Jirga: a sparingly told story of remorse, compassion and forgiveness

Benjamin Gilmour, “Jirga” (2018)

The wonder is that this film got made at all as it was filmed in Afghanistan, and in areas possibly still dominated by the Taliban at that. Understandably the narrative, seemingly simple and straight-forward, can appear quite disjointed and some things – such as the pink flamingo paddle-boat – come and go without any explanation. An Australian soldier, Michael Wheeler (Sam Smith), appears in Kabul on a personal mission to find a family in a very remote part of Afghanistan. Needless to say, the people he relies on to help him advise him not to go and to forget about his mission: the area is under Taliban control. As you’d expect, Wheeler ignores the helpful advice and hires a driver (Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad) to take him south towards Kandahar. On their long and rough journey through very striking and beautiful mountain landscapes, the two men form a strong friendship despite being unable to speak each other’s language. They lose each other abruptly when they stop at a Taliban checkpoint and Wheeler is forced to flee on foot for his life.

After wandering in the desert, Wheeler loses consciousness and when he wakes up again, he finds himself a Taliban captive in a cave. After beating him, the Taliban men discuss what to do with him and one of them, being able to speak English, interviews him and acts as interpreter between him and the other Taliban men. Wheeler explains that he wants to find the family whose patriarch he shot dead during an army raid some years ago. Impressed with Wheeler’s earnestness and remorse, the Taliban leader orders his men to take the ex-soldier as far as they can go towards the village where the family lives. They advise him offering the American dollars he carries with him to the victim’s family will be considered an insult and a curse. From then on, and dumping the money along the way, Wheeler makes his path into the village where he explains his mission to the elders there. The elders form a council (“jirga” in the Pashto language) to debate what to do with Wheeler and whether he deserves to die for killing an unarmed civilian and leaving his widow and two sons destitute.

The sparing, minimal nature of the film, in which much is unsaid and is left to the viewer to fill out with his/her imagination, throws the spotlight onto Smith and his character’s motivations for pursuing his quixotic mission. Wheeler says very little and maintains a stoic face, but he is clearly a very troubled man. He is only able to come to terms with what he did by returning to the scene of his crime, re-enacting it in part for the village elders, visiting the widow and her sons and submitting to her anger and grief. Smith does his best with such a taciturn character, and the emotion he is able to express is very profound, but the role is very limited (and limited even more so by the conditions under which the film was made) with respect to the character’s background and motivations.

The resolution seems quite problematic as well: the village jirga’s decision seems just as eccentric as Wheeler’s quest, and the viewer has the impression that the elders are nonplussed as to what to do with their unexpected visitor. In the end, the decision becomes Allah’s will and the elders abide by it without question, even though some of them obviously don’t agree with it. At the very least some closure has been achieved and people are able to move ahead with their lives.

The message viewers are likely to take away from the film is that Wheeler survives mainly due to the magnanimity, compassion and forgiveness shown him by people who would not be blamed if they had decided on vengeance against him. For all the devastation, poverty, violence and instability that continue in Afghanistan, its people still hold onto their rich culture and traditions, and retain their humanity and spirit. One would like to think that Wheeler appreciates what has been done for him, and will be moved to return to the country in the not too distant future, to learn more about its history and peoples, and to do something constructive for them. Perhaps he might even learn something of how Australia blindly and stupidly followed the Americans into waging a one-year war over and over 17 times and counting. His abandonment of the American money, and what that symbolises – spurning the capitalist system and the beliefs and values associated with it – may represent a first step in this direction.