American audiences are in for a shock with “Kilo Two Bravo,” the visceral, disturbing, heroic and otherwise electric UK war film playing the Toronto Film Festival, about British soldiers in Afghanistan. There were British soldiers in Afghanistan? For a lot of people, particularly Americans, that will be the first shock.
The second, far more powerful, is director Paul Katis’ portrayal of his hellishly marooned central characters: A group of British soldiers, mostly paratroopers of the Third Battalion, who in 2006 found themselves in the middle of an old Soviet minefield while stationed at the Kajaki Dam in Afghanistan. Every small move becomes a life-or-death decision; limbs are lost, lives imperiled.
After a standing ovation at the film’s Toronto premiere the previous evening, former Lance Corporal Paul “Tug” Hartley –portrayed by UK actor Mark Stanley – said the making of the film had been, if nothing else, a social success. “There’s a bond between the guys who were there, of course,” Hartley said, “but that’s doubled in size with the actors, ‘cause they played it so well, they’ve kind of fallen in with us.”
Stanley said the approach to playing their characters differed among the actors, who include Scott Kyle, David Elliot and Benjamin O’Mahony. “Some of us made a decision not to meet before shooting started,” Stanley said, who only met Hartley afterwards. “But Tug had written a very detailed account of the incident, which became a map for the role, an emotional blueprint, if you like.”
Hartley’s experience was not what he expected. “There had been some documentaries at home about Afghanistan, but they were pretty poor. So I was wondering, you know. Also, I couldn’t watch it as a film; I was hypercritical about everything,” he said.
“But the second time I saw it was at a private screening with the other guys and within ten minutes of the film we all went back to 2006, and became soldiers again. All the black humor was happening in the room. It was bringing it all back.”
He said that as a soldier who’d been in such a desperate situation, “you don’t look at the negative side. You look for instances of courage and bravery. Also, it was my third tour in Afghanistan at that time and it was a horrendous day. But it’s also about 10 people’s stories, and I didn’t know what was happening elsewhere. So I even learned a few little things I didn’t know about.”
Katis, who makes his feature debut with “Kilo Two Bravo,” said there were concerns about actors playing real people, although there was no time for anyone to resort to mimicry – it was a 26-day shoot in on the Dead Sea in Jordan (“it’s kind of the Switzerland of the Middle East,” Katis said). “They had transcripts of interviews to work with, and before shooting we were in Colchester at boot camp and went through the paces and then we then arranged a big dinner at the end. Three or four of the real vets tuned up, totally informal. That was really helpful for the guys.”
The casting too, said Stanley, was very specific. “Tug and I are about 20 minutes down the road from each other in Yorkshire,” he said. “Everybody was cast that way.”
Did any of the vets have an adverse reaction to the film? Quite the opposite.
One of the soldiers, Hartley said, “had quite a few dealings after the incident, he left the army; I think he felt guilty he couldn’t do more. Before the London premiere, we had a private screening and I saw him and he was in a bad way, troubles in his life, drinking. He was nervous. When the lights came on, I looked over my shoulder and saw he had this massive smile on his face. He said, ‘I have to buy a suit.’ I asked what for and he said ‘I’m going to the premiere.’
“Within a month of the premiere he’d rejoined the battalion as back in the British Army. So the film did the opposite of traumatizing him– it eradicated his demons.”
Nothing could have made Katis happier. “From our standpoint, that was fantastic. We were so scared, showing it to the guys. They were so generous with their stories and their honesty. If they’d said, ‘You haven’t told it straight,’ we would have been devastated.”
“Kilo Two Bravo” releases in the U.S. November 13.