Saturday, March 07, 2015

Kajaki: The True Story - a war film with a neutral stance on everything except military incompetence & human bravery

Kajaki: The True Story is a gruesome yet gripping retelling of a real-life incident in September 2006 near Kajaki Dam in Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan.

Soldiers from 3 Para are living primitively on a ridge high above the dam. A sign at the entrance sums up the conditions: “Please leave all morale here”. The boredom of their round-the-clock observation routine is broken with banter and the arrival of new supplies which don’t include much needed radio batteries. The film paints a bleak picture of the men’s physical and technical isolation, not to mention their frustration with the poor level support they receive.

Three soldiers set off down the hill to position themselves closer – within sniper range – to what they suspect is an illegal checkpoint. While crossing a dried out riverbed, one steps on a landmine and part of his leg is blown off.

We watch a tourniquet being tightened around the raw flesh that looks like minced meat in a butchers. Morphine is injected to dull the pain. Local US security contracts guarding the engineers who are repairing the dam lend them working radios as they try to organise air evacuation for their injured colleague.

But there’s more than one mine in the area, though no one’s sure why the Russians planted them. British military incompetence is compounded when a Chinook – without a winch – is sent to the minefield. Dust swirls. The vast helicopter leaves without its injured cargo, but in the maelstrom as it takes off, rocks are dislodged onto the booby-trapped riverbed and there are further casualties.

In the dangerous terrain, some soldiers are left to apply tourniquets to themselves. Dressings and medicines run low. The medic must face conquer his panic and make a dangerous journey to apply his skills to the next batch of injured, ignoring the wise advice:
Never walk into a room you don’t know how to get out of.
The pace slows down in the final quarter of the film. The audience, like the soldiers, are impatiently waiting for evacuation. Wounded men struggle to keep themselves and their colleagues from drifting into unconscious and death. The heat, lack of meds and massive blood loss all take their toll.

Other than a beautiful song that accompanies the credits, the soundtrack is as barren as the sandy, lifeless landscape. The dialogue is peppered with strong language, soldiers’ taunting, inappropriate humour, and compassion wrapped up in insult. The ensemble cast are a convincing military unit. There were laugh out loud moments, even for the four of us previewing the film mid-morning in a deserted cinema complex. But Kajaki is far removed from the tone set in BBC Three’s Bluestone 42, a comedy drama about a bomb disposal unit serving in Afghanistan. While the film makes no attempt to hide the guts and gore, the explosions are kept at a strangely restrained volume and the bangs and booms are well signposted with gentle hints that avoid scaring the audience unnecessarily.

Kajaki takes a remarkably neutral view of conflict. I’m not a fan of war films, but this one turns the normal narrative on its head. For director Paul Katis and writer Tom Williams, the real enemy is the incompetent system rather than the foes they target and fight (and we barely see). Kajaki offers 108 minutes of fighting against the landmine legacy of someone else’s conflict.

There is no glorification of war, just a celebration of bravery and resilience while confusion and panic reins in the barren isolated situation. If anything the sense of peril is increased because the storyline is real and I found the most emotional part of the film the eventual evacuation and the end credits with their haunting "All of my life" lyrics written and performed by Phoebe Katis and photos of the actors matched up with photos of the soldiers. The music acts like a calming bridge from conflict and casualty back into the real world and the cinema car park.

For some there will be painful echoes of scenes from 1972's Bloody Friday in Belfast. For others there will be discomfort with the British Army being portrayed as heroes. But for all there should be the questions of why land mines were ever a good solution, and why it was appropriate for troops to still be in the region.

Kajaki is showing exclusively in Omniplex cinemas across Ireland from Friday 13 March.

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