Photos by Benjamin Gilmour
I don’t ask a lot of questions in this interview.
I just say things like ‘Holy shit’ and ‘Jesus Christ’ because actor Sam Smith’s story about shooting a film guerilla-style in Afghanistan is completely insane. The movie is Jirga, and tells the story of an Australian soldier returning to Afghanistan to make amends for the accidental shooting of a civilian. It’s won a slew of awards on the film festival circuit, and was Australia’s bid for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2019 Oscars. Jirga is a heavy film with an even heavier backstory, and when you read this interview with Sam, you’ll say ‘Jesus’ and ‘Holy shit’ a bunch too.
How did you get involved with Jirga?
I got called by a casting agent a year prior to going in and he said, ‘Hey, there’s this project coming up, this military thing that I think you’d really be great for.’ I went in, tested for it, and about a month later I got offered the part and was given the contract. The contract [said] it was going to be shot in Pakistan, in the Khyber Agency—which is sort of the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan—and it was going to be very heavy security. So, there was filming for no longer than ten to fifteen minutes in each location, a three-car bullet-proof convoy…
So, like, a very intense security element to this thing. The contract also said, ‘Potentially shooting one to two scenes in Afghanistan but we’ll need to look at it closer to the date,’ because the security warnings and the danger warnings over there are kinda like the way we look at the weather forecast over here.
At any point, were you thinking, ‘Hmm, maybe I don’t want to do this’?
I was definitely trepidatious about it but I was also really interested in the project because, well, first of all, the script read completely different to any war film I’d ever seen; it wasn’t about goodies and baddies, right and wrong, black and white—it was about humanity and showing suffering on both sides, and showing the mercy, forgiveness and joy of that culture, as opposed to every other film about Afghanistan where it’s like, cue the music and then the baddie with the shifty eyes comes in, you know? The whole ‘these guys are evil’ thing.
It didn’t have any of that. It was just about real human beings trying to experience life in the same way as anyone else does. So, I was really drawn to that. And I was interested in the adventure of going somewhere like that. I just thought it was a really wild opportunity; it’s not every day that someone says, ‘Hey, I’ll pay you some money and we’ll make an artistic project in Pakistan,’ you know?
Absolutely. Real quick, though—what did your parents say before you left?
My mum wasn’t into it. She sent me something like 300 text messages while I was away.
Yeah, I counted them. She was writing and saying things like, ‘Hey, where are you? I heard about this big explosion!’ And I’d be like, ‘Hey, no, we’re just in the rose garden having tea,’ but we were, without fail, always near where the thing had happened. When the female aid worker Kerry Wilson was abducted from Jalalabad, we literally arrived that day. She was actually abducted from the hotel we were staying at, and it was like, you know, a hotel that had broken locks on the doors… I’ll tell you more about that in a minute, but my mum was not into at all.
So, you shaved ten years off your mother’s life with stress.
I think so, and I do feel guilty about that. Anyway, we left for Pakistan—and the reason we were shooting there was that the funding was going to come from this Pakistani businessman, who said, ‘I’ll put up $100,000 to shoot this, but you need to shoot in Pakistan.’ So, I get there and Ben the director, Ben Gilmore, had already been there for about a week before I landed, and then we spent the next two weeks waiting around for these permits from the ISI, which is the Inter-Services Intelligence; kind of like the Pakistan version of the CIA.
So, after two weeks of being there, they blocked the permits, deemed the film too politically sensitive, created files on myself and Ben, and started tailing us.
Yeah, like, we’d pull up at lights and a guy would pop up out of nowhere and start asking the driver questions. We went to get visas for Afghanistan a bit later, and a guy actually jumped out of a bush, came over to the car and started asking questions. It was like something out of a 70s spy novel, like really wild James Bond type shit.
You must’ve been shitting bricks.
We were very much being pressured to leave the country, which coincided with the backer saying, ‘They’ve blocked the permits; I’m pulling my funding; I can’t be in a bad way with the ISI; they’re really powerful.’ And Ben said to me, ‘Alright, we can go back to Australia with nothing, or you and I can buy a camera from the mall—a good camera, but a camera from the mall—and go to Afghanistan with no security, rewrite the script and pretty much wing it, make this guerilla-style. And I was thinking, well, that’s your plan B, but plan A didn’t really work out so well, you know? So, it was a pretty big call.
