British film Kajaki is the “one based of a true story” war film I can say has the feel of true events to the minutest detail. This film directed by Paul Katis narrows in on Afghanistan in 2006 and British troops situated around and important dam, the titular Kajaki, in the Helmand province.
This incredibly compact production spends most of its first act taking us through the routine of a regular tour of duty and platoon banter that fills screen time giving the film a feel of a documentary projecting some level of laudable realism then it unravels into a matchless chilling portrait of war.
In conventional war movie fashion I began to anticipate the films primary point of conflict which I expected to be a hoard of Arabs with Kalashnikovs and we do see some Taliban activity early on but their presence never begins to threaten the British troops. The film kicks into gear when a section of the British troops set off on what is probably a routine patrol run through this arid valley and we wait for the ominous presence of a Taliban sniper and the crack of his bullet to rip through our ears but it never comes.
Instead as they traverse these rocky hills Lance Corporal Hale (Benjamin O’Mahony) steps on a land mine which rips off the bottom of his right leg and films intensity ramps up from 2 to 11. The rest of the films action essentially takes place within that single radius as more men come to aid in the treatment and extraction of Corporal Hale.
The nature of the terrain makes it impossible to move the wounded soldier without the risk of extreme blood loss and death so the soldiers stay put and radio in for an extraction by air. The air extraction team does come in for the wounded sniper but things really hit the fan when it whips up so much dust and rubble and then – Boom! More legs are blown of and lungs ripped into as we realise in horror the soldiers have wandered into a full blown minefield.
Paul Katis leads the way here with his tense direction as soldiers creep their way around the dusty terrain with a wince and cower at every piece of ground covered in movement. He peppers scenes like Mark Stanley’s Tug edgily vaulting from spot to spot using his back pack as a buffer with arresting shots of shirtless wounded soldiers ripped up by the explosions as the stakes of this ordeal remain high and ever present in spite of the seemingly simple narrative.
The gore effects are top notch but still as grounded as the rest of the film and actors are committed to the overriding vision and understand the only characters here are probably life and death with them just the spoils in this tug of war with nothing but hope to hold on to in this limbo. Mark Stanley does stand out though and that solitary shot of him late on mirrors that most of the soldiers and probably the audience too – there is still a part of us left in that rocky minefield as the film draws to a close.
The commitment to chilling realism almost elevates it to a horror film and the sense of dread that accompanies these soldiers is not lost on us. I’m embarrassed to say I flinched at ever jump, recoiled at water bottles being hurled across the mine field and you could be forgiven for spending a considerable amount of time with your eyes and ears covered.
Katis is very assured in his debut feature and he never stays into clichéd musings on war, morality or even issues of strained resources that befell British troops. He even avoids extensive exposition on the fact the minefield was a by-product of the Soviet efforts years before but chooses to focus on the lives at stake remaining impressively grounded and unbelievably tense making Kajaki one of the finest and most harrowing war films out there.