27th Raindance Film Festival | 2019
Benjamin Gilmour: "To make a film in this guerrilla fashion you have to have all the qualities of a successful insurgency: patience, stealth, and readiness to strike when an opportunity arises."
JIRGA | Dir. Benjamin Gilmour | UK Premiere
20-21 September (Times Vary) | Tickets
Former Australian soldier, Mike Wheeler, returns to Afghanistan, seeking redemption from the family of a civilian man he killed during the war.
Hey Benjamin, thanks for talking to TNC, how is everything going?
With this being your UK Premiere for Jirga, are there any nerves ahead of your screening?
Not so much. I have many weaknesses. But nerves are not one of them. I'm a filmmaker, but also a long-serving paramedic. I think that might have something to do with it. What I do feel is excitement. I feel it for this screening, for the reactions of the audience to the film, the surprise, the emotion, the lasting impact. I wish I was a silent shadow in the wings of the theatre, watching the audience responding at every moment.
What does it mean for you to be at the Raindance Film Festival?
It is an honour. The festival is very well respected and the audiences are smart and engaged. There are so many thousands of films out there right now, the marketplace is crowded, the competition for eyeballs is fierce. But I don't want eyeballs, I want hearts. We aimed for that in the making of Jirga. We aimed to take the viewer into the real Afghanistan with nothing faked, with real Afghans telling it how it is, but in a drama, in a fictional story based on what we (and our Afghan collaborators) believe is possible for peace.
Tell me a little bit about Jirga, how did this film come about?
I was working on the streets as a paramedic in the red light district of Sydney in 2010 when I encountered a homeless man who was suffering psychosis. He told me it all started when he was in the army, during a raid on a village in Afghanistan in which he shot a man who may or may not have been armed. He was unsure. It plagued him. I cared about that war because I'd made a ton of Pashtun friends during my time directing a film in Pakistan in 2005 called 'Son of a Lion' (selected for Berlinale in 2007). I was opposed to the war and often got messages from my friends who had lost loved ones over the Durand Line due to US raids, bombings or even down in Waziristan to CIA drone strikes. I wrote a screenplay then about a soldier who, instead of allowing the guilt to torment him (or even kill him) buys two tickets to Kabul and travels back to find the village where a bungled raid took place and apologise to the family of a civilian he killed.
What has been the most challenging part of making this film?
Well, the most challenging was never know what we could get. The uncertainty. To make a film in this guerrilla fashion you have to have all the qualities of a successful insurgency: patience, stealth, and readiness to strike when an opportunity arises. There is also a disguise. Blending in. This is also a risk when it came to 'friendly fire', ie. being hit by a missile from the US or Afghan Army. Both Australian actor Sam Smith and I were dressed in Afghan clothing on mountainsides very close to Taliban and ISIS positions, areas surveilled by US drones and Afghan spy blimps. We were very much exposed to the risk of a missile strike, as was our crew. So much so that I took screenshots of our coordinates from Google Earth and sent them to the US Ambassador via the Australian Second Secretary who was calling me all the time, urging us to get out.
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
Not really. My German grandfather was an avid Super-8 guy and made these incredible home videos with lounge music soundtracks and fancy splicing and quite an expert editing. I used to watch him edit on the dining room table. I think those movie nights projecting onto a wall was an influence. But I didn't really start watching films until my late teens. Two films, in particular, inspired me to start directing. Mire Nair's Salaam Bombay and Michael Winterbottom's In This World.
How much has your approach to filmmaking changed since your debut film?
I've learned an enormous amount on the road about filmmaking technicalities, mostly from making mistakes and being in the thick of it. But I'm still very drawn to the observational documentary approach to drama, of taking real life and putting genuine elements of truth together, observing the interaction and result. I like this experimental nature of filmmaking, not planning it too much, not micromanaging action, not trying to control and contain everything, which I think can stifle magic. It's why I have a problem with the word 'director',because I feel like I'm doing the opposite when I direct. Minimal if any intervention, just taking the elements, setting them in motion, and standing back to observe free will. The approach I used in Jirga was the same approach I used in Son of a Lion, at least in much of the film. There were moments when we had to resort to micro-managing the action due to time constraints, but I tried to keep that to a minimum.
"Make sure it has something to say and has heart, most of all. If your film has heart, you don't need the rest to be slick."
What words best describe a Jirga?
A tribal court of elders.
Do you have any advice for any up and coming directors?
Yes. Don't wait for the gatekeepers. Just take that camera and go make a film. In this day and age, it is more possible than ever. But make sure you are not trying to make your debut like The Matrix and with 10 pounds. Be realistic, write something that you think you can do with what you have and who you know will help. Make sure it has something to say and has heart, most of all. If your film has heart, you don't need the rest to be slick. There's a movement against slick anyway. People don't trust it so much anymore. People are yearning for truth in this post-truth era. Give them the truth, something real and gritty and unpretentious, and you'll be more than halfway there.
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from your film?
Understanding and compassion for those who they never thought they'd feel it for. I want people to have their assumptions challenged and be surprised by their own empathy.