Film Review: ‘Jirga’ Is a Peculiar Contemplation on Post-War Trauma

WORLD CIRCUIT: Virtually as certain as death and taxes, humanity has proven that it cannot escape its addiction to war. Likewise, in cinema, filmmakers have shown an affinity for the subject, where narratives surrounding violent conflicts have become a prevalent staple of the art form. Some of these directors choose to portray the dangerous thrill of the battlefield. Meanwhile, others, like director Benjamin Gilmour, focus on the aftermath of war and its far-reaching effects. Indeed, such is the case in Gilmour’s latest film “Jirga,” an unusually understated drama about a soldier wrestling with his demons.

“Jirga” follows former soldier Mike Wheeler, who makes a potentially dangerous journey from Australia to relieve himself of a burden. As we learn in a prologue, he had previously served in Afghanistan, where he participated in a nighttime mission which resulted in the killing of a civilian man. Ridden with guilt, he decides to return to the scene of this tragedy to compensate and apologize to the late man’s family. But his road to redemption is filled with uncertainty, as he seeks forgiveness in a society which still sees him as an enemy.

Reflecting the contemplative nature of its protagonist, “Jirga” is largely a solemn mood piece, with little use of dialogue throughout the first act of its story. As Wheeler makes his way from urban streets to the rural desert landscape, the cinematographer takes over as the film’s star, showcasing the scenic mountains and valleys of Afghanistan. While offering beautifully rendered images, the film strays into the overindulgent territory. One particular sequence where Wheeler befriends a stranger and they go for a flamingo pedalo ride in a lake stands out as unnecessarily sentimental.

Indeed, despite its modest 78 minute running time, “Jirga” often feels like a short story stretched too thin. From a storytelling standpoint, it saves its most compelling material for last. As Wheeler finally meets the titular Jirga – a court of tribal elders – the film asks vital questions about the nature of Western humanitarianism and whether vulnerable communities should forgive their oppressors.

Expressed through raw performances from lead actor Sam Smith and a supporting cast that included former Taliban members, the film’s philosophical underpinnings ultimately strike a chord. With its hint of danger, its resolution suggests that Gilmour could have delved deeper into the characters and its themes of postwar trauma. But as it is, “Jirga” gives audiences just enough to think about, while wanting more from its sparse narrative style.

“Jirga” is now playing in select theaters.

GRADE: (★★½)

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