Review by former British Army Captain Afzal Amin who served in Helmand, Kandahar and Kabul 2010-12 with the UK and US Militaries and as a Political Officer with the FCO.
KAJAKI: The True Story
The summer of 2006 saw the beginning of a horrific trend in British and NATO military activity: that of an increase in fatalities and injuries caused by what would become the greatest danger to troops - abandoned Soviet military ordnance in the shape of anti-personnel mines, anti-tank mines and artillery shells re-wired to become improvised explosive devices (IEDs). It was whilst guarding the strategically important Kajaki Dam in Helmand Province, Southern Afghanistan, that soldiers from 3 Para came to discover a minefield in that most brutal way: 'Minestrike!" This is the term we shout out or broadcast across military radio networks when a mine or other device is initiated (exploded). And so from the banality of sitting around taking turns on staggered guard duty (stag), waiting for morale boosts in the post, physical fitness routines and trying to read or play chess we went to seeing casualties horrifically injured surrounded by mines and watched by colleagues who could only guard against any possible insurgent attack but remained unable to help any further. All the while collectively waiting for casualty evacuation by air (Casevac) which took far too long.
The film is harrowing, for anyone who has patrolled in Afghanistan or Iraq, the uniforms, the kit, the unforgiving sun, the sparse landscape, the very foreign locals (!), the scarcity of contact with the wider military and civilian contingents of the force, it is all too real. For me it was the hardest film to watch and I hated so much of it. By the end a part of me wished it had never been made. But such sentimentality is misplaced and selfish. For the blokes that went through that awful day, their colleagues who were witnesses and their commanders who were unable to help in time, it is all terrible. Yet in this darkness the heroism of that indomitable spirit of the British Army, of the Paras, of medics, of Helicopter rescue teams, shines through. The combination of shared dark humour, of self-deprecating commentary and self-sacrificing activity to support your mates, of being willing to lay down your own life to save others and of having the integrity and military professionalism to embark on self-initiated taskings to achieve the mission. When viewed like this, Kajaki: the true story, is utterly superb. I cannot commend it enough. The makers have captured the operating culture of soldiers perfectly. They have stayed away from the wider political and military issues, and focused on the experiences of the soldiers on the ground on that fateful day. The events are re-created with documentary level accuracy and I applaud Director Paul Katis' exceptional commitment to this aspect in particular and the honesty of the film overall. He has brought decades of experience to the role and I am sure he will reap the rightful rewards of recognition as this film gains wider acclaim.
I must also confess a slight bias, and that is I salute my very good friend Alexa Jago who has an illustrious CV in acting and movie-making and has now extended her repertoire to teaming up with a Colonel and setting up the charity Caring for Courage. As Executive Producer, Alexa raised money through the EIS scheme, sourced crowd funding and brought in legendary casting directors John and Ross Hubbard who by all accounts were fantastic and selected the impressive array of highly talented young actors. What can't have been pleasurable was the role of the physical trainer from Hollywood, Gregory Joujon Roche, who had trained Brad Pitt for "Troy" and Tobey Maguire for "Spiderman", his job was to train the actors to look and hence move like soldiers, much of this re-shaping of physique was in fact done by email!
This film should be watched by all who comment on war, on military operations, on training budgets, on veterans pay and every other aspect of sending young soldiers on operations. It should be watched by every member of Parliament from both the Commons and Lords, by civil servants and by journalists. It should be watched by charity workers and those who donate to charities: what remains remarkable is how Kajaki: the true story, so elegantly brings the charitable and film world together to raise awareness and educate, with the full support of the soldiers it portrays, their families and the regiment to which they belong. All in all it should be watched by all of us to see a very graphic and highly accurate portrayal of what happens when soldiers, so far from home and loved ones, deploy on operational service. We owe them our gratitude, they have earned our respect and together we must salute and properly acknowledge their courage.