In September 2006, a routine patrol of British troops finds themselves in a long forgotten minefield.
Going in, I had no idea what to expect from Kajaki and that’s undoubtedly the best way to experience this raw and impressive film.
The first feature from corporate director Paul Katis and his frequent collaborator producer Andrew de Lotbinière, Kajaki is an unusually compressed and hermetic story. It’s really about what happens when a small group of men, comrades and friends, get trapped in an horrific situation. They walk in, the trap is sprung and then we get to sit back and squirm as the tension is slowly cranked up to almost unbearable degrees.
Mostly unfolding on a dry riverbed with a contingent of about a dozen characters, the film isn’t much interested in the wide social or political context of the then current conflict. It’s about people and about survival, and draws less from the genre of the war film than from other areas like thrillers, drama and – at times – horror.
Katis has described the lurking mines as ‘monsters in the dark’ and they serve that narrative purpose here – popping up when least expected to devastating effect. Mines are not designed to kill but rather maim, serving to draw in more victims who try to help their fallen comrades. And that sickening reality is realised to great effect by the supremely talented makeup designer Cliff Wallace. This is not a film where the audience gets off lightly.
Kajaki is an incredibly intense experience, but one that’s handled with extreme care. The ebb and flow of the editing keeps the audience suspended in moments of horror and terror for long moments, leavened by brief respites which never make the mistake of truly cutting away from the important action. This isn’t a film where we track the movements of the rescue chopper – there’s never a point where we know for sure that help is on its way.
The technical credits are impressive but the actingis just as strong, especially given the demands of the location, a swift shoot and paying the right homage to real-life soldiers. The cast isn’t star-filled, though you will recognise the odd face or two, making it all the easier to sink into their matey camaraderie.
The performances are routinely excellent, which is necessary for the range of emotions required onscreen. We get to see these characters put through hell, and the film isn’t afraid to show their moments of weakness – of breaking down and freaking out and using the kind of language which is absolutely appropriate. But the film isn’t a sombre tale, the banter between the men is often light-hearted, even when things are at their most dire.
Kajaki is really about the human experience of this kind of situation, and is keen to show these soldiers as, first and foremost, men. They are brave and strong and scared and powerless and everything in between, making for a far more human face on heroism than we’ve become used to. It’s a powerful film about people who risk their lives everyday for the good of the man or woman beside them, a message that resounds much louder than any hollow political statement.
Kajaki is playing exclusively at Omniplex cinemas around Ireland from the 13th of March 2015. Find out if its playing in your local cinema here.