“When the project came to me as a script, I thought it was a really interesting war story,” says Sam Smith at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he’s promoting the International Premiere of Jirga. “It was a whole different perspective; rather than good versus evil, black and white, it was about humanity on both sides. But once I auditioned and got the role, the contract that I got was one that was very detailed about security; about how long we would be shooting in certain areas, ten minutes here, three-car bulletproof-envoy and then out… It was very secure.”
Acting for the screen for a little over 10 years now, with his biggest credit a recent guesty on Home & Away, this was a great opportunity for the young actor, despite protestations from his agent, and a few little white lies for his mum.
Smith was keen to go on the Jirga adventure with writer/director Benjamin Gilmour (Son of a Lion), shooting Pakistan for Afghanistan in this story about an Australian soldier who returns to a war zone seeking forgiveness. However, neither Smith nor Gilmour could have predicted what was to come.
“Benjamin got there about a week earlier than me and was told that our permits would be no issue and it would be cleared in a few days. Then when I got there, we were sitting around for 2 weeks waiting, and we find out that we were blocked and that the ISI – which is the Pakistan version of the CIA – have deemed the script too politically sensitive, and there were files on both of us, and then we find out that we were being tailed wherever we’re going.”
Their principal investor, a Pakistani, then pulled out. “At that point Benjamin said that we could go home with nothing, or we could go to Afghanistan, rewrite and wing it.”
The backer was going to put in $100,000, which was the brunt of the budget. Ironically, Jirga ended up winning the CinefestOZ Prize for exactly that amount.
Jirga was ultimately made covertly in Afghanistan, utilising a few actors and engaging with locals to fill in the narrative, and all the more authentic and affecting because of that.
“A lot of these things that came up as problems and the worst possible case scenario turned out to be blessings,” admits Smith today. “The backer pulls out and we end up landing John Maynard [The Navigator, The Boys, Balibo, The Navigator], a world-renowned producer. All these things, at the time, where we’re going ‘it can’t get any worse’, turned out to be blessings. That happened along the way everywhere.”
That’s not to say that there wasn’t a toll on the filmmakers due to the potential dangers around every corner.
“It was very scary,” admits Smith. “When we were in Jalalabad, there was a week where we were staying at a hotel, and there was a guard at the door asleep with a rifle, and I am staying in a room with a broken lock, coming back after a day of shooting and sleeping through 3 hours a night maximum because I’m waking up to gun shots. I was sleeping fully clothed, with a passport, shoes on, with a knife under my pillow; and I would hear a noise three hours later, and sit with a chair facing the door with a knife in my hand staring at the door waiting for the sound of the dawn prayer because I knew people would be up by then. I was pretty wired for that period of time.
“My mother was very nervous when I was away,” Smith admits. “I think she wrote me 300 texts whilst I was there. She was reading the news and writing ‘there’s an explosion, are you anywhere near it?’ And pretty much always we were wherever this bad thing had happened. But I would write back to her ‘no, we’re actually just having tea in the rose garden today. I think that must be far away from where we are because it’s beautiful here.’ Just lying through my teeth.”
Jirga is in cinemas from September 27, 2018. It also plays the Brisbane International Film Festival.