January 12, 2020
Jirga – Australia, 2019
Benjamin Gilmour’s well-acted film Jirga is about a young man named Mike Wheeler (Sam Smith) who has accepted the possibility of imminent death and who, unlike ordinary people, walks toward it. This is, of course, not the same as seeking death, for in no scene does Mike do the equivalent of hopping on a horse, racing toward a row of enemy soldiers, leaning back, and closing his eyes; nor is it the first time he has ever faced the specter of demise head on. As an Australian soldier who served in Afghanistan as part of the global war of terror, advancing toward an uncertain fate would have been nothing out of the ordinary. What is new for him is that he is alone – no platoon, no back-up or air support, no medic to call for assistance. It is just he and a backpack. He isn’t even carrying a weapon.
His destination is Kandahar, a place whose very name inspires reservation and immediate discouragement. Too dangerous, he’s told repeatedly before an alternative is recommended. A taxi driver (Sher Alem Miskeen Ustad) won’t even accept US $500 to take him there, though that may be partly due to the fact that the Taliban would certainly love to get their hands on a foreigner, especially a soldier. The foreigner would be ransomed and most likely tortured; his Iraqi driver would likely suffer a similar fate. So, when Mike gets a driver, the driver takes him to an utterly beautiful lake surrounded by an impressive range of orange-brown highlands. It is the kind of place that, under different conditions, would be a major tourist attraction. In fact, the pink flamingo pedal boat they go out on hints that at one time it was.
A note about these earlier scenes: The words of the Afghani characters are not subtitled, the thinking likely being that if our protagonist cannot understand what is being said around him, then neither should the audience. It’s the right choice, for all too often interactions between characters who do not have a common language are played for comic effect. With the characters having two different conversations, how can’t it? Without the subtitles, though, we have to be more alert to subtle movements and tone of voice. The scene becomes about two characters getting to know each other using the only tools available to them – gestures, facial expressions, and music. Later, when Mike again entreats his driver to take him into harm’s way, there is no question as to why he still rejects the request, even though his exact words are withheld.
Fans of Japanese samurai films and Westerns will recognize the structure and themes of Jirga almost immediately, especially if they’ve seen any of the Zatoichi films. What separates this film is that our hero goes in without any means of defending himself. In other words, he is completely at the mercy of other people, and some of the ones he meets would like nothing more than to assassinate him on sight. In one climactic scene, his fate is literally in the hands of a young boy whose life will forever be impacted by the actions that have Mike compelled Mike to enter no man’s land. The scene is tense and emotional, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.
There’s an honesty in Jirga that is to be appreciated. Afghanistan is present as neither idyllic nor relentlessly chaotic. Like almost every place, there are safe places and places you wouldn’t bring your worst enemy. Everywhere, people are just trying to get by and live their lives peacefully. This description even applies to the young men we meet who are obviously part of local militia. The film doesn’t sugarcoat their extremism, yet it also sheds light on the code they live by and the traditions that bind them. In one scene, Mike asks them why they are willing to help him. They answer, “You are our guest.” After being reminded that Mike is actually their prisoner, their answer is telling. “Same thing.”
I have avoided revealing too much of the plot so far, and that’s for good reason. Films like this are best discovered and responded to in the moment. Knowing too much would likely make the first thirty minutes, during which there is an incredible amount of beauty and brotherhood, seem trivial or prodding. It might also diminish the impact of some of the film’s more emotional scenes, scenes that I was riveted by. In fact, when I bought the film, I did so without reading the description on the back of the insert. All I knew is that it was a foreign film that was unavailable in Taiwan and that it was the recipient of a number of awards. That was enough for me, and it’s the best way to watch a movie like this. Just sit back and prepare to be moved and amazed. You won’t regret it. (on DVD in Region 1)
*Jirga is in Pashtu and English with occasional English subtitles.