TIFF 2018 Interview: JIRGA director Benjamin Gilmour

“Shot in extraordinary conditions in Afghanistan, Jirga follows the story of an Australian war veteran who returns to Kandahar searching for the family of a civilian he accidentally killed during the war, and offering himself up to the village justice system – the Jirga.” Director Benjamin Gilmour on JIRGA which screens at the 2018 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival. 
Congratulations on your film playing at TIFF! Is your first time here and are you planning to attend your screenings?
My third feature, but my first TIFF, and I’m super excited about being in Toronto to present it, along with lead actor Sam Smith.
So how did you get into this business? Talk to me a bit about how you got your start and what you have worked on in the past.
My background is actually in emergency health care and the international humanitarian sector. I’ve also worked twenty years as a frontline paramedic in Sydney and various low-middle income nations. In my twenties, for a little fun, I worked an additional job as a unit nurse on film sets in London. Within a few months I found myself directing 2nd unit stuff on award-winning series like ‘State of Play’, mainly medical-related scenes. I guess I can thank UK director David Yates for my first directing gig! A month before 9/11 I was on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan with my partner (now wife, Kaspia) enjoying the remarkable hospitality of local Muslim tribes-people. We were adventure travellers but the time among the Pashtun clans stayed with me and compelled me to make my own first film ‘Son of a Lion’ (2008) that was selected for the Berlinale. After that I directed a documentary ‘Paramedico’ (2013) about four paramedics in very different corners of the world. JIRGA is my second feature, shot entirely on location in Afghanistan.
How did this project come together for you? Give me a rundown from the preparation, to shooting, to post-production to now!
The idea was a convergence of my interest in Afghanistan and it’s history, along with my opposition to the current war there, my sympathy for civilians caught in the crossfire and foreign soldiers physically and emotionally scarred by it. ‘Jirga’ is also my response to the hateful and divisive political rhetoric against Muslims and other minorities. A Pakistani businessman offered to finance the film (a $100K USD can go a long way in Pakistan) and the first screenplay demanded huge set-pieces and scenes with hundred of extras. We had a production designer coming from London and a cinematographer from Australia. The backer seemed legit until I landed in Islamabad and found he hadn’t cleared the production with the country’s infamous secret service. The spy agency decided the film was too political (and besides, it ‘didn’t have enough romance in it’) and decided to block production. The money was pulled and I found myself stranded in the Pakistan with Australian actor Sam Smith who had just flown in, both of us being harassed by secret agents at every turn. As soon as we could secure Afghan visas we escaped on a late night flight to Kabul with a camera we’d bought in a shopping mall. It certainly wasn’t the way I’d hoped things would turn out, going from the frying pan into the fire, so to speak. But we ended up shooting a feature film on a shoestring with a small group of Afghan actors under constant threat from Daesh (ISIS), ‘friendly fire’ from US predator drones and, probably most hair-raising of all, traveling to locations along narrow mountain roads above perilous ravines. We had to re-write on the run to simplify the story due to budgetary and logistical limitations, involving Afghans in every aspect of the production, and allow all the actors to manage their own costumes and makeup. We didn’t have the luxury of time for rehearsals on this shoot, or I should say we shot the rehearsals and sometimes that was all we got. The advantage was the privilege of working with non-actors whose lives were not so different to the characters they were playing. We even had ex-Taliban playing Taliban, a realism every filmmaker pines for. Aussie actor Sam Smith was seriously affected by the tensions of the shoot in such an environment, listening to mortar rounds at night and gunfire sometimes way to close for comfort. Half our shoot took place in Nangahar where Taliban and Daesh compete for territory, so the anxiety was understandable. But Sam channeled this tension into his character and the slow deterioration our man as seen on screen is all too real. Thankfully, now safely back in Sydney and at the end of a 6 month edit, we have both fully recovered (I think) from what could arguably have been one of the most intense film shoots ever.
What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you? 
