Writer-director David Whitney’s first feature is an unusual beast – a British genre film set in Afghanistan in 1999. There have been relatively few recent British films dealing with UK personnel working in war zones and most of them have been serious realist dramas by name directors – Michael Winterbottom (In This World, 2002 and The Road to Guantanamo, 2006), Nick Broomfield (Battle for Haditha, 2007) and Ken Loach (whose most recent feature Route Irish screened at Cannes this year). Kandahar Break inevitably borrows something in its approach from these films, but Whitney has previously shot television material in Afghanistan so he was able to develop his own style of shooting in Baluchistan – the region of Pakistan sharing a long border with Afghanistan. He also decided to make his film part ‘thriller’ and part ‘romance’ rather than straight realist drama.
Plot outline (no spoilers)
Richard (Shaun Dooley) returns to Afghanistan to work with an old friend as part of a mine-clearing operation undertaken by a UK company for the Taliban controlling the southern Afghanistan city of Kandahar. But after several months away in Africa, Richard has forgotten just how sensitive the Taliban are about acceptable behaviour around women and he has to be rescued from a difficult situation by the company’s local Afghani ‘fixer’. It is clear that he has also had a relationship of some sort with one of the group’s interpreters, Jamilah (Tatmain Ul Qhub), an attractive Afghani woman who has lived in the US. If he is not careful, both he and Jamilah could find themselves in a very difficult situation. But that’s not going to happen is it? The film’s title suggests otherwise.
Whitney’s approach works pretty well. This is much more a ‘realist thriller’ than a Hollywood-style action pic. Shooting in Baluchistan on HD with Pakistani crew members and lead actors gives the film an authenticity that can’t be faked. In fact, reality intruded just a little too much when, towards the end of the shoot, four Pakistani crew members were shot at by dissidents and Whitney had to withdraw. The few scenes that had to be completed in Tunisia are expertly blended in.
The thriller genre elements are most apparent in the way the action scenes are shot and edited, in some of the contrivances in the plotting (especially the ending), the generic music and in the acting styles. The potential problem here is that there is a clash between the more expansive/expressive style of the Pakistani film and TV actors and the more restrained performances given by Dooley and Dean Andrews (a very recognisable character actor in UK series like Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes). I worried about this at first but it is well handled and the Pakistani players, including the film’s co-producer Hameed Sheikh, acquit themselves well. Shaun Dooley is particularly well cast and he certainly delivers.
One slight irritation comes from the lack of subtitles – presumably designed not to alienate popular audiences. The film is largely in English, but it is frustrating to have lines of Pashto (?) that are not translated. OK, they aren’t crucial to the plot, but they do give an overemphasis to the ‘otherness’ of the Afghans – which the rest of the film tries to keep in check. I don’t think that the occasional subtitle would have put audiences off (they seemed to cope with Slumdog Millionaire).
The ‘romance’ that is promised in the film’s promotion is sensitively handled and cleverly scripted. Attempting to deliver a genre film with this subject matter is either brave or foolhardy given the traps of typing the Afghani characters. Though it teeters on the edge a few times, again the film comes through. It is exciting, moving and believable without having to get into Bourne or Bond territory. In addition, it is intelligent in terms of depicting a political situation without analysing it in detail. The film deserves to be widely seen and with the recent interest in the conditions facing the UK armed forces in Afghanistan it might stand a chance of attracting attention. Whether the distribution policy devised by Revolver is the best way to achieve this, I’m not sure.
It’s never much fun watching a film on a screener DVD and I would like to see this on a big screen. However, cinema screenings look to be limited in number. The film opens on September 10 in the UK (and later in the US, Australia and New Zealand – other territories tbc) but is then available on DVD/Blu-Ray and VOD (LoveFilm, Sky, iTunes and PlayStation) only three days later. I’d certainly recommend having a look.
Lastly, how good it is to see an independent UK film coming out of the North of England rather than London. David Whitney is a young man from Bolton, the funding came from a local benefactor and his ‘Heads of Departments’ in the crew are also local. The actors are from Yorkshire. So I hope for support from across the North. Here is David Whitney on BBC North West Tonight:
and the official trailer (which gives away quite a lot of plot developments):
(Thanks to Strike Media for DVD and info)