JIRGA, Australia, 2018, 78 minutes. Starring Sam Smith, Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad. Directed by Benjamin Gilmour. 78 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes).
The question: why a SIGNIS STATEMENT on a film about the war in Afghanistan, a brief film about military activity, a soldier returning to the country?
A quick answer: this is a film which can serve as a paradigm for an understanding of the process of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
The film comes from a religious perspective, the father of the film’s director and cinematographer, Benjamin Gilmour, was a minister. This humane and religious perspective was also a feature of the first film by this director, Son of a Lion, a story of post-9/11 Pakistan.
It is also an Australian film, the main character a soldier returning to Afghanistan on a personal journey.
We are told immediately that Jirga means a meeting of council elders.
The opening invites its audience into military action, a raid on a village, dangers and shooting, all filmed in green night-light. At the end of the episode, one of the men is filmed staring at what has happened, the death.
The director knows the landscapes of Afghanistan as well as the city of Kabul and audiences may well feel as they look at the cityscapes from above, move through the streets and markets into the small hotel, into the shops, that they have been there.
However, this is the story of a personal journey of the soldier from the night raid, Mike Wheeler (played by Sam Smith). It is not clear at first why he has returned from Australia to Afghanistan. He has a large amount of money. He asks a taxi driver to take him to the combat area, the driver refusing many times, resisting the money, but eventually taking Mike part of the way, sharing the journey, some music, a meal, his Muslim prayer and rituals.
As Mike Wheeler continues his journey on foot through the desert, we realise that he is on a pilgrimage, to go back to the village, to confess, appear before the Jirga, the Council of Elders, for them to decide his fate.
For a Catholic watching the film, the parallel with the Sacrament of Penance becomes ever more clear. In this sense, the film does serve as a paradigm for the Sacrament. There is the offence, the perpetrator of the killing deciding that he has “sinned”. He has examined his conscience quite profoundly which leads him back to the Jirga meeting which is his confessional. He is sorry for what he has done. He has repented. But this is not enough. He needs to confess aloud, to acknowledge his sin. He certainly has a firm purpose of amendment. He wants to atone – although some of the locals note that the money he has brought is something of a curse and we see some of it blowing in the wind. He wants to make reparation and to perform a penance.
He experiences both condemnation and forgiveness – and, in the ritual styles of the Middle East, an animal is sacrificed, shedding its blood, symbol of the suffering and reconciliation.
The film is worth seeing as a film, brief, some beauty, some dread. A non-religious audience watching it would appreciate the humane themes while the Christian audience, especially those with a sacramental tradition, would appreciate how the pattern of penance and reconciliation is played out before their eyes.
The film can be recommended for discussion, for religious education.
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
ABCG Films Released September 27th