Paul Katis’s Kajaki: The True Story is a gripping account of real life events that took place in Afghanistan in 2006, and seems to me to be a thoroughly modern war film, both in terms of its portrayal of British soldiers and the day-long situation that they unwittingly find themselves in. Set near the Kajaki Dam, a place that is symbolic of Afghanistan’s recent relationship with the wider world, the story concentrates on a squadron of soldiers from the British Army’s 3rd Battalion, Parachute Regiment who find themselves trapped in a wadi minefield and unable to negotiate a path to safety or evacuation. There are no firefights in this film, just ordinary men trying to cope with the situation they find themselves in, and as a result the acts of heroism we see are vastly different to your standard war film.
Kajaki opens with a half-hour that seeks to establish several characters and explore their station. Their task is to man strategically-placed lookout posts and, presumably, guard the dam and several minor roads around it; we also see them providing information for airstrikes. Unfortunately it’s difficult to work out who is who, at first, but a few men begin to stand out from the pack: Lance Corporal Paul ‘Tug’ Hartley (played by Mark Stanley, previously seen as Grenn in TV’s Game Of Thrones), Corporal Mark Wright (David Elliot), Sgt Stu Pearson (Scott Kyle) and Lance Corporal Stu Hale (Benjamin O’Mahony), the first soldier present to stand on one of the mines in real life, which happened when his patrol went to investigate a roadblock. There were several others involved in 2006 and as such many other characters appear in Kajaki, but those four have been singled out as Katis tends to focus on them.
The film is particularly successful when slowly revealing the extent of the danger faced by the soldiers. When a second mine goes off it becomes clear that each step could be the last one ever taken, and as such no-one caught in the minefield is able to move, whether injured or not. At one point an attempted helicopter rescue sets off a third landmine, and the extreme heat and desperate need for medical care begins to make matters even worse. It’s fascinating to see how the men react in these extreme circumstances: Wright and others courageously enter the minefield to try and help wounded colleagues. Medic Stanley, at one point, unselfishly attempts to reach fellow soldiers by using his backpack to test for mines: he throws it repeatedly and forcefully onto the ground in front of him and, providing it doesn’t explode, subsequently jumps on top of it to move across the wadi. Yet such acts of bravery are mixed with lashes of gallows humour as the soldiers attempt to lift each other’s spirits, despite the fact that some are near-death.
There is little offered in the way of context. Subsequent real-life investigations into the events, which highlighted some wider military failings, are not covered here, although there are brief updates about those involved during the end credits. Additionally, anyone hoping for comment on the UK-US occupation of Afghanistan will be disappointed: Afghan people barely appear in the film, and when they do they are usually distant figures on the horizon. However by concentrating on one single situation, and on one perspective, Katis has crafted a similar kind of ‘ground level’ picture to Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, albeit clearly working with a lower budget and less of a desire to milk the tension for the sake of multiplex thrills back home. This stripped-back, realistic film is just as gripping and, despite the open landscape we see, it is also remarkably claustrophobic.
Directed by: Paul Katis.
Written by: Tom Williams.
Starring: Mark Stanley, David Elliot, Scott Kyle, Benjamin O’Mahony.
Cinematography: Chris Goodger.
Running Time: 108 minutes.