Was it just the two of you?
Just the two of us there, yeah. People were going to be flying in to start the production, but it didn’t happen, so we were kind of left with our dicks in our hands.
And you made the decision to keep going.
Yeah. Things in Pakistan had gotten so heated, I felt a bit stubborn about it all, and I thought, ‘I really want to try and do this.’ So, we were talking about going into Afghanistan and just shooting a little bit of footage to come back and show and get funding and go back, blah, blah, blah; but instead, we went with plan B and flew into Afghanistan.
To try to shoot the whole thing.
Right. And Benjamin had two contacts there, people who could potentially help with the film, but they didn’t know anything about it or know the script or anything. So, we got [into Afghanistan] the day after one of the biggest explosions Kabul had seen in a long time, a lot of people were killed… Then Ben got approval to shoot from the Afghan Film Commission, and then we started piecing things together and wrangling people in.
Did you find actors?
We pretty much used non-actors except for two people. Once they read the script and understood that we were making a film that was pro-Afghanistan, pro-peace, and showed an authentic vision of their culture and their country, people really got behind it. But it was at the same time really dangerous. Like, we’d be shooting in places and we’d sometimes get one take, and this guy we had with us who was looking after us, armed guy, would say, ‘Okay, we have to leave now, we have to get out of here. It’s not safe.’ So, we’d have to bail, sometimes after one take. When we got to Jalalabad—which is where we shot a lot of the scenes in caves—it was really red-hot. We got there the day after Kerry Wilson—who has since been found and is safe—had been kidnapped from or near our hotel. It’s like a 200-person hotel, and we were the only two guests there.
It looks like The Shining. Crazy. My room had a broken lock on it, we’d been told that were ISIS spotters in the markets, we were close to ISIS and Daesh country, it’s in the Nangarhar province. And we were shooting these scenes out in the caves, and we have to drive through dense traffic, sometimes chaperoned by military or police, which is pretty sketchy: being in tight in a car and knowing you can’t go forwards or backwards, and you’re there with military…
You’re a target.
Right, and it feels really tense. So, we drive for an hour and then we have to hike for about half an hour through rugged terrain to these caves; and by this point, I was getting pretty paranoid. I was staying in this hotel, sleeping maybe four hours per night, sleeping fully clothed, passport in my top pocket and a knife in my hand. And I’d be woken up, either by a mortar blast or gunshots or shouting, and I don’t know the language so I don’t know what’s being said—is it about me or something else, you know?
Dude, are you alright? Like, this is PTSD stuff…
I was pretty bad for the first six months, but I’m good now. I was hyper-vigilant when I got back to Sydney because… It was just me and Ben, and I don’t have any military or combat experience… And I’d never been so far out of my comfort zone either. But yeah, for about a two-week period I was sleeping about four hours a night.
And I was hearing stuff in the night, like, out in the hallway. And I’d get up with the knife and sit in a chair, and just stare at the door waiting for someone to come in, really convinced that something’s going to go down. And I’d wait until I heard the dawn prayer because then I’d know people were out and about and I could grab another half hour of sleep, and then we’d be off shooting again.
And it was like that for a couple of weeks. But that was also coupled with going to Bamiyan, which is this incredible national park area. You’ve seen the pictures—the lake with the pink swan boat?
That’s it. It’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s this incredible crystal-blue lake—it actually looks Powerade blue—and it’s this peaceful place; the atmosphere is completely different, it was the opposite of everywhere else. We were also spending time with the villagers there, being invited in for food by people who had so little but were just like, ‘You have to come in and join us for dinner.’ The hospitality was just incredible.
It’s nice that you had those experiences, but everything else sounds like enforced method acting: no sleep, paranoid the whole time… That’s what your character is experiencing, right?
Yeah. Well, I didn’t have to do much acting, to be honest. It was kind of the opposite of trying to get into [character]; I had to sometimes step out of it to remain cool and be able to do the job, you know?
Because if I let myself go too far down that rabbit hole… I was going a bit crazy. Ben said that a couple of times when he heard gunshots or mortar blasts, he was going to come into my room, but he knew that I had the knife and he felt a bit nervous about coming in. And I reckon if he had of, I might’ve gone for him, you know? I mean, I was sitting there waiting, and if the door handle moves I’m gonna go.
