Late at night in a little motel in eastern Afghanistan, Australian actor Sam Smith nervously stared at his door with a knife under his pillow and passport in his pocket. Smith was waiting for someone to barge in as gunshots rang outside.
This wasn’t for a scene. This was the reality of shooting “Jirga.”
“The film is a very mellow version of what actually happened in real life,” Smith told TheWrap’s Sharon Waxman at a Q&A on Monday following a screening of the movie. “Jirga,” Australia’s entry into the Oscar foreign film race, was directed by Benjamin Gilmour, and both he and Smith were in attendance for the screening.
“Jirga” is a drama that traverses the country of Afghanistan on location behind former soldier Mike Wheeler (Smith). Without knowledge of the language or culture, Wheeler enlists a local taxi driver (Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad) to take him to an Afghan family in a rural town. Wheeler is warned about the danger he will put himself in, but he insists on making amends after he regretfully killed the father of the family years ago while on duty.
Gilmour told the audience at the Landmark Theatres in Los Angeles that his decision to make the movie came after his time as a paramedic in Pakistan. There, Gilmour had a chance to see a culture that had “room for forgiveness,” something that isn’t covered on the news. While it is war-torn with Taliban presence, the Middle East also has well-meaning people that should be represented in film.
“The [Afghan ethnic group] Pashtun people believe that if someone comes to them for forgiveness, you embrace them,” Gilmour said.
The film and the complicated history behind the making of it have already made headlines. On Sunday “Jirga” won best “indie” film during Australia’s equivalent of the Oscars, the AACTAs. With the win, questions began to arise on just how they shot the film in such a volatile place.
Gilmour said he had originally planned to film in Pakistan, but the Pakistani authorities refused permission to film at the last minute. With little money and waning hope, Gilmour moved the shoot to Afghanistan with just the actors and a camera he bought at a mall.
“The intensity activates that creativity,” Gilmour said of the circumstances of the shoot. “Get it done without getting killed.”
Now in Afghanistan, Gilmour would soon get a call from the Australian ambassador to Afghanistan to leave immediately. He was informed that an Australian had recently been held for ransom and that they should try any way they can to move the shoot to Morocco.
They compromised. Gilmour would continue their shoot in Afghanistan — a two-month odyssey with only 20 days of actual filming — as long as the ambassador can send the U.S. satellite images of where they were filming. Among their many fears, Gilmour worried about them being attacked in friendly fire by mistake.
With all the variables in play, Gilmour needed a lead actor who he could trust and who would be a good companion. Smith was that person, even preparing long before the shoot by talking to military members who have killed while on duty.
Smith would even strike a friendship with the Afghan actor that played the taxi driver.
“We don’t share a language, but I just felt that connection with him,” Smith said.
On Nov. 19, Lightyear Entertainment announced it had acquired the U.S. rights to “Jirga,” with plans for a theater release in spring 2019.
Gilmour also said he plans to show the film in Afghanistan by teaming up with a local TV station. A theatrical release may not be possible due to fear of Taliban retaliation.