Sydney Film Festival Review: Jirga (Australia, 2017) is a humane look behind the curtain of war

That Jirga is quiet and understated is the film’s biggest strength, consciously moving away from the lurid details of your typical war blockbuster and presenting something of a bare-bones human story about redemption and forgiveness. When Director Benjamin Gilmour and actor Sam Smith, both Australian, spent 20 days shooting this film they did so at great risk to their own lives. It was made in secret, shot on a camera bought at a Pakistani shopping mall, amidst all the storied dangers of a country like Afghanistan, mainly the risk of being taken hostage by ISIS or killed in a suicide bombing. Smith reportedly slept with a knife in his hand under a pillow while staying in a hotel room with a broken lock, and one of the Afghani actors carried a handgun as security.

As far as courageous filmmaking goes, few can beat Gilmour and Smith’s commitment despite all the warning signs and reasonable apprehension that would have followed once the original conception was blocked by the Pakistan secret service, something which lead to the film’s main financial backer to withdraw support. So it’s no surprise Jirga is one of the big talking points of the 65th annual Sydney Film Festival, with both Gilmour and Smith both in attendance. Their film is a fascinating practice of restraint, although this is highly likely due to the practical limitations of such a project. As mentioned above, it is quiet and understated, deeply solemn and slow-moving, with the rugged landscape of Afghanistan larger and louder than any one piece of dialogue.

Smith earnestly slips into the role of Mike Wheeler, a former Australian soldier who returns to Afghanistan three years after he shot and killed an unarmed man while deployed in a remote Afghan village. His goal is to return to that village with financial compensation for that man’s family. Gilmour sticks solely to Wheeler with his handheld camera, reflecting the lack of embellishment both in plot and visuals with a style so lo-fi and unsteady that the story almost seems like am amateur documentary in some parts. Wheeler’s journey to get to this remote village, an area of rural Afghanistan which locals persistently deem much too dangerous for travel (a reflection of the actual making-of perhaps), is drained of drama and replaced with a thick of air of contemplation, regret, and determination for profound redemption that is unfortunately never fleshed out beyond the surface.

From Kabul to a supposed no-go area of Afghanistan, Mike’s journey is one of unspoken poignancy as his goal slowly transforms into something with more finality and purpose, shifting from the capitalist ideal of financial compensation and focusing on inner-strength and acceptance at one with his quest for punishment. It makes sense; Gilmour’s previous work has shown a penchant for meditative studies that are stripped of the superficial, asking heavier questions of human nature, which in this case are concerned with a capacity for forgiveness and compassion that is often ignored in fictionalised stories of the war in the middle east.

With great sensitivity and patience, Gilmour, a former paramedic, has crafted a beautiful film in the arid surrounds of Jalalabad; one that needs no excitement or embellishment to distract it from its very humane treatment of its characters, location and message. That kind of art is always worth creating.

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Jirga is currently screening as part of the Sydney Film Festival. More information and session times can be found HERE.