This is the craziest shit I have ever heard. When were you shooting?
Around mid-2016, and it just had its US release. It takes a while with post and the festival circuit, stuff like that.
How long were you in Afghanistan?
Total time away was two months: two weeks in Pakistan and then six weeks in Afghanistan. I think we did about twenty-one days of shooting.
I haven’t seen the movie yet, only the trailer, but from what I can gather, Jirga—and I think you mentioned this before—it gives Afghanistan a human face.
Yeah. I mean, all I’d seen of Afghanistan before I left was the same as what most people have seen, and it comes from the news: the Taliban, explosions, bombed-out areas… I had no idea about the natural beauty of Afghanistan, and I’d never met anyone from there before.
What’s really good about the film is we’ve had a number of Afghans come and see it, and they’ll come up afterwards, after the Q&As, and say, ‘Thank you for showing our culture so authentically, and showing it to the world,’ you know?
That’s really cool.
But that can be credited to the people. We didn’t go in and say, ‘Okay, here’s the script—we need you to do this.’ We’d ask how they thought each scene should work if it was going to be authentic; we were guided every step of the way by the people. They guided the script. It was more about listening than talking.
Was there ever any miscommunication or confusion about who you were and what was happening?
Yeah, there were a few times when people thought we were making a documentary. A lot of people over there thought I actually was a soldier who had killed a civilian and was coming back to apologise.
Which is what the movie is about. That’s fucking crazy.
Yeah, and when we got to the jirga [Afghan trial conducted by an assembly of elders], Benjamin said to these elders, ‘Okay, guys, can we do a jirga?’ And there was a bit of confusion with the older guys who thought it was a real jirga.
What, for the whole scene?
Insane. You said before it took you about six months to readjust to being home. What was that time like? Can you talk about it?
Yeah, yeah, I’m comfortable talking about it. When I came back, I was very… I had a very hard time sitting with my back to things. Because over there, if we went anywhere, if we left the hotel, all I’d be doing is thinking, ‘Okay, how do I get back,’ I was always looking for an exit route; I knew three ways to get out of the hotel from the rear in case people were coming in the front; if we went out for tea somewhere, I’d be watching the exits and thinking, ‘how do I get out of here if I need to?’ Like, if you’re in a sketchy situation in everyday life, it usually lasts about ten minutes and then you get away and exhale.
But this was like being adrenalised for two months, you know? I was living in this state, not sleeping, and definitely, like, going a bit crazy towards the end. I lost a lot of weight; you can see it in the film; I look pretty gaunt. When I came back, like, I’d feel pretty uncomfortable sitting here in this park and not being able to see what’s happening behind me… Prior to going over there, I’d sleep eight hours, you know, not a problem, but it’s only been the last six months I’ve been sleeping properly again. When I got back, I was sleeping in three to four-hour blocks… It was like my brain knew I was back in Sydney and I was safe, but my body didn’t. It took a long time to decompress.
Jesus Christ, man. This is insane. You’re an actor. This is the shit soldiers deal with.
Right, but I think the difference is soldiers are probably more prepared for it; you’re with twenty other guys, and you got a bunch of guns—I was just hanging there with my knife not knowing what’s going on! But I’ll tell ya, I got a lot of respect for anyone who can sit in that territory and handle it well, because it’s definitely stressful.
Did you and Ben leave at the same time?
And you both flew straight back to Sydney?
What was the first thing you did?
There’s two parts to this. I was stingin’ for a beer the whole time I was there, and there’s no alcohol; you can’t really get it. Although, we did actually have a guy smuggle us four cans of Fosters, which ended up costing us $120 because of all the checkpoints he had to massage the cans through…
I know. But it was the best Fosters I ever tasted.
What was the other thing you did besides have a decent beer?
Well, we got out three weeks earlier than planned in the end, and I was gonna tell my mum I was coming home early, you know, because she was so worried, and I felt terrible that I was putting her through that stress. But part of me was like, ‘This is going to be the best surprise ever!’
Wait. You surprised your mum?
Yeah! My aunty took her and her husband out to a Chinese restaurant near the house and purposely sat her with her back to the window. And I got off the plane, got a cab, rocked up to the restaurant and knocked on the window.
Was she mad that you didn’t tell her?
Not at all, she was just relieved to have me home.