Bangalow filmmaker Benjamin Gilmour directed Jirga which is Australias submission for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
Bangalow filmmaker Benjamin Gilmour directed Jirga which is Australias submission for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Marc Stapelberg

Meet the NSW filmmaker whose movie is up for an Oscar

VERY "James Bond" is how Bangalow filmmaker Benjamin Gilmour described his experience filming his latest Oscar nominated movie Jirga.

From car chases, safe houses, spies hiding in bushes to seek them out, to avoiding the clutches of ISIS, filming in Afghanistan in extraordinary circumstances is certainly not for the faint-hearted, the writer, director, and medic said.

Jirga is Australia's submission for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, of which there are 87 countries vying for the prize.

It stars Sam Smith (Home & Away) as a former Australian soldier who returns to Afghanistan to find the family of a civilian he accidentally killed during the war. Seeking forgiveness, he puts his life in the hands of the village justice system - the Jirga.

This is Gilmour's second drama feature film (after Son of a Lion, 2007) and both have got into A-list festivals - Berlinale and Toronto International Film Festival, for which he feels "very privileged".

Both films were made on a shoestring budget.

'This is freaky, they're going to kill us'

For Jirga, the pair arrived in Pakistan to find the security services had kiboshed their clearances to film; their backer had pulled out and they were stranded, with no money and no crew.

"(After some unexpected changes to the plan) the budget was markedly reduced to a level where traditional film shoot in Australia wouldn't get three days shoot out of it," Gilmour said.

"We were in Pakistan sitting in this safe house -we were promised all this security... secret service were tailing us. It was full on James Bond. It was amazing, but of course the actor was freaking out as he'd never been in this situation, (but) I had for my previous film, I had had dealings with ISI in the past.

"Sam was like 'This is freaky, they're going to kill us'.

"You're driving along and spies have been following you in a car... it's total cloak and dagger. There were spies hiding in a bush across from the safe house.

"It was bizarre.

"I enjoy a little intrigue when I travel and when I am working on a project, but its not for everyone.," Mr Gilmour said, who is at home in the region.

They then decided to travel to Afghanistan and go ahead with it anyway, where Gilmour juggled the roles of director and cinematographer, shooting the film 'guerrilla-style'.

In Pakistan, he made Son of a Lion in 2007 and a segment of Paramedico in 2013. And he has spent time with tribesmen on the frontier - fierce, bearded men with AK47s who he says were also "the most generous, hospitable, kind humans, in touch with their emotional side and prone to reciting poetry and smelling roses".

On the nomination, he said the team was "thrilled about the honour of representing Australia".

"For us it's the recognition of what Jirga has to say and the fruits of human cross-cultural collaboration. Being selected for the Oscars is also about the company our film is in. I hope Jirga will now reach a much bigger audience."

Lives risked for film

He said the most memorable part of the filming process is when a scene is really working.

"You've gone through a whole lot of stress and anxiety to get all the elements together for a scene. Everyone has risked their lives to be in this location in central Afghanistan.

"Then it's like 'rolling and action' and you're filming it and thinking, 'Yes it is working, the magic is working'.

"That is the absolute thrill you are aiming for, when you know you're getting gold. And a lot of that gold was improvised."

While he didn't intend to be the one filming, he said what comes out on screen is what he wants the audience to see.

"I would have to go for another take sometimes if the light wasn't right or it wasn't in focus but to indulge myself in more than one or two takes when we were under time pressures to get as many scenes as we can in a couple of hours before it starts getting dark and ISIS start coming out - there were those pressures.

"There's a sequence between the man and the widow of the soldier he had killed and you're so caught up in that moment and it's so real and I am filming it and feeling it so what I want the audience to see they are going to be seeing on screen. While I was filming that I was very emotional.

"You're right up close to the action you could smell the sweat and the dirt and the sun beating down on you and it's quite powerful."

This month marks 17 years of war

Gilmour's motivation for the film was his opposition to the ongoing war in Afghanistan, which has been ongoing for 17 years; his mission to encourage peace by countering the stereotypes.

"What I wanted to achieve with this film is to open people's hearts and minds to Afghanistan and Muslims and as a way of creating reconciliation and peace in the world.

"I am astounded by the lack of creativity around conflict resolution in that country by the international community."

Triggered by the September 11 attacks the international conflict in Afghanistan began in October in 2001.

From ambulances to film sets

Before he was a filmmaker Gilmour was a film unit nurse in London hanging out with the likes of Sharon Stone.

"When you're mixing up Berocca in the morning and giving people headache tablets for their hangovers - which is pretty much all I did, you get a lot of time to just hang out with the camera and wardrobe departments, hang out with the director and become friends with everyone.

"I was working with some directors who ended up letting me shoot and direct B camera on prominent BBC 4 productions.

"Everyone was like 'What? The unit nurse is directing the B camera?'."

Gilmour's current project is a book, about his "day job" as a paramedic in rural NSW.

Jirga is on at the Byron Bay Film Festival at 4.30pm on Sunday, October 21 at the Byron Community Centre.



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