“We’re Leaving These Places in Ruins”: How the White Lens on “Kandahar” Reflects the Human Cost

“Kandahar” drops viewers into the heat of the Middle East as CIA agent Tom Harris (Gerard Butler) sabotages an Iranian nuclear facility for the first time. Roman (Travis Fimmel) wants Tom to take on a second, more dangerous mission and sets him up with Mohammed (Navid Negahban), a translator. However, Tom’s cover is blown when Luna (Nina Toussaint-White), a journalist, reports the story. Suddenly, Luna’s life is in danger and Kahil (Ali Fazal), who works for Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, wants revenge.

Director Ric Roman Waugh takes a slow approach with this efficient thriller, saving most of its kinetic action sequences for the second half – after all the chess pieces are in place. Since Tom is determined to get home and keep Muhammad safe as well, they must travel from Herat to Kandahar with Kahil and others in pursuit.

“Kandahar” is the third (and best) collaboration between Waugh and actor Gerard Butler who previously worked together on “Angel Has Fallen” and “Greenland”. While the politics don’t overwhelm the story, there are double and possibly triple crosses as Tom and Mohammed encounter unsavory characters such as Ismail (Ray Haratian), a warlord.

Waugh keeps the action engaging while Tom engages in various chases and gunfights, with one night vision shot being particularly thrilling. The filmmaker spoke to Salon about his new thriller.

Considering you’ve done several action movies, what was your approach to ‘Kandahar’, which features different storylines, locations and action sequences?

My main mantra as a filmmaker is that I never try to let a character be an antagonist. In this case, it is a region that has been caught in a cycle of violence for centuries. So how do you find the humanity in that? How do you end up rooting people you never thought you’d root? And do you have empathy when they perish? When I read the script, I knew you had to feel the death of everyone in this movie. It must mean something. Whether the Taliban is after them, or other people who are doing their jobs and should return to their families, are not going to do so anymore. It was about really keeping that humanity, and I loved the ‘Rashomon’ point of view of this material that allows us to explore all these people and storylines. The hardest part was not to delve too deeply into the complexities of the region.

What can you say about the shooting of the action sequences, such as the night vision sequence?

It started with my first mandate. I’m not going to make this look dirty, dusty and desaturated. I wanted to show the beauty of the region. We brought in the caramels and I wanted to use primary colors. The women of Herat wear blue burkas. When the Russians invaded, they brought this weird blue material, and the (burkas) have been blue ever since; other regions still use black. At night, in the desert, it is black. Because they know what’s going on with modern technology, they don’t use the regular night vision, the “green” that Iranians use, but the new delta force operators, the new CIA and the new MI6 are now using fusion technology, and it combines infrared with thermal. You can change the color patterns. When I found out you can do it in black and white and you can see the desert at night, I thought, I’m going to make it look like Ansel Adams shot here. I wanted to show the beauty of the region at night.

This is your third collaboration with Gerard Butler. What observations do you have about working with him and building a movie around him as a hero?

We’ve known each other for a long time. I started to reinvent his “Fallen” franchise in a new way. I take the action hero and give him humanity and flaws. The heroes of the comic book movie are 10 feet tall and bulletproof and impervious to pain. If you look back at the heroes of movies in the ’70s and ’50s, they were flawed individuals and relatable, real people. That was the fun aspect of “Angel Has Fallen” – this guy worrying about hanging up his gun, dealing with real issues, and battling with his own mortality. Gerry is not afraid to be sensitive, vulnerable and express himself three-dimensionally. In “Greenland” we took out the action hero. He was an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances. He had no special skills and had to do everything from the heart.

When I read Mitchell LaFortune’s script that became “Kandahar,” I skimmed over it. It showed the humanity of the Middle East in multiple countries and the cycle of violence that was going on. Gerry was the first person I thought of, and I had to make him a man of action, but never become an action hero – even though he had a special ability. We made it authentic and grounded. It is inspired by true events.

