Australian actor Sam Smith excels himself in this moving and sometimes harrowing account of the return of an Australian soldier (Mike Wheeler) to his former battlefield.
Director Benjamin Gilmour’s risky and sometimes life-threatening decision to shoot Jirga ‘on location’ in Pakistan and Afghanistan (for increased realism) pays off handsomely, however, as the audience is treated to spectacular footage of ‘in country’ Afghanistan in all its majestic isolation.
And the intense realism doesn’t end there, as repentant ex-soldier Wheeler returns to the village where, three years’ earlier, he had shot and killed an innocent and unarmed Afghani man in the doorway of his house.
With this memory still playing on Wheeler’s mind well after the event, he decides to return to the scene of the crime in an attempt to make amends to the family for his wrongdoing.
Of course, his return is fraught with danger, as the Taliban and ISIS still retain firm control of the area; even in the villages around Kandahar, where Wheeler had been fighting.
Undeterred, Wheeler hires a taxi in Kabul – but the driver at first refuses to take him to the area.
However, after an overnight stay near a beautiful lake up in the mountains, the driver relents, and for a large sum of money agrees to take Wheeler as close as possible to the village.
Unfortunately, after he is dropped off, things get very bad for Wheeler, and the film earns much of its kudos from the tension and emotion generated when the Taliban eventually captures the former soldier, after he becomes lost and disorientated in the desert.
Jirga is not what I expected and contains very few scenes of torture or bloodshed, although there are of course, undercurrents throughout.
Its real strength lies in the emotions engendered by Wheeler’s genuine courage and determination to ‘settle the ledger’.
It is also to the director’s great credit that, such was the danger for cast and crew when making this film that it had to be shot in secret; as the director’s initial request to film it was blocked by the Pakistani Secret Service.
This ban also led to the film’s main financial backer withdrawing their support, thus also increasing the film’s risk from a financial perspective.
Quiet and understated, the film capitalises on the spectacular scenery, with the rugged backdrop and ‘lunar-like’ mountain ranges of southern Afghanistan, along the border of Pakistan, proving absolutely sublime.
The audience is captivated by the slow and methodical pace of the film, which slowly but surely drags us into its vortex, until we can no longer turn our eyes away.
The role of the village elders (or Jirga) in this film is also accentuated, with the climax a fitting tribute to both them and the family.
Jirga is showing exclusively at the Luna Leederville from September 27, 2018.
By Mike Peeters
On the lake near Kandahar