absolutely. In later scenes when you see Mike, the character played by Sam, approach the village and face the village elders and their tribal court, the jirga, that is pretty much the state Sam was in. The dust was so insidious – it was all over us too. There was never need for makeup, just as there wasn’t for set design. The conditions give you as many gifts as they do obstacles.

We had a ton of ‘happy accidents’. Because of the dangers of shooting in the open, we were forced to film in this incredible cave complex dating back to 323BC, first built as a Buddhist monastery underground. It still has perfectly preserved Buddhist hand-carvings along the walls. These are caves that became hideouts for tribesmen against the British during the Anglo-Afghan wars of the mid-1800s and later for Mujahedeen against the Soviets and Taliban against the Americans and their allies.

We were shooting for days in these caves and you could feel the ghosts and the weight of this history. The caves had an energy that seemed to drive us.

Q: This is your third film to bring you to this region of the world. Why are you drawn there?

A: Most people in this region seem know how to live. They have a great sense of belonging, to family, to tribe, to their cultural heritage. Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan are socially very strong. They understand that human connections and genuine face-to-face human interactions are essential to resilience and happiness. They haven’t forgotten how to sing, dance and recite poetry. They are politically conscious and look after one another. They are warm and hospitable, intelligent and rebellious.

I do generalise, but this is my overall assessment of the character of the people that has kept me returning. They are qualities I aspire to. 

Q: We are accustomed to seeing Hollywood war films that depict violence, revenge and heroism. Why did you want to tell a story that focuses on forgiveness?

A: People are getting tired of the same old formulas. Moreover, intelligent people are starting to see the stupidity of it all. Films dupe us into thinking that violence fixes problems. But it rarely resolves the root cause. If anything, it worsens the problem. Violence begets violence. Revenge is a cycle.

As for heroism, it’s an aspect of the ego that we need to shake off. At least our perception of it, our definition. Heroes are false gods, even devils. Take the hero of the film American Sniper, for instance. Why did that film do so well at the box office? Let’s be honest. The audience came to see a white man kill Muslims in the hundreds. Clint Eastwood didn’t intend his film to be racist or Islamophobic, but it was. He made a mistake. 

Lone Survivor, another example. Heroic Navy Seals massacring Afghans fighting off foreign aggressors. Does calling the enemy Taliban somehow make us feel okay about the slaughter? The Taliban see themselves as Afghans in their own country defending it from US invaders and occupiers. But we’ve been conditioned to thinking in black and white, goodies and baddies, cowboys and Indians. Hollywood has given us ‘war porn’ that is nothing short of imperialist propaganda.

Wikileaks has plenty of evidence of the depth of involvement by the CIA in shaping Hollywood war stories, essentially re-striping history as they want it remembered. Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow of Zero Dark Thirty fame did plenty of secret deals with the CIA. The emails are there to see.

Director Benjamin Gilmour photographing non-actors

Q: How did you persuade local non-actors to be involved in the film?

A: We first showed them the respect of sharing the whole story with them. We were open and honest about our intentions. We invited their feedback and incorporated it into the story for authenticity. They took some ownership of the project, they were passionate about it.

Yes, we paid them. But it was way more than that. It is hard to buy loyalty in Afghanistan. They are very principled people. Generally speaking, if they think your idea is bad, they won’t help you, no matter what you pay.

Q: Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad plays the taxi driver in ‘Jirga’. He also appeared in your first feature, ‘Son Of A Lion’. What did it mean to you to reunite with Sher Alam on this project?

A: True love. This man is the archetypical Afghan ‘warrior poet’. He’s famous for his fighting prowess as a member of the mujahedin against the Soviets in the eighties, helping to save thirty comrades from a group of two hundred that were slaughtered by the Russians. He took out several tanks with RPGs during that era.

But he is also a musician, an ustad (maestro) of the Afghan lute known as rabab, a singer and poet. And his performance in both films has been widely lauded.

Q: One of the images that stands out to me from the trailer is the swan pedalo. Is there a story behind that?

A: Well, there is a lake in central Afghanistan, a series of lakes in fact, known as Band-e-Amir. They are paradise on earth. Crystal clear, turquoise water. You can see fish swimming ten metres below the surface as if they were right in front of your face. There is nothing much around these remote lakes, except for a row of pastel coloured swan-shaped pedal boats.

I went to Band-e-Amir after reading about the lakes in a diary of a guy who had been on the so-called ‘hippie trail’ in the early 1970s. I visited in 2013, checking out locations for Jirga. And swore I’d include these lakes and that pink pedalo in the film.

The cinema screen is a canvas, and your camera is the brush, someone said once. My instinct that this strong image would help add levity to a heavy theme and the pink swan would become the defining image used to promote the film.

Q: What was your takeaway or learning experience from making this film?

There were many. Most dominantly, the idea that obstacles should not frustrate you, or, let’s say, not derail you. There are some that can and are obviously out of your control. But in our case, all our hurdles were able to be hurdled. We saw the obstacles as necessary challenges. We accepted them as part of the process in that environment.

One thing I came to ask myself was why we expected our protagonist to face obstacles and not us, the filmmakers? Why should we have it easy when our protagonist does not?

Characters who make it through the obstacles get to have the holy grail or the girl or redemption or whatever. As filmmakers we should think the same way. If we make it through the valley of death, we get a film.

Q: You worked as a paramedic for a number of years before making your first film. People can learn more about these experiences in your recently released book, The Gap. What grounding did your time as a paramedic give you for the world of filmmaking?

A: I think paramedic work teaches you skills in keeping calm and thinking your way out of problems, in being resourceful under pressure, and working in unpredictable situations and difficult environments.

Also in communicating in crisis and with people of all walks of life and cultural backgrounds. Most of all it’s a great place to practice empathy. And film is all about that, isn’t it? Good filmmakers have excellent skills in empathy, in getting an audience to feel for (and with) their characters.

Q: What do you hope UK audiences at the Raindance Film Festival leave ‘Jirga’ reflecting on?

A: Our involvement in conflicts thousands of miles from home. The impact of war on civilians and combatants.

But on a different level, asking themselves the question of what can be done with guilt. With moral injury. All of us have hurt someone at some time or another. We don’t need to soldiers in Afghanistan killing people. So what have we done with our own guilt? Have we let it chew us up and spit us out? Or have we faced it head on, like the veteran in Jirga does? 

Q: What is next for you?

A: It’s bizarre to think that the last time I was in London I was working on film sets as a unit nurse, mixing up Berroca for hungover grips in 2004 on The Bill and Zero to Hero, remember that one? Now I’m three features in as director and I would love to come back and work as a director in the UK.

I’ve several new projects in early development, one in the US and another in Australia. But I love British cinema and TV and I have several strong ideas set in the UK. So I do hope to return one day. In the meantime, it’s a real pleasure to know that UK audiences will get to see Jirga.

You can see ‘Jirga’ at the Raindance Film Festival in London (20 and 21 September). For ticket info

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