TIFF 2018: Two-On-One with JIRGA’s Benjamin Gilmour and Sam Smith

By: Trevor Chartrand

There are some unforgettable vast desert vistas in Jirga, a philosophical study of redemption and forgiveness screening at this year’s festival.  I had a chance to talk with director Benjamin Gilmour and star Sam Smith to discuss their experience making the film, but I just had to ask about those landscapes.

Trevor Chartrand: The vast, wide landscapes in Jirga are truly breathtaking.  How was the look of the film determined, and the decision to shoot so many scenes with such a wide angle? 

Benjamin Gilmour: It appears the film is shot on wide angle, but it wasn’t that wide.  I used one 24-70mm zoom lens for the whole shoot.  It’s just that the Afghan landscape is indeed so captivating and, as you say, breathtaking.  It will really surprise people, and it’s part of my wider interest in up-ending an audiences preconceptions about a place and people.

I didn’t want to fall into the cliché of depicting only that desert mountain moonscape we see marines trudging through on the news.  Everyone already sees Afghanistan as a harsh place, which it isn’t.  That’s a very narrow perspective, and just adds to the outsider’s view of the country in general as hostile.  In reality, there are lush valleys, shimmering lakes, and abundant fruit trees.  Afghanistan is one of the richest countries in the world when it comes to biological diversity, with more flora species than all of Europe.  The cinema screen is a mighty canvas crying out to be used.  So, we really made the most of it by capturing the diversity of the landscapes and the biggest, most dazzling environments through which our character travels.

TC: What was your original inspiration to explore this topic?  Was there a real-life ‘Mike Wheeler,’ a soldier plagued with guilt after killing a civilian while on active duty? 

BG: Many roads of inspiration lead to this film: my love for Afghanistan and it’s people;  my frustration and sympathy for Afghans about the current war (in a long line of wars);  my interest in the aesthetic and character of the Taliban;  my contact with physical and mentally damaged veterans as a long-serving paramedic and my anger at the hateful political rhetoric around Muslims.  While I do not (as yet) know any stories of ex-soldiers travelling back solo to the location of a raid with the intention of apologizing to a victim’s family, there’s no doubt in my mind that this could, and should, be happening.  Not only from an exposure therapy point of view, but because of the value of restorative justice, which is an age-old tradition in Afghan culture and many other indigenous cultures worldwide.  Jirga explores a realistic possibility, a better world imagined.  And, it asks the question (even outside of the Afghan setting) about how far we’d go to heal a wound.

TC: And Sam, how were you first approached with the opportunity to perform in Jirga

SS: I heard about the project some time prior to auditioning.  I was intrigued since it was a war story told from a different perspective.

TC: Did you ever have any concerns about the unconventional nature of the shoot in Afghanistan, or did you approach it as an exciting challenge? 

SS: It was definitely an exciting challenge and, yes, I definitely had concerns at times.  It’s hard not to when you finish a day of shooting and have time to consider the fact that you’re in a war zone.  So many challenges we faced came up day-to-day that we just got used to it.  Everything was very much “on the fly” – for example, we can’t shoot in the caves today because there’s a possibility IED’s have been planted.

TC: Mike Wheeler spends the majority of Jirga in a foreign country where he doesn’t speak the native language.  How did the language barrier determine your performance choices, especially when playing scenes against non-English speaking actors?

SS: I’m far more interested in behaviour than dialogue, so I was very happy working that way.  In many ways, the removal of a shared spoken language opened up the possibility to listen in another way.

TC: The film breaks down barriers and challenges stereotypes – we see a much more peaceful, forgiving Afghan culture than most media outlets would present.  Was this also your experience with the citizens of Afghanistan while making the film?  Were there ever any hostilities or threats to production during the shoot? 

BG: Our Afghan cast and crew were the most warm, generous, funny people I’ve ever worked with – I miss them every day.  And this friendship, the very close bond we formed as a tight-knit team, deepens further under time and security pressures.

Trust was a huge factor: as two, unarmed Western guys, we absolutely had to put our trust into a few very dependable Afghans.  In turn, our Afghan team trusted Sam and I that we weren’t just tire-kicking, that we were absolutely committed to finishing this, to achieving a film.  This pressure to make sure the risks we all took (and the precious time away from our families) was something I continued to feel back in Sydney during post-production.  So yes, the sense you get in Afghanistan is that, once an Afghan believes in what you are doing and decides to collaborate with you, they will die for you such is their honour and respect for their guest.  In this case, I think it was more than that.  They took Jirga and ran with it, invested their creative energies in it, and made it their own;  which is exactly what we wanted to happen because we never wanted to be these two white men imposing something on them.

I considered myself more like a messenger, allowing the Afghans we were with to use me a voice box to share with the world a more realistic depiction of their culture and beliefs.  But, of course, there are some militant groups operating in the country for whom a real kidnapping is too tempting because of the opportunity to raise ransom money or a prison exchange.  We had to be wary of this, that our film about a former soldier kidnapped by Taliban didn’t become a reality.

TC: In the final moments of the film, Mike Wheeler’s life or death is determined by the decision of a young boy.  This powerful moment showcases the character’s resolve, bravery, determination and desperation – what was your mindset and approach to playing this most desperate, dangerous moment?

SS: I remember when first reading the script, feeling that in that moment whether the decision made by the boy is vengeance or mercy, and in Mike’s case that means life or death.  Either would mean release.  I actually didn’t make a decision prior to shooting the scene as to which he wanted more.


Jirga screens at TIFF on:

Thursday, September 13 at 9:30 a.m. @ TIFF Bell Lightbox
Sunday, September 16 at 3:45 p.m. @ Jackman Hall (AGO)

Rating: 14A
Language: Pashto, English
Runtime: 78 minutes

For more information on the festival, visit the official TIFF webpage here.

Buy tickets here.

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Trevor Chartrand: @OhHaiTrebor

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