The 9th Company 2005
Kajaki: The True Story (Kilo Two Bravo) 2006
Hyena Road 2010
Last night, I took in another foreign production about the war(s) in Afghanistan. This was my third over the last few months.
From the standpoint of an American, we tend to view our wars as American affairs. We also expect our war movies to be American affairs. It can be a little surprising to see a variation on these themes, but from a perspective outside our borders. But of course, the Afghanistan mission is an international one, with plenty of unique stories of soldiers from around the world. And well before American’s involvement, the Russians (Soviet Union) had their own experience in that country.
The three films I watched, I happen to watch in chronological order. All three are based on real events, although all three of course dramatize the story to at least some extent.
The first of the three is a Russian film called The 9th Company. It appear to attempt, at least in part, to tell an under-told story of veterans of that now distant war. Of the three films, this seems to be taking the most liberties with regard to actual events. However, it is not just a bit of patriotic propaganda. It is critical of the Soviet Army and of its mission in Afghanistan, and by extension, critical of the current Russian government. Nevertheless, it received not only a pass through any censorship, but seems to have used government funding in its production.
The film’s structure is one familiar to American audiences. We begin with a mix of recruits in a boot camp for an elite paratrooper unit. We follow them to a deployment in Afghanistan in the waning days of the Soviet involvement in that nation. During the withdrawal, the soldiers become isolated and attacked by Mujaheddin.
The film was very popular in Russia, and the story and production values are sufficient for it to hold it’s own among American offerings, assuming one watches foreign language films in the first place.
The second of the two, released in the U.S. as Kilo Two Bravo, tells the story of an incident that earned Corporal Mark Wright, posthumously, the George Cross for bravery. Of the three, it is the most true to the events as they happened. It is also not a combat movie, in the way the other two are; the story involves a unit of British soldiers who become trapped in an unmapped minefield.
Once again, it is a good film by any measure. It also provides a non-American view on the Afghan situation. In particular, the heroes of the day can be honored outside of patriotism that would accompany (for me) a similarly-conceived U.S. film.
Being a British film, it highlighted one unique aspect of viewing foreign films. In, for example, a Russian language movie, the language is not much of a barrier as I’m relying on the subtitles. In a U.K. film, there are none because it is in my own, native language. Sort of. Watching this film, I struggled to follow the dialog through the accents. In turn, it made it a little difficult to follow the different units – who was positioned where. It didn’t help that the unit designated Kilo Two Bravo remained “offscreen” throughout the film. I kept waiting for when they would show up.
Following the accents was not a problem for the third film, the one that I have just finished, Hyena Road. This provides a dramatic account of the construction of a road through Taliban controlled territory in the Kandahar province of Afghanistan.The construction of the road is real, as is the deployment of Canadian soldiers (whose accents render them indistinguishable from Americans) to provide defense for that construction.
Those accents, however, are one of the details that move this film from the docudrama realm into historical fiction. The soldiers portrayed in the film were members of the Royal 22nd Regiment, of called the Van Doos. That nickname is an anglicization of the unit’s designation in french, le Vingt-deuxième. It is a french-speaking unit, meaning the generic “North American” accents of the actors may have sounded too “American” for Canadian views.The acting was done primarily by Canadian actors, however, so it is “authentic” in that regard. The individuals portrayed are likely all fictional, although the name of the commanding general in the film, Rileman, is probably an anagram of the Canadian commander Brigadier General Milner.
I thought the film was excellent, primary for it’s portrayal of some of the details of asymmetric warfare in Afghanistan. Despite some complaints among critics about the story, I also found that compelling. It is also a demonstration that a big budget isn’t necessary to create an immersive, realistic war movie. Not to say the story doesn’t dramatize the situation. It does. But it is a film based in the real world, not in a world of Hollywoodized gun play.
A lower-budget (~$12.5 million Canadian) film has to make decisions on how to portray the story within their financial restrictions. The hazard is that “small world” problem I like to write about. By focusing on the actions of a single squad, a few officers, and the command posts, the sense of the wider operation can be easily portrayed without having to fill the screen with a multitude of actors.
All three of these films, and particularly the last, deserve a wider viewing than they (almost certainly) got. I don’t know what the viability of films released outside of the Hollywood machine really is, but I hope there is room for innovation from the smaller-budget, non-American side of this industry.