Filmmaker Benjamin Gilmour on Breaking Stereotypes, War Porn and his Latest Film

Filmmaker Benjamin Gilmour on Breaking Stereotypes, War Porn and his Latest Film

I first met Benjamin Gilmour about six years ago at a tiny cafe in Sydney. I had just returned from living in Pakistan and Syria and had heard a great deal about this elusive character, whose critically acclaimed feature film Son of a Lion was doing the rounds at film festivals worldwide.

A few rounds of coffees later and a shared love for the people, history, culture and religion of the region, we immediately formed a strong friendship and have kept in contact ever since.

When Benjamin began to tell me about his latest creative project, Return to Kandahar, I was enthralled. It wasn’t only because of the fantastic characters and story he had crafted in the script that had me hooked, but the underlying message he was telling. It is a message and story that is rarely told and often silenced by the likes of Hollywood, mainstream media and popular culture.

What Benjamin is endeavouring to do with this film is a hugely powerful undertaking, so when he asked me to help out as a Producer I obviously jumped at the opportunity.

We recently sat down together to discuss the film and the messages and issues that may arise as part of the process.

Reuben: Firstly, can you tell us about the film and why you feel the need to make it?

Benjamin: ‘Return to Kandahar’ is about a US soldier who returns to the battlefield after leaving the army to find the family of a man he killed in a raid and to beg the family’s forgiveness. It is a story of redemption with the objective to show Islam as a religion of mercy. The American central character is, in that sense, a vehicle for the other characters who are Afghan Muslims and who, through the course of the film, subvert the misconceptions about those who follow Islam. The film deals with several aspects of the tragedy that is war: racism and Islamophobic propaganda, the meaning of the word ‘enemy’, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among combatants and the ongoing war in Afghanistan. I am making this film for the same reason I made ‘Son of a Lion’ which was a reaction to the Islamophobia in response to 9/11. Now we have rising Islamophobia in response to the refugee crisis. What some of us don’t realise is that what 9/11 and the refugee crisis have common are directly related to Western political and military interference in Islamic nations.

Reuben: As an Australian filmmaker, do you see any potential issues arising by creating a film that counters predominantly American centric issues relating to the ongoing military action in the Afghan conflict?

Benjamin: Sure I do. I’m certain there’ll be some Americans who’ll take exception to me being an Australian telling an American story. But what is interesting is that, if the story was an LA romantic comedy no one would care. Or a story about an African/American chauffeur taking around an old white woman, like Australian Bruce Beresford’s ‘Driving Miss Daisy.’ Aussie directors have been working in Hollywood for years making American stories. They even make American war films. Phillip Noyce directed ‘The Quiet American’ for example, which I love. Hollywood is full of Australians; actors, producer, cinematographers. We have talent, subtlety and a smart sense of humour and Hollywood knows it. As for understanding America, like many people in the world we’ve been raised on a diet of British and American culture. And let’s be honest, America makes no secret of itself!

One of the filming locations in Afghanistan

Reuben: You have already been labeled in the media as “hitting out at Hollywood war porn” and have attracted some interesting criticism online for portraying characters such as Chris Kyle from American Sniper as “killers” what are your thoughts on this?

Benjamin: What kind of situation makes it acceptable to kill in? Most people, including me, would agree that if your family were about to be murdered, you might be justified in killing the attacker. But in war (even in ‘unofficial wars’ like the one the US has been conducting against tribesmen in North/West Pakistan) we have taken this self-defense justification way too far, we’ve contorted it. For example, a couple of years ago the CIA drone program considered any ‘military-aged male’ in a designated conflict zone to be a legitimate target, especially when gathered in groups. So many dudes just getting together for a chinwag and a tea in the mountains of Afghanistan were obliterated by hellfire missiles.

My issues with ‘American Sniper’, apart from the terrible script, was an audience manipulated to feel sympathy for a man who had killed hundreds of Iraqis who may or may not have been about to commit a crime and were defending their own suburbs and country in any case. This is one of the great problems of war; that there is very little collecting and presenting of evidence in a court, no due process, no fair trials. War is assumption and assassination, and lots of it. ‘American Sniper’ made us feel sorry for Chris Kyle. ‘Look at this poor guy, look what he has to do, kill all those people, he must get down about it.’ Well, it’s possible he didn’t enjoy it, I’m not suggesting he did. But there was never a hint of regret. That’s the difference between my character in ‘Return to Kandahar’. He didn’t kill hundreds. He just killed one, and he regrets it enough to go back and find the family and be on his knees for them and suffer his fate. Chris Kyle would never have done that.

Reuben: As a non Muslim director, why is this issue so important to you and will you be able to accurately tell this story as an outsider looking in?

Benjamin: I know it might seem strange to people that a non-Muslim would be defending Muslims as one of his life-objectives. As the son of a Christian preacher man and raised in the bible-belt of Australia, why would I do that? Well, I was brought up well, brought up with great values of inclusion and acceptance and love for all. I was taught that your enemy is fear and your enemy is hate and that those things lie within us all. I believe since 9/11 Muslims have been the largest group of persecuted people on the planet. They have been stereotyped, oppressed, spat at, beaten up and used as tools of fear to win political games. Their nations have been invaded on shaky grounds and destabilised to the point of total collapse. If these horrors were happening to another race, to humans of another religious persuasion and to the extent that it is happening to Muslims, I’d be backing them instead. For me it is simply about supporting the persecuted and taking propaganda and racism and hatred to task. I’m being the Good Samaritan, that’s all.

Benjamin Gilmour on location in the tribal regions of Pakistan filming his first feature, “Son of a Lion.”

Reuben: Afghanistan is an unstable country. Why do you feel it so important to film on set in the region? Are you worried about security?

Benjamin: Yes, of course I worry about security. But I am doing this for Muslims and humanity and with Allah on his side what man needs to worry about security? We will be adequately prepared and I have a smart local team and I’ve lived and traveled extensively in the region, so I consider myself reasonably streetwise. Many have suggested to me we just shoot in Morocco or something. Well that ain’t going to happen. Authenticity means a great deal to me because authenticity is truth and what separates my work from some other directors making Hollywood propaganda films is this essential ingredient. I am blessed to have unique access after my first film did so well in the Muslim world. I guess I’ve developed a Muslims sensibility when it comes to predestination. Perhaps that comes from my own religious upbringing, because there are plenty of aspects that Islam and Christianity share. But I do believe, that if my path is righteous, then I have a divine protection.

Benjamin and his team are now working around the clock to tell this story and need good people like you to get behind the project and support the cause. Going up against the Hollywood juggernauts is not an easy undertaking, so If you believe in peace, justice and countering the current islamophobic narrative, then we implore you to become a force for change and help make a difference. We have launched a crowdfunding campaign and need financial support to help turn this important story into a reality. Become part of the solution and spread the message, tweet it, facebook it, share it with friends and family. Every little bit helps, a like, a share, a donation, a kind word of support… Whatever you can manage.

With your support we can make a difference and we look forward to connecting with as many people as possible.

Please check out and support the crown funding campaign page here.



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