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Is "Jirga" a white savior movie about Afghanistan? "We have a lot to feel guilty about"

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The intense, minimalist Australian film, “Jirga,” written and directed by Benjamin Gilmour, takes its title from the word for an Afghan court of tribal elders. This drama, which was Australia’s Oscar entry last year, opens July 26 in New York before playing other cities; it will be available on VOD in late October.

A pre-title sequence depicts a military raid on an Afghan village where Mike Wheeler (Sam Smith in a compelling performance) kills a man during his mission. Cut to three years later, when Mike returns to Kabul on another mission—to return to the village and seek forgiveness from the widow and child of the man he killed.

As Mike tries to get to Kandahar, he is repeatedly told that it is too dangerous. Even the driver he hires (Pashtun actor Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad) refuses to take him where he wants to go. Mike’s journey is fraught with peril, from wandering alone in the desert to an encounter with the Taliban. He eventually arrives in the village where a Jirga is held to determine Mike’s fate: punishment or forgiveness.

Gilmour immerses viewers in the story, often using a hand-held camera to follow Mike through the crowded streets of Kabul, or on his travels to Kandahar. The film is only partially subtitled, allowing the audience to share Mike’s inability to communicate — as in his exchanges with his taxi driver — or when he meets the Taliban. Moreover, the film contrasts Mike’s desire to recompense the family members for the death he caused with the local rituals and customs, such as how to make a proper apology.

Via WhatsApp from Australia, Gilmour talked with Salon about his experiences in Afghanistan, digging for truth about the war, and “Jirga,” which he describes as, “an example of what is possible not just between nations at war, but also in our own lives.”

How did you learn about Jirgas, and what made you develop a film around this tribal court of Afghan elders?

I first learned about Jirgas as part of an education by a Shinwari tribesman who took me in and gave me protection in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan in 2004. I spent ten months there when I was making my previous film, “Son of a Lion,” and I met with the tribes(men) and they advised me making the film. We spent days, nights, weeks, and months chatting, and they told me about the history of Afghanistan and Pashtun culture and history. I became very interested in this warrior-poet culture. It really appealed to me. They could embrace the artistic, sensitive side while being known for their courage and fighting prowess. This appealed to me because the type of masculinity I was exposed to [growing up] in Australia was about football and beer and the suppression of anything soft and poetic. As someone who loved music and culture, I never felt at home in my culture, but suddenly it was OK to be the man I wanted to be. So, I was very drawn to Pashtun culture, and part of that was their tribal code of conduct: Pashtunwali. An important element of that is the Jirga, a traditional assembly of elders that makes decisions according to the teachings of this tribal code.

Can you talk more about your experiences in Pakistan and Afghanistan?

My girlfriend [now wife] and I had been backpacking in Pakistan in 2001. We wanted to cross into Afghanistan but were told it was dangerous because of the Taliban. We had our motorbike impounded at the Pakistan-India border and we had to spend the night with a man who was with the Inter Services........

© Salon