Film Review: Kajaki (2014)

“When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains, / And the women come out to cut up what remains, / Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains / An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.”

Kajaki is a nerve-shredding chamber piece, portraying a squad of British paras pinned down in an old Soviet minefield while out on patrol in Afghanistan. It’s helmed by a debut director, with a low budget and a cast of mostly unknowns, but it’s one of the most effective depictions of military camaraderie and stoicism on the modern battlefield that I’ve seen.

The tragic story that Kajaki tells is a true one. In 2006, a group of soldiers were indeed trapped in a mined wadi in Helmand, unable to move for fear of being blown up, and had to wait for hours until help reached them, keeping each others spirits up and keeping wounded comrades alive. Perhaps simply because events like this happen so often in war, I don’t remember the incident being picked out for extensive reporting at the time. I certainly didn’t know the eventual outcome, and I won’t give it away here.

The film has a gritty authenticity to it, in terms of the script, the acting and the cinematography. The dialogue is punched up with believable squaddie jargon and banter, which, along with with the committed, naturalistic performances and the sparse Middle Eastern locations, fully embeds the viewer in the grim Afghan combat zone. The tension is cranked up by close camera work and long silences – I watched through my fingers, waiting for the next inevitable devastating explosion. The violence, when it comes, is shocking, really showing the horror of modern battlefield injuries.

The two standouts in the cast were David Eliot, as Corporal Mark Wright, the cool-headed NCO who takes charge of the whole nightmarish situation, and Game of Thrones’s Mark Stanley as resourceful medic Tug. I thought that Liam Ainsworth, as the youthful Barlow, was also excellent at rendering the combination of panic, fear and bravery of those who ultimately are little more than boys.

Director Paul Katis has made a very interesting film in Kajaki. It reminded me a little of Peter Berg’s recent Lone Survivor, in terms of its focus on a small-scale self-contained military disaster, but I preferred Kajaki’s distinct British flavour and pared-back authenticity. I will certainly look forward to Katis’s next project.

Directed by: Paul Katis, 2014

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