Accomplished Canadian director and actor Paul Gross discusses his second war film Hyena Road which premiered at the recent Toronto International Film Festival and will open across Canada on October 9th.
1. Your movie Hyena Road had its World Premier at TIFF. What inspired you to produce this film?
It started with a trip to Afghanistan as a group of people visiting the troops. I was utterly mesmerized by the experience, in particular because the war zone seemed to bear no relationship to what I had been told by government or media. Although I had no intention to ever make another war film (because they are horribly complex and difficult to finance) I thought I should at least return and photograph what I could, since we were beginning to talk about pulling out of combat operations. I returned about a year later with a camera team and we spent a couple of weeks outside the wire at a Forward Operating Base, pointing our cameras at everything and anything — artillery strikes, chopper runs, mounted convoys, foot patrols, etc. It was during that trip, in conversations with soldiers of every rank and specialty that I started to assemble the anecdotes that would eventually form the basis of the script. All the events and characters (including the Afghan characters) are based on the people I met and the stories I was told during that trip. The only thing I really did as a writer was to assemble the events and characters into a coherent narrative, one that makes for an exciting evening in the cinema and hopefully provokes discussion and curiosity about our long mission with ISAF (International Security Assistance Force).
2. What segments of the film where shot in Afghanistan, Manitoba and Jordan?
The footage from the actual war zone that we captured in Afghanistan is sprinkled throughout the film, intercut with footage we shot in both Jordan and Manitoba. We shot for 3 weeks at Canadian Forces Base Shilo, Manitoba and one night at 17 Wing in Winnipeg (air force base). We shot the balance of the exteriors in Jordan, based out of Aqaba.
3. What impact did the geography of Afghanistan have on you personally and how do you think it impacted the Canadian soldiers out on combat and humanitarian missions?
The geography of Afghanistan is staggeringly beautiful to my eye, rivaling anything in say the American southwest. There was something about the paradox of a stunning landscape ripped apart by 30 years of constant warfare that was heartbreaking. I think for most soldiers in the CAF (Canadian Armed Forces), however, they saw the landscape as a work space, their area of operations and although perhaps beautiful it was also potentially lethal, since death could arrive from the most seemingly benign source. A clod of earth could conceal an IED (improvised explosive device). I think the pervasive dust and the punishing heat (regularly 50 degrees Celsius during the summer months) also took its toll. I only had the briefest taste of the stress and tension of being in that environment but can extrapolate to how one would feel at the end of a seven or eight month rotation and can imagine how exhausted a soldier or NGO worker would be when the tour concluded.
4. Did the geography of any of the locations you filmed have an impact (logistics, inspiration, etc.) on filming the movie?
Geography always has an impact on filming, although we do our best to limit the challenge when we’re choosing locations. Jordan was settled on as the country where we could duplicate Kandahar and brought with it all sorts of logistical challenges. Notably, we were shipping all manner of military grade items into one of the world’s most turbulent neighbourhoods — black powder, functioning assault rifles, detonation cord, etc. All of this took an enormous amount of effort to clear through customs, airline manifest, etc. Jordan itself was a joy to film in but some of the locations — on the sides of mountains, for instance — took a great deal of planning to ensure efficiency and above all safety.
5. From the moral soul-searching of the kidnapping of Afghan children scenes, to the quiet moments on Kandahar Air Base and the heart pounding ambush sequences, what insight did you want to provide to Canadian viewers on Canada’s combat mission in Afghanistan, and why is that important?
One of our prime directives was to ensure that we were authentic and accurate in our treatment of what the atmosphere of the war zone was and the protocols of how we prosecuted the mission. Given the response of veterans of the conflict, I think we can say with a good degree of confidence that we were successful in that goal. The film captures the chaotic, brutal poetry of the conflict. The structure of the script incorporates three main plots: the ‘kinetic’ war (shooting and killing); the ‘non-kinetic’ war (what we might call Hearts and Minds); and the Afghans who were our partners. I would like to hope that we have captured the fluid nature of this modern war, one in which there appears to be no fixed moral compass and presents the soldier with an almost impossibly opaque and complex environment. This might be characterized as ‘post-modern’ warfare, one that bears little relationship to the relatively simple moral conflict of, say, the Second World War.
6. Throughout the movie you use quotes from Alexander The Great, whose armies fought in Afghanistan, which seem to imply that outside militaries may for a while hold the ground in Afghanistan but in the end they all withdraw. Is this the lesson that you want viewers to leave with?
I’m not sure I was trying to say that ground cannot be held. Their is an oft repeated maxim that Afghanistan has never been conquered which is not exactly true. It has been conquered but perhaps never held. But for most armies that have marched in there (in recorded history starting with Alexander) Afghanistan was not a goal — it was a means to a different goal, the route they had to take. The difference with ISAF is that the coalition was not attempting to ‘conquer’ the land and great efforts were taken to minimize the footprint on the local population — we did not live in Kandahar City as the US did in Saigon for example. We were truly attempting to work in partnership with those Afghans (the majority of the population) to assist them in creating a coherent country, one that could withstand the predations of the insurgent and neighbouring countries. Whether or not the mission was successful is for time to determine. And, as the Afghans would say, ‘Inshallah it was worth it’.
Watch the HYENA ROAD Trailer
All photos by Elevation Pictures – All Rights Reserved