Sunday, 10 June 2018

Sydney Film Festival (11) - Barrie Pattison reviews JIRGA (Benjamin Gilmour, Australia, 2017)

Benjamin Gilmour
Benjamin Gilmour’s Jirga reaches us after the big sell, a cover story in the Weekend Sydney Morning Herald Magazine, a Sydney Film Festival premiere with the makers taking twenty minutes to thank half the population before the screening and tell the back story about going in cowboy-style to make the film when official channels backed off.

In case there’s anyone who still hasn’t heard, Gilmour and leading man Sam Smith shot in Afghanistan with an electronics store camera at genuine personal risk.

Only the hardest hearted commentator would knock it. Well I guess that’s where I come in. I can't help feeling that without a coherent Australian movie narrative tradition to draw on, we keep on being offered films like this one and Lion, which we are told we should value for their good intentions. I ponder paving the road to hell. 

What they emerged with is in many ways admirable. Jirga’ssetting, in parched mountains and real Kabul streets, has an unfamiliar and convincing look. Cameraman Gilmour covers himself with glory. I can’t say the same about writer Gilmour who has left both his protagonist and the Afghans he encounters short on defining detail. 

Former soldier Smith is burdened by guilt over shooting an innocent householder on a military raid three years before. As the film progresses we learn that his plan is to atone by giving the man’s family the money he has gladwrapped round his stomach.

Every one tells him it’s too dangerous to go back to Uruzgan province so he finds a compliant taxi driver who will take him to Bamiyan with its stunning, deserted blue lake, considered more tourist friendly. The Hotel Kabul page boy has to remind him to take the battered guitar that he has been using as a prop. It comes in handy for a jam with the cabbie.

A combination of cajolery and dollar bills gets the reluctant driver (what happens to him?) to drive Smith into the forbidden area. Of course they encounter a Taliban road block and our hero falls into the hands of locals who chain him to the wall and discuss ransom. This is actually the most interesting section of the film as the opponents take on one another's points of view even without being able to communicate properly. The murderous fighters, who have just shot a couple of their enemies outside the cave, feed our hero a tasty chicken stew when they get to know him. They are as skeptical about his plan as any audience member who thinks about it.

The final section follows logically with some nice performances from the Afghan cast. It is undermined by one of the film’s shortcomings however, the convenient way bi-lingual locals keep on showing up.

The ingredients, including Smith’s portrayal, and the location photography, are superior but this soldier guilt trip is something that keeps on failing to fly in movies going as far back as the Lubitsch The Man I Killed of 1932, (which recently got a do over as François Ozon’s Frantz).

It's a bit much to expect this one to work better.

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