Review: Kajaki, A Fresh And Affecting Look at War in Afghanistan

War, for all its obvious cinematic potential, has always been a tricky subject to tackle on film, and has given rise to a huge range of approaches. At one extreme you have the classics of old, with their tendency to glorify the honour of serving Queen and Country: the Dambusters and In Which We Serves of the world. At the other end of the spectrum lurk Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter, fatigued by war’s horror and futility. 

Kajaki avoids both extremes, taking an approach that is commendably direct and unmistakably British. It tells the true story of a group of soldiers stationed by the Kajaki dam in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province who, while on a routine operation, stumble into a minefield. There are no insurmountable odds cosmically stacked against them, nor any power-crazed generals making disastrous maneuvers. As they stumble through a landscape scarred and corrupted by decades of conflict, these men simply find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

by blending the horror with humour, Kajaki achieves a tone that is entirely believableThe premise almost reads like that of a horror film - the soldiers are abandoned, miles from help, being targeted one at a time by an unforgiving foe. Director Paul Katis avoids any superficial tension building, however. The mines explode with brutal casualness, giving no prior warning and paying no heed to the ensuing carnage. Dispensing with dramatics, Kajaki instead provides an almost real-time account of the minutiae of modern warfare. The end result is more gripping than traditional on-screen battle heroics, and much harder to forget about once the credits have rolled. 

Although it is hard not to admire the characters, their courage is never fetishized. They are brave, but they’re also confused, angry and scared. Ultimately they are normal men, muddling through an impossibly trying situation as best as they can. Camaraderie and gallows humour become their main coping strategies: take the wounded party animal quipping that he has become permanently legless, or the soldier who asks a comrade to pass on a message to his pregnant fiancée only to be told, ‘Fuck off, you can tell her yourself.’ Katis never understates the bloody terror of combat (in fact, squeamish viewers are likely to spend much of the film with their hands clasped over their eyes). However, by blending the horror with humour, Kajaki achieves a tone that is entirely believable. 

It could be argued that Katis sacrifices a more coherent narrative structure in exchange for this realistic approach. The film has a stop/start rhythm, with moments of blistering action giving way to lulls while the soldiers wait for aid. Even so, in loud and quiet moments alike Kajaki is never less than compelling. With Western armed forces having all but withdrawn from Afghanistan, it’s likely that we’ll see more and more films examining the legacy of recent conflicts. If even half of those films are as fresh and affecting as Kajaki, they’ll be something to look forward to.

More about the author

About the author

Harry Mason likes to call himself a freelance writer, even if his tax forms say he's technically a waiter. He graduated last year from the University of East Anglia, and writes predominantly about social politics and film. He looks forward to the day when he's able to grow a beard; until then, you'll just have to blame his so-called 'bleeding heart lefty views' on youthful naivety.

Follow Harry on Twitter.

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