Join Soundtrack Stream to Research the article “Jirga review – contemplative war film with a powerful sense of purpose | Sydney film festival 2018”
There are pared-down war films, opting for slow-burn over spectacle, and then there are wars films like Jirga, which are buoyed by a tremendous sense of restraint: so rich and contemplative; so reluctant to sensationalise or speculate.
The story behind the production is perhaps more dramatic: originally to be filmed in Pakistan, the Pakistan secret service blocked production after reading the script, leading the financier to withdraw support.
Instead of cancelling the shoot, Australian writer/director Benjamin Gilmour and his small crew relocated to Afghanistan and worked in dangerous conditions, requiring a flexible approach to what they could film and when. You wouldn’t think of that when watching the finished product; the film feels so controlled.
Jirga is Gilmour’s second feature film, following the meditative 2007 coming-of-age drama Son of a Lion (about a boy living in a small Pakistani town in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, formerly known as the North-West Frontier). It retreads the sentiments of several war dramas, including Jonathan Teplitzky’s The Railway Man.
Jirga has heavy questions on its mind, about the caveats we put around compassion and what pursuing forgiveness demands of ourselves and other people. How, as a soldier, do you apologise for sins committed during wartime? In what ways should victims and innocent parties respond?
At the film’s core is a sullen, taciturn performance from Sam Smith, who previously appeared in Home and Away – and now could hardly be further from the beaches of Summer Bay, geographically and symbolically. As former Australian soldier Mike Wheeler, returning to Afghanistan three years after a dramatic incident, Smith paints a picture of a man unwilling or unable to bend emotionally, with a dogged stoicism that feels like a form of self-punishment.
The film begins with a military operation, detailed in thick, eerie night-vision green, before jumping ahead in time. Gilmour’s handheld ob-doc style camerawork (he shot the film himself) has a lo-fi, colour-drained texture, establishing a verisimilitude that lasts from the first shot to the last. So does the film’s slow pace and airy, ruminative atmosphere: there’s a lot of oxygen to breathe in this drama; a lot of space for thought.
Wheeler begins in Kabul and ventures to increasingly remote locations. We wait for the first big dramatic moment to kickstart the plot; instead Gilmour persuades us to care less and less about quick hits of gratification, or even standard storytelling techniques. The protagonist, whose motives are unclear, asks a guide to take him further into the mountains and the desert. You could describe the plot as virtually non-existent, or you could say the story is told with utter grace and purpose.
Both descriptions are accurate. Narrative details certainly aren’t the focus, with so few turning points they are perhaps best left to the film to divulge. Sparse use of subtitles further heightens the realism, while the soundtrack reflects more cinematic inclinations. The work of composer AJ True and sound designer Liam Egan are largely why Jirga’s atmosphere feels so rich and full-bodied. The score has a beautiful, lyrical way of rising and falling, coming in and out of consciousness, dabbling in an aural smorgasbord including strings, synthesisers and the sound of wind blowing against surfaces.
Son of a Lion is a more polished production from a technical perspective, but Jirga has precisely calibrated rawness and a greater, more powerful sense of purpose. Its very existence seems to constitute an act of compassion. Little examination of the themes is required to ascertain that Gilmour’s messages come from a position ideologically opposed to war in general, and the war in Afghanistan specifically.
Viewers who stumble into the cinema hoping for a frenetic all-guns-blazing combat picture may find themselves in unbearable frustration. Then again, this very fine film has a way of pulling you towards its wavelength.
• Sydney film festival continues until 17 June
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Jirga review – contemplative war film with a powerful sense of purpose | Sydney film festival 2018