The harder the struggle, the more noble the path. It’s strange, but the tougher the obstacles, the more encouragement I feel. I think those slings and arrows are a necessary test. Why should we as filmmakers expect our ‘heroes’ be tested on screen and we won’t be? A compelling film usually has a compelling making-of story behind it. So I see obstacles as a positive and necessary thing. Once your production dramas start mirroring your story dramas you enter the beautiful realm where fact and fiction become blurred. That’s when magic happens. As a filmmaker I’m driven first and foremost by what I’m trying to say, by the deeper meaning, or aim for some kind of social benefit. The fun part for me is working out a way to do this in the most engaging and entertaining way that isn’t preachy. With our film ‘Jirga’ we were constantly encouraged by the Afghans that we were with to tell this story and share with the world a little truth from their country and their people, truth that seems so elusive. As for coffee, my wife sent us bags of it by courier to Afghanistan to keep us going. She’s amazing, especially as she had to look after the kids while I was away. It was undoubtedly one of our greatest expenses, but well worth it!
What was your biggest challenge with making this movie, and the moment that was the most rewarding to you?
The biggest challenge on JIRGA for me was directing and operating the camera at the same time. Directing a mix of actors and non-actors speaking several different languages on set with a crew of five and no continuity, no wardrobe or makeup department and so on, was tricky enough. But wrestling with a camera I’d never used before, dealing with focus and overheating issues and dust on the sensor and so forth, was a considerable distraction. It wasn’t a voluntary decision, I never wanted to shoot this film. The circumstances forced us into it. Despite the many camera issues, one positive to come out of it is that the audience sees exactly what I want them to see, there’s no ‘middle person’. In saying that, I can’t wait to work with a professional DoP again! Most rewarding was capturing the real connection between Afghan actor Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad and our Australian actor Sam Smith on a mountaintop above the fabled lakes of Band-e-Amir, Afghanistan’s Grand Canyon, a deserted paradise. The thrill of authentic moments captured on screen, when the action felt so raw it was like we were shooting a documentary, those times were most rewarding of all.
I’m about to get technical, but I would love to know about the the look/visual design of the movie; what camera did you film with, your relationship to the director of photography and how the movie was photographed. 
I’d describe the look of JIRGA as dusty, gritty, washed-out. I shot on a Sony A7Sii which was a miracle to find in Pakistan before we flew out. It was the one and only A7Sii in the country at the time. Unfortunately, I could not find any appropriate stabilisers so the whole film was shot hand-held with zero stabilisation. We did a little stabilising in post but not much, and I think the moderate shakiness of the footage adds to the naturalism and ruggedness of the landscapes and the immediacy of the narrative. On the A7Sii I used a pre-setting known as Picture Profile 7 (PP7) which has terrific dynamic range. This allowed me to shoot the whole film with natural lighting and no reflectors, even at midday in the harsh desert. After a grade it was possible to ‘see into’ all of the shadows. Quite remarkable really.
What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie in Toronto?
I’m very much hoping that ‘Jirga’ will get a receptive audience who will understand what we have done with this film, an audience who will see the film’s heart. I think the world is in the mood for stories like this right now, stories of reconciliation and peace. People are fed up with division and revenge, racism and Islamophobia. I’m hoping audiences will be surprised by our interpretation of a war film, which in truth is really a ‘peace’ film.
After the film screens here in Toronto, where is the film going to show next? Theatrical, online, more festivals? Any dream spots?
My dream is that ‘Jirga’ will find an appreciative Western audience, that it will allow an insight into the impact of wars in Afghanistan and the ME they have been involved in. We invite audiences into the real Afghanistan, to experience the warmth and hospitality, the dignity and softness and mercy of Afghans and their views of this conflict imposed on them. I also think audiences in Australia, Canada, America and Europe will be able to identify with a story about the devastating effect of war on our own young men and women.
We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or get into the industry somehow. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business?
My number one piece of advice is not to start from the point of wanted to make a movie, but from the point of immersing yourself in life and hunting for moving and unforgettable human stories. Talking about making a movie is like talking about the cutlery in a fine dining restaurant. The objective is the dish itself not the implements for cutting it up. As I mentioned earlier, my history is working on ambulances and helping develop first responder systems in Africa. It’s real life interaction. I was on a panel at an accelerator lab just recently and we figured out that every single filmmaker on the panel had considerable life experience working other jobs that put them in contact with humans suffering crisis or drama or some kind of tension (social worker, doctor, teacher at a refugee school etc). So yes, my point of view is to put the whole filmmaking industry thing aside a little, not make it the goal in itself, and instead make your goal learning about and interacting with humanity.
And final question: what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?
Salaam Bombay by Mira Nair!
Contact the filmmaker via http://www.benjamingilmour.com
Twitter @benjamingilmour Instagram @peacelion

Leave a Reply