The Australian film maker, Benjamin Gilmour’s new feature film Jirga achieves cinematic triumph by a truly realistic and honest portrayal of the endless war in Afghanistan. The movie has been shot under harsh circumstances and with basic technical equipment.
Benjamin Gilmour talks to the Editor of Offoq:
Offoq: At the outset, could you tell us briefly about yourself and your artistic life?
- G: Of course. I was born in Germany to a German mother and my father is Australian of Scottish descent. I grew up in Sydney but from the moment I left home I have travelled and volunteered as a medic in various countries, from Mexico to India and the Balkans. I’m a trained paramedic and still work part time on ambulances but have had an interest in filmmaking since I worked for a short time in London as a nurse on film sets in 2002. This was right after I had come back from a trip to Pakistan, specifically the north west frontier where I lived among the Pashtuns for a while. I really enjoyed my time and I learned a great deal about Pashtun culture and their history in Afghanistan. So I was in the UK directly after 9/11 and that part of the world was always in the news as the Americans had invaded. I was disturbed by the depiction of Afghans in the media, that due to the hospitality they gave to Al Qaeda that they were now suffering the horrors of invasion and occupation and what has turned out to be the longest war the US and Australia and other allies have fought. So, my filmmaking was initially driven by my desire to share my own perspectives of the people who were players in this war whose company I had so enjoyed and who I knew just wanted peace and were understandably opposed to occupation without end. My artistic life is therefore related directly to my politics and my humanitarian work. The one informs the other and vice versa.
Offoq: From a multitude of topics, how did you come up with the situation in Afghanistan that you have chosen the storyline for your script?
- G: Afghanistan is a nation of stories. The story of Jirga however, the story of a foreign soldier coming back to apologise for an accident in which he killed a civilian man, was from my imagination. But it is not implausible. I am, as an artist, proposing a possibility, proposing how a better world can be. And the story is based on several existing facts: first, that in Afghan tradition there is the concept of mercy and forgiveness. In Pakhtunwali for example there is Nanawatey, whereby a perpetrator seeking genuine remorse and apology is given forgiveness by the Jirga or under instruction from the jirga. This I find very interesting and it is something rarely discussed in the West, the idea of ancient cultures with well-developed systems of restorative justice. Secondly, there are thousands of former soldiers who have served in Afghanistan who are disturbed by their experiences. We talk a great deal about physical injuries, even Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but no so much ‘moral injuries’. And this is what I am interested in, the damage to a person’s morals from the war experience, the taking of a life. It has been shown to have a profound, life-destroying effect on soldiers. Now, if you take the damaged soldier afflicted by guilt and you take Afghan tradition of forgiveness where there is genuine remorse, then you have the ingredients for true healing. And this is what I have tried to explore with Jirga.
Offoq: It is commonly understood fact that no film is free from the personal motivation of a filmmaker, no matter how realistic the film could be imagined. To what extent your film is based on the ground realities?
- G: Yes of course, my heart and my politics are all over Jirga. And yes, it is an anti-war film, it is very critical of war as a way of achieving a desired end because of the damage that is done in the process. My position is easy to see in the film. But it is not only my voice. I am projecting the voices of all those Afghans who have shared with me their stories of how the war has damaged them, their families, their livelihoods and environment. I think Jirga is based on real ground realities, for example, it touches on the opinions of civilians, the dangers of travelling to certain parts of the country, the relationship between Taliban and Daesh, the attitude to foreigners after 17 years of war etc. Even though, I admit, I have not as yet come across a true story as we depict in the film. But I hope in future this story will become a reality.
Offoq: How and from which sources did you gather together the truths and events of your film?
- G: I gathered these realities from Afghans I know both in Australia, Afghanistan and in Pakistan. Also, from certain freelance journalists whose work I trust and who write from the frontlines. Most importantly I worked very closely with Afghans during the shooting days to test every element for authenticity. If there was a single storyline or even a single line of dialogue that did not ring true, our Afghan actors and producers would alert me. This was their instruction from the outset, to ensure above all else that truth is being upheld. Because what do we have if we do not have truth?
Offoq: The title of a book, a feature story or a film always, in a nutshell, expresses their very contents. What expression would your audience receive from Jirga, the title of your film?
- G. Jirga epitomises the story of a foreign soldier voluntarily submitting himself to an age-old Afghan tribal court. Not an installed Western model of democracy, but the Afghan tradition. That he puts his life in their hands. I think this is extremely significant, because by his actions he is giving legitimacy to the Afghan tradition, unlike other representatives of his invading nation who want to shape Afghanistan into a country modelled on Western nations. I have a problem with Western democracies enforcing their ideal on indigenous cultures. It is essential colonialism and it is still going on in the guise of ‘war on terror’. In the old days this was called ‘civilising the savages’. These are the justifications that are given to allow for, essentially, control of resources and power. So, for a foreign soldier as representative of the West to be on bended knee and apologising and ready to accept the judgement of a jirga no matter what it be, even if it is death, well, that to me is how the West to behave now. With humility, the only way forward. So, the title Jirga absolutely expresses the heart of the film.
Offoq: What message (messages) would you like to convey to your viewers through your film?
- G. Well that is for them to decide. A true artist would leave the message to the audience to interpret or derive. Essentially, as I have already mentioned, my stance is that war is usually counter-productive. More troops inflame the situation and embolden the enemy. This week we heard that there will be US drawdown of troops. I support this, even though I know Trump is doing this for selfish reasons. I support this because most Afghans I have spoken to on the ground are not in favour of an endless occupation. They also believe US Army is the number one propaganda tool militants use to justify their own existence, it gives Taliban and Daesh legitimacy. So take that element out and it could be a surprise with how positive the effect could be. I know people fear a civil war. That is understandable, there has been a history of that, people are very sensitive to that, and it is a possibility, of course. But, if the West properly support the NUG and ANA, police etc, and if negotiations with Taliban are fair and realistic, then I am hopeful that the result will be positive.
Offoq: How do you evaluate the responses you have so far received from the viewers of your film?
- G. Critics have been overwhelmingly positive, as has the audience reaction. Of course, there are detractors, what can I say to those. They have their reasons, difference in politics, in experiences, in motives and so on. But the message of the film is one of reconciliation, of peace and healing and harmony. And those are a very difficult objectives to argue against.
Offoq: Feelings and emotions of an artist are inseparable part of his/her artwork. To what extent you are satisfied emotionally from the Jirga?
- G. I am satisfied in the way that the film has turned out for the most part as I hoped it would. From an emotional point of view, it has achieved what I set out to do in the hearts of viewers. You are right, my emotions are strongly detachable in Jirga and transferred to the audience by watching. When I filmed the scene of the soldier meeting with widow of the man he had killed, I had tears in my eyes, so much so I could hardly keep the camera in focus. So, it is understandable that audiences have the same reaction in this scene. In that sense the film has done its work. I hope though that will reach an even greater audiences when the film is broadcast on TV and streaming sites this year (2019).
Offoq: Thank you, Mr Gilmour, for your time. We are looking forward to your more fantastic productions. Zia