Starring: Mark Stanley, David Elliot, Paul Luebke
During a routine patrol a group of British soldiers posted at Kajaki Dam in Afghanistan face a terrifying battle for survival as they find themselves trapped on a dried river bed full of landmines, where anyone of their next steps could end in tragedy.
Sometimes (and admittedly this is getting increasingly rare these days) we take a punt on a film that we may have heard a few fleeting complimentary quotes about, but on the whole know very little about as it has little or no marketing, a low budget and a relatively unknown cast. The result of course usually can go one of two ways, but in the case of Kajaki it is a punt that proved to be an extremely good call; Kajaki is an extremely well made and acted drama that is incredibly tense, gripping and emotionally involving from start to finish and does truly put some of its bigger budget counterparts to shame.
The narrative is intentionally paced in a way that we get to know each character, but also the less known about what happens the better, as there is a deep underlying tension, and the unknown is what only enhances the tension. Once the narrative has very effectively introduced us to its characters, the next hour or so pretty much takes place in one small location and is an incredibly tense viewing experience. I hate using the phrase ‘edge-of-the-seat’, especially as most films just aren’t that, but Kajaki truly is, and the fact it is a true story only adds to this.
Kajaki is a pure example of how the most simple of concepts can be the most effective; while more mainstream films would have a big star whose inclusion would produce a certain level of predictability, there is a refreshing rawness in both the casting of predominantly unknown actors and how the film is made that makes Kajaki truly unpredictable, and therefore genuinely tense.
The raw and naturalistic (and suitably sweary) dialogue is not only effective at making the characters relatable and likeable, but only enhances the emotional involvement of the film, and the cast of unknown actors all deliver superb performances, making every character feel important and their inclusion crucial to the story. I have never been in the army, but the sweary banter between the characters, even on the most testing of times has been described as realistic by those that know more than myself, but in terms of the emotional involvement of the narrative, it without a doubt only enhances it. Kajaki may be placed into the genre of war film, but it never tries to make any political points or be allegorical, it is at its core a story of comradery, friendship and loyalty, and it examines these themes with utmost effectiveness.
I have no idea of the actual budget, but Kajaki is incredibly well made; it is stunningly shot both on the film’s beginning sequence, capturing the sparse and open, but also potentially deadly countryside wonderfully well, and then suitably intense close ups when the main plot takes over only, only serving to enhance the genuine intensity. Chris Goodger’s cinematography also heightens the unrelenting and unforgiving nature of the location of the film with maximum effect. Likewise the horrific injuries that some of the characters suffer are most definitely graphic and provide suitably nasty viewing, but are thankfully not over the top.
Filmmaking is often a seemingly impossible balancing act, and the narrative of Kajaki is one that would be so easy to get wrong, but screenwriter Tom Williams and director Paul Katis deal with this with total aplomb to create one of the most genuinely tense films for a very long time. Though in the film’s final third it does sometimes feel like repetitive filler, it is not only intentionally uncomfortable for the viewer, but it is also an effective depiction that does not even come close to the painfully slow experience the characters must have experienced and it therefore fully justifies the slowdown in the pace.
A film that few may have heard of, but all should see; despite the low budget and an unknown cast, Kajaki puts so many bigger budget films to shame with its masterclass in cinematic tension. This is emotionally draining and deeply unforgettable high tension cinema of the highest degree.