Why Shooting My Latest Film in Afghanistan was a Gift

The Australian writer-director of Jirga on how his background as a paramedic informed his approach to taking risks in life and filmmaking.

Before I became a filmmaker, I worked for many years as a paramedic in Australia. I served in the busy city of Sydney, but also remote towns many hours from backup and hospitals. Being a paramedic is all about finding a way through seemingly impossible challenges, sometimes in austere environments and with minimal resources. These are difficulties most filmmakers can identify with. Throw in the pressure of lives hanging in the balance, and you come close to understanding the making of my third film, Jirga, in Afghanistan, which I approached in much the same way I would a car wreck.

I’m not an adrenaline junkie. I know it’s hard for anyone to accept they’re an addict, but adrenaline doesn’t affect me much anymore. Long-term paramedic work gives you a pretty high tolerance to it. If a rush was all I was after, skydiving would’ve been much easier than filming in Afghanistan, anyway. So why put myself, and least of all my cast and crew, through the challenge? Why submit ourselves to obstructive authorities, difficult terrain, dangerous roads and the very real risks of a Taliban ambush or ISIS kidnapping, perhaps more likely still, the chance of “friendly fire” from U.S. Predator drones?

My answer is, “For the sake of a better film.”

Actor Sam Smith and writer-director Benjamin Gilmour during the making of Jirga

Jirga is a drama, so I knew we didn’t need to shoot in Afghanistan. Actor Sam Smith and I first planned to make the film in Pakistan, along the Afghan border. The culture, language and look of the people and villages matched. But when Pakistan fell through and we were forced to shoot in Afghanistan, I was secretly pleased. The Australian consulate in Kabul was not, however. The staff there called my phone on a regular basis during production to warn us our lives were in danger. “Make it in the outback,” they said. “With what money?” I replied. Few indie filmmakers have the budgets to recreate Afghan villages in the Never Never. But for me, it was a win. My first feature, Son of a Lion, had taught me the value of making a film in the place where it’s set. In that instance it was the western frontier of Pakistan, in a gun-making village where arms were tested freely in the main street. I shot in disguise there, collaborating with Afridi and Shinwari tribesmen on the story of a boy growing up in his father’s AK47 workshop. This delivered the film some memorable moments, like a former jihadi demonstrating the decimation of a Russian tank by using a Pepsi bottle. Spontaneous ‘happy accidents’ like these are a gift real locations and the people who live there provide, in addition to the obvious benefit of zero spend on art direction. If you can’t afford to fake it, you might just get something money can’t buy: authenticity.

This is not the only benefit of shooting in places like Afghanistan. The sheer number of obstacles thrown at you is another. I write about obstacles as a positive because that’s how I view them, for several reasons. Readers well know that, traditionally speaking, the hero’s journey is all about getting over hurdles. Without complications or threats to the protagonist or elements of sabotage, there’d be no story. So why should we filmmakers expect to have it any easier than our characters?

Our adventure making Jirga in Afghanistan became life imitating art. An uncanny parallel was at play the whole way through the shoot. After actor Sam Smith and I got to Islamabad with the promise of funding and a local team, care of a Pakistani businessman, we discovered that the secret service had banned us. Finance was pulled and we were stranded. Similarly, the character of Mike Wheeler, an Aussie veteran in the U.S.-led war who arrives back in Afghanistan hoping to apologize to the family of a civilian he killed, is also let down by his only contact, a retired Afghan general. After a dark night of soul-searching, Wheeler decides to forge on and enter truly dangerous territory by going to Kandahar in a taxi. We too had a choice of returning home, but decided to fly to Kabul and try our luck with a pitiful amount of personal savings and crowd-funding. All through the shoot, we shared our hero’s journey. And it felt right. Soldier Mike Wheeler’s reward for surviving a Taliban kidnapping and days in the desert alone would be meeting the widow of the man he killed. And our reward as filmmakers making it through the same desert would be a finished film.

Benjamin Gilmour with actors Sam Smith and Amir Shah Talash shooting Jirga in Afghanistan

As a paramedic, I’ve also learnt that the greater the pressure I’m under and the more at stake, the better I perform. It might be a case of several critical patients at the same time on a remote highway. Or a stabbing victim bleeding out in the city with his hyped-up friends shouting and girlfriend hysterical. These occasions wake you up, force you to draw on all your skills and instincts, even make you superhuman for a moment. I don’t think this phenomenon is reserved for first responders. Most people have the power within them to excel in crisis and surprise themselves with their own physical and mental strength. And it’s not only strength, but creativity that is stimulated. The creativity of survival. We need the tests, the enemies and ordeals. Difficult circumstances – be they earthquakes or car wrecks or guerrilla film shoots – trigger lateral thinking, ingenuity, innovation. If a shoot’s too easy (or life in general, for that matter) these elements hibernate. But to really face death (or the death of your film), that’s when your creativity can alter your destiny and bring the reward.

So raise the stakes and welcome the hardships. Because you are the protagonist and the obstacles you face are essential to the journey. You never know, they might even transform you.

Benjamin Gilmour is the writer-director of Jirga, opening in select US cinemas, premiering with director and actor Q&A events on July 26th at Village East Cinema NYC and August 2 at Laemmle’s Music Hall, Beverly Hills, CA; see www.benjamingilmour.com for more info. Gilmour is also the writer-director of Paramedico (2012) and Son of a Lion (2008). He is the author of the books Warrior Poets (Pier 9) and Paramedico – Around the World by Ambulance (HarperCollins), a tie-in with his film of the same name. His latest book, The Gap, is published by Penguin. He lives in Northern New South Wales, Australia.