So it just so happened that there was a screening on Campus of Paul Gross's latest film Hyena Road. Being interested in war films as I am I quickly registered to see it, but it gets better. Not only did I get to see it, but Paul Gross himself showed up to answer questions about it afterward. I even got to talk to him up close and gave him a link to this blog. Now I can say I've met three major directors, and might even have one reading my work. Anyway, Hyena Road made for am interesting experience. A variety of different emotions went through my head as I watched. It was a very intense movie, as well as a bit disorienting and hard to follow at times (though never to the point of where I was lost). It was also a long film, though it was remarkably well-paced. It might be one of those films you have to watch multiple times to really get.
In Afghanistan, the Canadian military is working on building a road going straight into enemy territory. The Taliban do not take kindly to this and a lot of people have been killed as a result. Meanwhile, a Canadian sniper team led by Warrant Officer Ryan Sanders (Rossif Sutherland) is endangered when they are spotted by insurgents and make a run for it. By total luck, they find a village where they are saved by an Elder. Later, Captain Pete Mitchell (Paul Gross) becomes interested in learning who saved his team, and begins to think it was a legendary soldier known as "The Ghost" who was able to take down the Red Army. Now believing the Ghost could be a valuable asset to the Canadian Armed Forces he makes efforts to track him down. Meanwhile, tensions begin to mount between Pete and Ryan as they both struggle to deal with ethics, military beaurocracy, and their own emotions.
Upon my initial viewing, I had mixed feelings, though that might be from not knowing what to expect. There are many aspects of this film that are hard not to appreciate. Aside from being quite possibly only the second film ever made to show the Canadian military (after Gross's earlier film Passchendaele), there was an intense amount of research that went into making it. Not only did Gross manage to talk to real soldiers and get support from the army, but he even went as far as to actually travel to Afghanistan to witness the war first-hand. Gross even claimed to have seen more action than most soldiers do (apparently not a lot of people actually leave what he called "The Wire"). The story itself is fictional, but a lot of it comes from stories he had heard (the "Ghost" was a real person) and many of the people depicted were based on soldiers he had met.
The action is also very good. One can see the influences of a variety of earlier war films such as Jarhead, Black Hawk Down (which Gross described as, "a beautifully shot movie"), and The Hurt Locker. While the shaky cam can be a bit excessive at times, it never reaches the point of making it hard to see. There are some intense battle sequences, reminiscent of moments from Black Hawk Down and The Hurt Locker, but in an interesting move there is also an emphasis on the soldiers' everyday life. In a manner that one might argue more closely resembles Jarhead, there is a lot of focus on what goes on when the soldiers are not fighting. As Gross noted, some of them never leave their base, and even those who do often have to deal with extended and tedious waiting. This is especially true of the sniper team, who are shown on multiple occasions waiting long stretches of time just for something to happen. Of course, that also can add to the tension when it does, most notably when they get into moral conflicts with their superiors back at HQ.
Now, one thing I was somewhat worried about when I watched this film was the fact that, even though this is a film dealing with a modern war and focusing on a country whose military has been integrated for years, there are next to no female characters. I mean, surely it would not have hurt to maybe have one or two women in the sniper team, right? What made things different this time was that I was actually able to ask Paul Gross why he made this decision, and his answer was somewhat surprising. As he noted, he actually did make an effort to put female soldiers into his movie, and it was something he struggled with.
According to Gross, even though the restrictions against women have been lifted, there are still some areas where women have yet to enlist. Most female soldiers are infantry, which is a different area from what is shown in the film. In order to become a sniper, one first has to serve in a recon platoon. Even though it is entirely legal, there have not yet been any women serving in recon, and thus not yet any female snipers (though as Gross also noted, there probably will be in the near future). Ultimately, he eventually decided that showing female snipers would have, at least for now, made the film less authentic. Now one could argue whether this reasoning justifies his actions, but there is a bright side. Not only did Paul Gross make an effort to include female soldiers, but he also appears to have no issues with women serving in the military. It is nice to for once find someone who isn't trying to use outdated pseudoscience to argue that women are inferior to men and thus should be excluded by default.
That said, I do feel like the film could have handled its one female lead, Captain Jennifer Bowman (Christine Horne) slightly better. To be fair, Christine does manage a solid performance and her character actually does have her moments to be strong. My main issue is that I felt like she could have had a more active role in the story. This might be just me, but I don't think I would have put quite as much focus on her romance with Ryan. Actually, I probably would have cut the romance altogether. The scenes where they get intimate are handled alright, but this romantic interest did sometimes appear to overshadow the stronger aspects of her personality.
I think part of me also hoped to see her get more directly involved with the action, though one could argue that it would have been difficult to incorporate that into the plot short of her actually joining the sniper team. Of course, the moments where Bowman did get to show her strength of character were still great. I guess I would have just liked to see more of them. Still, even though the result might not be perfect, Gross admitted that he struggled to find a way to make it work, which is more than can be said for a lot of modern war films. If nothing else, there is the possibility that being able to make Jennifer as strong as she was may open the door to future depictions of women in the military. In that sense, she handles the film okay.
Hyena Road is definitely an interesting film, and one I would recommend taking a look at. While it may be long and not always easy to follow, it is an intense look at the ethics and morality of war. I would be okay with watching it again now that I have a better idea of what to expect. It is also a rare attempt to show a war from the Canadian perspective, something that almost never seems to happen. If nothing else, it is worth seeing just for the authenticity. Even Kathryn Bigelow was unable to shoot The Hurt Locker in Iraq, while Paul Gross was able to film on location (at least partially, some of it was also shot in Manitoba). It is a very dark war film and definitely a worthwhile experience.