After the release of his 2008 war film Passchendaele, Canadian director and star Paul Gross was presented with an opportunity to travel to Afghanistan and photograph the war as it was going on. Gross met and talked to actual Canadian soldiers in the field and learned a lot about the life of a soldier in the context of modern warfare. War has changed. There are no longer any front lines, and advancements in weapons allow for more destruction than ever before. Tactics have also had to adapt, with the enemy often being harder to recognize and one that could be anywhere. And on top of that, there is just a lot of waiting for something to happen. Some soldiers can finish an entire tour of duty without ever seeing combat.
As Gross filmed the war in Afghanistan, he began to develop ideas for an original story. Drawing on what he witnessed and accounts from other soldiers, he constructed a script that is, to the best of my knowledge, one of the most realistic depictions of the War in Afghanistan available today. This script would eventually be filmed and released in 2015 under the title Hyena Road. Unlike Passchendaele, Hyena Road brings us into the context of Modern Warfare and explores the everyday life of Canadian soldiers. But Gross is more interested in the moral intricacies of war. Hyena Road places a heavy emphasis on moral questions, and presents the war as a complex string of difficult choices. Often there is no clear moral decision, and whatever call is finally made will have consequences one way or the other.
Gross works to capture the essence of the War in Afghanistan by presenting the country itself as a kind of character, and treats it as a very difficult place for outsiders fight a war. This comes up in his narration which refers to Alexander the Great's struggle to conquer Afghanistan. Gross describes a correspondence in which Alexander allegedly told his mother "even the dirt is hostile." At the film's conclusion, Alexander is once again mentioned, where it is stated that he became mentally unbalanced after spending three years trying to crush a rebellion in Afghanistan, his condition getting worse after he accidentally killed a close friend, before finally dying shortly after. Gross also tells a story about an Afghan warrior known as "The Ghost" who became a huge problem for the Soviet army.
Naturally, the life of a Canadian soldier in Afghanistan is hardly an easy one. It largely consists of a mix of long-stretches of boredom with brief moments of life-or-death struggles. At the beginning of the film, we hear narration from Captain Pete Mitchell (Gross) who describes life in Kandahar, which states that two thirds of the people stationed here never even see combat. The narration is accompanied by a montage of different shots illustrating everyday chores both on-duty (planes coming and going) and off (going to the latrine). Much of the film is peppered with brief moments showing soldiers taking part in everyday chores and recreation.
Naturally, with the theme of waiting being so prominent, it is fitting that the main focus of Hyena Road is on a sniper team. By its very definition, it takes a lot of patience to be a good sniper. In the case of Afghanistan, this can involve waiting for hours in hot weather with minimal movement. This is also why snipers have to work as a team; they can take turns. One of the first things shown in the movie is one such period. Warrant Officer Ryan Sanders (Rossif Sutherland) is in charge of the team, but most of their job amounts to waiting on a high ledge and trying to keep themselves occupied.
Yet the quiet is broken very suddenly and without warning when they discover mines on the road and suddenly discover that they've been seen. It is only one very sudden POV shot that reveals a man staring at the camera with binoculars which allows us (and the sniper team) to realize that they have been noticed, and it is also that exact moment when shots are fired. The team quickly gets swarmed with enemies that a moment ago they didn't even realize existed. This also becomes a huge disadvantage, as snipers work best when they are unseen. It is only total luck that they even manage to survive at all when they get rescued by a local elder (Neamat Arghandabi).
This sequence only makes up the first ten minutes of the film, and yet already we are starting to see both side of the war: the brutality that comes when the shots are fired, and the long waiting in between. Just before we are introduced to the sniper team, we get a brief expository sequence that sets up the difficulties Canada is facing (tying into Mitchell's stories of Alexander and the Soviet Union's struggles in Afghanistan). We are informed that Brigadier General Rilman (Clark Johnson) is overseeing construction of the titular road, but he is having trouble getting it built because civilian construction workers keep getting killed by IEDs, and so far all efforts to locate the people involved have failed.
As the film progresses, we start to learn more about the different characters. We learn that Sanders is in a relationship with base commander Jennifer Bowman (Christine Horne) and Mitchell suspects that the Elder who saved them is in fact the "Lion of the Desert," also known as the "Ghost" (according to Gross this was based on an actual person, though he has refrained from giving a name). It is these small developments that set much of the film's themes of complex choices and moral ambiguity into motion. Mitchell becomes convinced that the Ghost can be a valuable asset and tries to think long-term, while Sanders thinks mainly in short-term.
We already saw this happening at the beginning when Rilman is seen resorts to hiring known criminals BDK (Fazal Hakimi) and his son Karim, in an effort to provide extra security. As we later discover, BDK is crooked and in fact profiting from the mass killings that are occurring on the road. Worse still, he has connections to the CIA and legally speaking is immune to any form of prosecution. Adding to that, Sanders has an opportunity to kill BDK but is unable to do so because of the rules of engagement. Suddenly there is a question of where military protocol ends and justice begins.
Throughout the film, different characters are shown to make difficult decisions. We see this occurring on a small scale when Bowman tries to break up with Sanders (and later when she persuades an army doctor to keep quiet about her pregnancy), but we also see it on a much larger scale, particularly when Sanders witnesses BDK's criminal operations. This particular sequence sees tension mount between ethics and protocol. Mitchell tries to keep Sanders from taking the shot as doing so would violate the rules of engagement, while Sanders wants to take the shot in order to stop BDK from abducting children. From there, we see Bowman stuck in the middle, wanting to agree with Sanders but bound by military procedure. In the end, Sanders doesn't take the shot, an act which he argues is immoral.
As we later learn, Mitchell's motives are more complex, and his only way to deal with BDK is through the Ghost (who is not restricted by the same laws). But the Ghost turns out to be quite ruthless in his own right. He kidnaps and decapitates BDK's son. The sniper sequence is paralleled near the film's conclusion when, once again, Sanders has orders to stand down but refuses to listen. He opens fire and kills BDK. Meanwhile his choice is debated both by Mitchell and Bowman, the latter of whom vocally tries to encourage Sanders to take the shot.
Unfortunately, this final action has dangerous consequences and it turns out there were a few good reasons not to shoot. BDK is shot in front of multiple Taliban witnesses who presumably call for backup. When backup arrives, the Sniper team is ambushed and quickly overpowered before they can reach their extraction point. The nearest chopper is not at a sufficient distance to reach them on time, and one by one the team gets killed until only Sanders and the Ghost remain. Sanders' only viable course of action ends up being to order a missile strike knowing he will be unable to escape.
This whole massacre could have been averted if Sanders had not fired, in which case the sniper team could have left undetected. But because the shot was fired, he alerted the Taliban to his presence.Yet, perhaps their deaths were not entirely in vain. The next sequence depicts a Canadian strike team rescuing a large number of captured children likely connected to BDK (who was shown earlier kidnapping children and mentioned to sell them as prostitutes). The kids are rescued and reunited with their parents, which seems like an optimistic outcome.
But then there's the question: did the sniper team have to die for this to happen? It can be hard to say for sure. Regardless, this is only one small victory in a complex war, a war in which one sometimes isn't even sure who they are fighting. Still, while they may have succeeded in taking down a ruthless criminal and building the road, this is far from winning the war. What does it mean to win a war? Perhaps, as Mitchell himself states: "there is no winning. Only an endstate."