Re:View – ‘Kajaki’
There’s a famous Edwardian quote about Afghanistan, that the more you leave the country alone the better things are for everyone. This has been borne out by a number of war films in the last three or four years, and while many were good (I couldn’t say ‘enjoyable’) they still teetered on the gung-ho militaristic style of old Hollywood, most notably in Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘Zero Dark Thirty’, which appeared to condone torture.
Her previous film on this topic, ‘The Hurt Locker’, is this British production’s most direct parallel, but for many UK viewers ‘Kajaki’ will have more relevance. It follows the true story of events that unfolded at the Kajaki Dam in 2006, when a company of young British soldiers, 3 Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, plus some troops from the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers and a few signallers and medics, felt remote from the war while performing the lonely but essential task of watching over the Kajaki hydroelectric dam.
We see them first combatting boredom with banter and word games, but then they encounter an unexpected enemy on a dry river bed, where the Russians have left behind anti-personnel mines. The men find themselves surrounded by mines with no clear way out, and no way of detecting where they lay.
Director Paul Katis films in what feels almost like real time, and does not go in for the histrionics of ticking timers and experts blowing on their fingers before defusing explosives. Instead we get the sudden sharp shock of a mis-step, and the inconvenient aftermath of not leaving behind a dead hero but a living, horrifically wounded real soldier. How this handful of men cope with losing limbs is the stuff of nightmare and would be unbearable but for the astonishing way in which they bond through insults, sarcasm, the reading of a Rudyard Kipling poem, and even outright laughter. Goodness and bravery are hard concepts to convey in a film about conflict, but perhaps ‘Kajaki’ comes closer to the target than anyone has before.
After requesting winches to ferry the wounded, the men wait – and wait – when, to their horror an RAF Chinook attempts to land on the minefield, having failed to catch the warning. The men are tested and heroes emerge. It’s a simple story that would have been easy to get wrong. A mark of its power is that the survivors attended the film’s London premiere and felt that the retelling was accurate. It’s also a shame that Vue Cinemas, where the film was supposedly released in November, chose not to put it on more screens, and that the distributors did not place more confidence in such a superbly rendered war film asking a key question of every viewer; what would you do in the same situation? . I was entirely unaware of its release, and if I didn’t know about it I doubt many others did.
If the film has a problem, it’s that the density of military lingo spoken in a variety of accents sometimes obscures the dialogue, and I imagine that in the US the film would certainly require subtitles. But it’s a far cry from any big-budget Hollywood take on the war. According to press interviews, Katis says he was struck by how averse to the trigger-happy antics of onscreen American soldiers the British troops he spoke to were. “That’s just not the British army way. I was told on a number of occasions: we don’t like being called heroes. We’re professional soldiers, just doing our jobs.” One of the survivors said the only thing he didn’t find accurate in the film was the amount of yelling – the soldiers involved were a quieter bunch. ‘Kajaki’ deserves to win awards, and should be sought out by anyone interested in seeing a less varnished image of modern warfare.