The camaraderie of the trenches, the "grunts" that live and die for each other more than for their country or for their cause, are recurring motifs of war film heroics. At first sight, debuting director Paul Katis' film seems to be yet another in a long line of war films seen through the eyes of the common soldier, its set-up showing the arrival of a new soldier to the squad guarding the Kajaki dam in the Afghan province of Helmand.
It's 2006 and the "war on terror" is in full swing, except it's not for the British troops stationed around it - the first act establishes, at the same time, the easy-going rapport between the men and the sense of loneliness, of being left to their own devices in a God-forsaken and forgotten corner of the world. The initial grousing for missing supplies is compounded by the air strike called on in the middle of the night that misses its target, with no second pass to make up for it.
So far so good, but nothing to shout home about - and that's what makes it so startling that, after this initial half hour or so, Kajaki - The True Story shifts suddenly into a first-rate nail-biter, all the more harrowing for being (as the title states clearly) a true story. A normal patrol becomes a nightmare as Stu Hale (Benjamin O'Mahony) steps on a land mine and sets in motion an inexorable chain of events: the area where he was wounded and is lying down is a dry, sandy "valley" between two rocky hills, heavily mined during the Russo-Afghan War of the 1980s. Getting into the minefield to treat him is only the beginning of the problems for the squad, who all come down, as one, to help as much as they can.
For a tale of the "war on terror", there's precious little about the greater picture - Mr. Katis and screenwriter Tom Williams narrow everything down to a microcosm that also stands in for the bigger war. The set-up is adroitly explanatory about the biggest issues involved: everybody got into Afghanistan and Iraq with no actual idea of what they were getting into, just like the soldiers of 3 Para dropped down into the valley without really knowing what was down there. The minefield can be seen as a metaphor for a land that has resisted all sorts of conquerors (even the British) and has pretty much spit them out, and the real triumph of this lot - as indeed of pretty much any soldier in any war - is just to make it out alive from the hellhole they've been thrown into.
Though there are always enemies in the distance, the true enemies for the the squad led by corporal Mark Wright (David Elliot) and medic Tug Hartley (Mark Stanley) are time and place - and they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, launching a snowballing sense of bad luck requiring all the rueful stoicism of the professional British squaddie at his best. Kajaki is pointedly "politically agnostic" and certainly no recruiting poster (the rather graphic wound scenes would pretty much preclude it anyway) - it separates politics from soldiering, and looks at the men as mere pawns buffeted around by the winds around them. It doesn't really bring anything new to the table in what regards war films - the mine angle is probably what reminds most of Kathryn Bigelow's superb The Hurt Locker, though they're very different films - but what it does is done with the exact same stoicism and professionalism of the men it presents, in a no-nonsense, intelligent way that works in the tradition of both British realism and American thrillers.
The excellent ensemble cast is given enough breathing room to create characters, while Mr. Katis, DP Chris Goodger and editor Brin create an acute, stifling open-air claustrophobia through sunburn lensing, tense, thought-out cutting and a visual sense that suggests at times a Lawrence of Arabia where the grandeur of the desert is always just off camera - as befits squaddies left out to dry holding the short end of the stick. You leave the film feeling sweaty, dirty, shellshocked and certainly un-heroic - in an antidote to something like Clint Eastwood's more hagiographic (but not uninteresting) American Sniper.
KAJAKI - THE TRUE STORY
United Kingdom, 2014
cast Liam Ainsworth, Grant Kilburn, Benjamin O'Mahony, Thomas Davison, Paul Luebke, Jon-Paul Bell, Robert Mitchell, Bryan Parry, Scott Kyle, John Doughty, Andy Gibbins, Ali Cook, Mark Stanley, David Elliot
director Paul Katis; screenwriter Tom Williams; cinematographer Chris Goodger (colour, widescreen); designer Erik Rehl; costumes Phaedra Dahdaleh; editor Brin; make-up Jacquetta Levon; prosthetics Cliff Wallace; producers Mr. Katis and Andrew de Lotbinière; production companies Pukka Films in association with Lipsync Productions, Head Gear Films, Metrol Technology and Bedlam Film Productions
screened June 28th 2015, Lisbon, DVD screener