I recently wrote this feature article for Show Film First about the production of British war film Kajaki. Read it in it's original situ here.
Dir: Paul Katis
Cast: David Elliot | Mark Stanley | Scott Kyle | Benjamin O’Mahony | Bryan Parry
UK Cinema Release: 28 November 2014
Running Time: 108 minutes
by Leilani Holmes
Historically, British war films form a strong part of our cultural history yet for modern conflicts, the stories of British troops have been largely missing from our cinema screens. Until that is, director Paul Katis, writer Tom Williams and producer Andrew de Lotbinière of Pukka Films met a young soldier celebrating his 18th birthday during an MoD training film they'd been commissioned to make. Discovering he was to be in Afghanistan three weeks later they realised they knew nothing of what this young soldier's experience was going to be and decided their first feature film should be about the everyman soldiers today, “It was a way of joining the dots between real people and what was happening in Afghanistan,” remembers de Lotbinière. “You listen to the news and read the stats, but you don’t always see the people behind those stories.”
“A lot of the work we do is based on case studies,” explains Williams. “We have a bit of experience in researching real events and crafting dramas around them.” Researching to find a suitable true story to adapt to the big screen they came across a unique situation featuring 3rd Batallion troops immobilised by a minefield in a difficult to reach wadi next to the Kajaki Dam in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. The story was a single contained event that was not combat oriented but perfectly reflected the extraordinary courage shown by men on the ground looking out for one another under exigent circumstance. “As a single-location drama, it felt it would be great for us to do as a first feature,” says de Lotbinière. “It was a small film that we were much more likely to get budgeted and made.”
The film they eventually realised became an accurate portrayal of the situation that occurred when a rescue mission and helicopter evacuation for a wounded soldier escalated. Lance Corporal Stuart Hale, crossing what looked to be a harmless dry river bed had stepped on a land mine left behind from the Russian Afghan occupation of the 1980s. Losing a leg and left stranded and bleeding on lethal ground, the operation to treat his wounds and get him to a safe landing area for the helivac became complicated as essential personnel crossed the precarious surface to bring aid. Further explosions triggered during their efforts left seven men grievously injured and resulted in the subsequent death of Corporal Mark Wright a 27 year old from Edinburgh, posthumously awarded the George Cross for bravery to mark his actions that day.
Drawing from personal accounts of those involved, official Army Board of Enquiry reports and with the assistance of the MoD, Tom Williams sought to layer multiple accounts into a screenplay telling the true story with an ensemble cast without needing to fictionalise or dramatize or add big names to the production. “It’s the film that Facebook made in a way,” Williams says, “because we put together a research group, and one friend invited another, invited another. The military are quite big on Facebook, because it’s a great way for them to stay in touch while they’re away, and so we started to gather the team on there.” With authoritative voices behind the project the film resonates with banter and military language that allows for authentic expression from the soldiers point of view while remaining easy for an audience to grasp in context.
Oscar winning producer Gareth Ellis-Unwin who had worked with Pukka films years before was approached. Convinced by the quality of the screenplay and the idea to choose now to tell an Afganistan story, he came aboard to help steer the production into cinemas. “I was blown away not just by the quality of Tom’s writing but by the idea that we hadn’t really made a British war movie for 50-odd years, and I do believe there’s a grateful nation ready to receive the veterans of the Afghan theatre as they come back home this year.”
From the Facebook research the filmmakers decided to take their project on to another more public online platform, crowdfunding site Indiegogo.com, in order to gauge public interest in their story and attract investors. Once again enthusiastic online support built up for the project. “We set ourselves a target of £40,000, which we ended up exceeding,” notes Ellis-Unwin. In fact, the grand total raised this way was £47,197. It was great to see how the public responded." The filmmakers too, responding to stories from the real soldiers who's tale they were telling, decided their film could give something back and joined with several forces charities in order to utilise the film to benefit their efforts and revenues from the film premiere and several preview screenings plus a portion of the film profits are being divided between Help for Heroes, The Royal British Legion, Walking with the Wounded and The Hashemite Commission for Disabled Soldiers.
The search for authenticity led director Paul Katis to take an ensemble cast to a perfect location in the Al Kafrein Dam in Jordan, where again the project received huge support,courtesy of the Jordanian Armed Forces and His Majesty the King who gifted an engineering team and considerable arms and equipment to create infrastructure for the production and maximise the scope of the film. Again keen to give back, the filmmakers consulted with the Jordanian government to encourage future film production in the region, something the Jordanian government is keen to facilitate. Says Ellis-Unwin: “We could have shot this in a chalk pit in Kent, but you wouldn’t have got the same movie. When you see sweat, it’s sweat. When you see flies in peoples’ mouths and wounds, they’re really there. The heat is unrelenting and there’s not one person on this unit that hasn’t gone above and beyond what they’d normally be expected to do to ensure that the story is told well, accurately, and honestly.”
The film premiered to a crowd of veterans and public who's enthusiasm and appreciation for this authentic and visceral film spread out from the red carpet back across the social networks through which it began. It's production has created value within our culture above and beyond mere storytelling and maybe it's time to see more British war related stories hitting our big screens and once again becoming a staple of British Film.
Kajaki goes on national release from November 28th with tickets and advance screenings available through kajakimovie.com.