The irony was that we originally prepared it before the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. We were in Saudi Arabia and the Delta COVID variant closed the borders. Then the withdrawal happened, so we rewrote the movie to show not only the grief of the region, but also the warriors who fought for 20 years. What was it all for? We wanted to bring empathy and the sensitivity of “all is lost”, and also the reconciliation. The scene we always entertain was one with these two men fighting a helicopter in the middle of the desert. They accept the fact that neither of them knows their own family better than war. How much they have in common, even though they come from opposite places.

What did you know about the Middle East and black ops before you started making this movie?

It starts with Mitchell LaFortune. He was with the DIA, which is a (military) intelligence agency. He was based in Herat for several years. Then it was expanded to understand his experiences there with different factions. I knew the story I wanted to tell, but as I spent more time in Saudi Arabia, I felt like a journalist. I felt there was a way to take in this place and be this outsider who is not insensitive and takes things for granted. I’ve paid attention to every detail. It was loud. Five times a day you hear the call to prayer, there is enormous traffic noise and within a few weeks you get used to it. Tom was on a roof, and this kind of noise and commotion was normal for him.

But watching the clash of the ultra-conservative movement and the young progressive movement in Saudi Arabia, it was nice to get that across to Ali Fazal’s character, Kahil, who reports to a man who runs the ISI, the CIA in Pakistan . His (boss) is a conservative pious man who performs his prayers and does not live in sin by smoking vape pens. Then you see Khalil meeting the Taliban, taking off his turban and putting on the Gucci glasses, and him vaping and getting into a hip-hop Range Rover. That happened around me.

kandaharAli Fazal as Kahil Nazir in “Kandahar” (Open Road Films/Briarcliff Entertainment)

I found Kahil to be an interesting foil for Tom. I really liked a sequence where it was just the two of them
“Meet.” How did you work with Ali Fazal on his role?

We wanted Kahil to be the mirror of Tom, someone who lives in isolation, doesn’t know his family and is addicted to war. His counterpart (Kahil), has to live the same way, but he doesn’t want to anymore. He’s trying to find a way out. Kahil is on Tinder trying to find love as there is nothing in his life other than being on the hunt again at some point. We wanted the hunter and the hunted to be mirrors, but also specific to each man’s culture – not westernizing Kahil too much, but showing what a young Pakistani would be like versus a man like Tom from our western world.

Mohammed is also a kind of mirror for Tom. He is a moral center of the movie and empathetic. How did you present his character?

There was much more to Muhammad’s character that I wanted to show – here’s a man who fought against a country and now has a bull’s-eye on his back. He lives as a refugee in America. It resembles how Afghans and Iraqis and other people who come from conflict live (abroad). He is trying to reclaim his country. The movie was about Muhammad going back to find a lover. He makes this trade with the devil to do one last mission so he can go back under an alias to find his loved ones. But he looks at a land where hope is gone. I would have loved to take another 10-15 minutes to find out more about who he was.

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How do you feel about ‘Kandahar’ being a story told through a white lens – both you as the filmmaker and Tom as the character?

It is what it is. We’ve been living with that layer for 20 years. I think that was important to show that and that Tom understands the responsibility of that. When he says, “We’ll come to your country and tell you what to do and how to behave, and then we’ll leave you in shambles,” that was an important statement of how we’ve been getting involved in this again and again since Vietnam. police actions and try to do more good and knock down bad people, but we leave these places in ruins. Are we letting ourselves down? That lens was important to hear from a Western character invading and complicit in these lands. Yes, it’s a privilege, but there’s also an important message that we need to recognize and understand about the human cost. Look at what is happening in Ukraine right now. This film speaks of the destruction that war causes not only on a physical level, but also on a mental level, and at a human cost, and the sacrifices of families behind it.

In what ways is your film political? Can people read “Kandahar” as jingoistic?

I hope not. I don’t want to be Robert Redford, and I don’t want to be Oliver Stone. I don’t want to express my opinion in any film. If there’s politics in it, the politics is real. The Pakistanis are dealing with the Taliban. But I’m not going to give you my opinion or tell you how to fix it. That’s never my job.

“Kandahar” hits theaters across the country on May 26.

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film interviews by Gary Kramer

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