“Jirga” - Benjamin Gilmour (2018)

Jirga (2018) is an Australian-made drama set in strife-torn Afghanistan that covers some issues associated with guilt from different perspectives.  How this film came to be made is actually an interesting story in its own right.  Writer-director-cameraman Benjamin Gilmour’s only other film, Son of a Lion (2007), was shot and set in Pakistan, and he intended to have Jirga shot in Pakistan, too.  However, once he and his crew started shooting in Pakistan, the Pakistani government’s Inter-services Intelligence (ISI) agency read the script and decided to revoke permission to shoot the film in that country [1].  This led Gilmour’s Pakistan-based principal funder to withdraw his financial support for the production.  Left without a crew and financial backing, Gilmour chose to shift to Afghanistan and rely on crowd-funding to shoot the film on-the-fly and under dangerous, sometimes life-threatening, conditions. 

The story that was filmed to make Jirga concerns a young Australian soldier, Mike Wheeler (played by Sam Smith), who returns to Afghanistan on his own after having served there three years earlier in the Australian military peacekeeping forces.  His return trip to Afghanistan is a personal mission and the  key to this film, but it takes some time in the telling of this tale for the reasons behind this mission to be revealed.  It is soon revealed, however, that Mike is carrying tens of thousands of dollars in US currency that are presumably to be used as an instrument on this mission.  It is only later revealed in the film that three years earlier Mike had accidentally killed an unarmed Afghan civilian, and he has returned now to seek out the family of his victim and to express his repentance for what he did.

The story of Mike’s mission is presented in five rather disjointed segments, the disjointedness of which we can probably attribute to the difficult shooting circumstance that Gilmour and his production team faced in Afghanistan.  (For example, Gilmour apparently shot the film himself with just a single hand-held camera that he had picked up in Pakistan [2]). 

1.  Kabul
At the outset of the film, the sullen and swarthy Mike Wheeler is shown having recently arrived in Kabul and looking to hire a taxi driver to take him on a long journey south to a village near the city of Kandahar.  This is a difficult task for two reasons.  For one thing, the Kandahar area is held by the violent Taliban insurgents, and none of the taxi drivers is willing to drive there.  In addition Mike doesn’t speak the native Pashtun language, and the drivers hardly speak any English.  So negotiating anything with a taxi driver is extremely difficult. 

Gilmour’s mise-en-scene concentrates the focalization of the film almost exclusively on Mike, so the viewer is only privy to what Mike sees and hears.  Thus, although there is quite a bit of Pashtun heard on the soundtrack, there are no subtitles provided; so the viewer is likely to be just as ignorant as Mike concerning what is being said [3].

Eventually, Mike does manage to hire a taxi driver to take him south, without specifying precisely where he intends to go.

2.  The Taxi Trip
The next segment shows Mike and the taxi driver (Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad) heading south through the picturesque mountainous landscape.   And despite the language barrier, they gradually get to know each other and become friends.  Eventually and after much effort, Mike does manage to persuade his reluctant driver to take him into the dangerous Taliban-infested area,  Although the story seems to dawdle during this part of the film, this sequence, which depicts the universality of human companionship, despite differences in language, customs, religion, etc., and which is presented in beautiful natural surroundings, is one of the more appealing parts of the  film.

3.  Lost in the Wilderness

After considerable travel, their taxi is eventually stopped on the road at a Taliban checkpoint, and Mike just barely manages to escape capture by running off into the barren wilderness.  This extended sequence shows Mike utterly alone and wandering without food and water under the hot sun through the desert-like terrain.  Again the narrative seems to slow down even more, although the shots of the naturally scenic landscape in the background are dazzling.

Mike finally drops down on the ground and loses consciousness.  He is apparently close to death.

4.  A Taliban Captive

But the Taliban happen to discover Mike just in time and take him captive, and now the pace of the film picks up again.  Mike’s captors brutally subject him to severe beatings, and then they coldly discuss what to do with him – with the presumption that it is probably best to kill him.  However, one of the Taliban guerrillas can speak some English, and Mike finally has the chance to explain to them what his mission is about and that it is not intended to be a threat to the Taliban.  He wants to seek his victim’s family and offer them all his money as recompense for what he had done.  But his Taliban captors  dismissively explain to him that giving money to his victim’s family members would just be seen as selling a life for money and would therefore be unacceptable to any true Muslim.  So, to them, his mission was doomed to be futile anyway.

Although it still seems that most of the Taliban in this troop want to see Mike put to death, their senior leader is mysteriously fascinated by the altruistic extravagance of Mike’s mission.  He orders his men to escort Mike to the vicinity of his victim’s village, which does not happen to be under Taliban control, and let him go there on his own.

5.  The Village Jirga
Mike now enters the village of his victim and abandons the idea of offering “bribery” money to his victim’s family (a widow and two children) for the expiation of his sins.  Mike is quickly incarcerated, and a village jirga (a council of village elders) is summoned to determine his fate.  What transpires in the end is an  intriguing but debatable form of justice, and there is some doubt in my mind as to whether anything conclusive or uplifting has been achieved.  Since the film’s basic themes concern guilt, repentance, and justice all seen from a cross-cultural or universal perspective, the way the film ends was something of a disappointment for me.

We know that Mike feels very guilty about what he did, but he is so taciturn that we never know about the nature of his repentance or what he conceives to be appropriate atonement.  In addition, what is the nature of forgiveness that he seeks, and what is the nature of forgiveness that his victims are capable of?  It is generally accepted in the Abrahamic religions that God, or Allah, will fully forgive a sinner who truly repents his or her wrongdoings. But this is a matter between the human sinner and God, Who can unerringly assess the true nature of the sinners repentance.  It is much more ambiguous, even in these same religious cultures, concerning the degree to which religious humans will forgive the sins of their fellow humans. 

And the film’s coverage of this issue does not offer much insight. Are we only left with the notion that “two wrongs don’t make a right”?  And the mechanism by which the village jirga executes its justice in the end also seems arbitrary, at best.  So although there is a certain degree of rapprochement, or “coming together”, across cultural disparities in the film, the extent to which any common understanding is actually achieved is unclear.

On the production level, I also had some misgivings concerning some aspects of the film.  Although we have to grant director Benjamin Gilmour considerable latitude in view of the difficult production conditions he faced, nevertheless it is necessary to warn prospective viewers that (a) the almost-continuous shaky hand-held camera movement and (b) the numerous jarring jump-cuts throughout the film are a constant disturbance to one’s viewing enjoyment of the film.

So overall, we could say that Jirga does have some fascinating moments, even if the ride is definitely bumpy along the way.

  1. Benjamin Gilmour, Cameras and Kalashnikovs: The Making of Jirga, Benjamin Gilmour Films, (29 May 2018). 
  2. Richard Gray, “Review: Jirga”, thereelbits.com, (18 June 2018).  
  3. Later, when Mike is captured by the Taliban, there is some brief focalization on his captors, and there are some subtitles concerning what they are saying.

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