The term “guerrilla film-making” could have been invented for The Patrol, the first British-made feature to portray the war in Afghanistan.
When its British screenwriter and director Tom Petch first began pitching his script to producers in 2010, the response was, “Don’t mention the war.”
“Pretty much across the board the reply was, ‘We don’t really want to touch anything about Afghanistan or touch anything that is in any way negative about the war,’ ” says Petch, who served as a tank officer in the Queen’s Own Hussars between 1989 and 1997.
So there was only one alternative: to do it himself. Three years after leaving the army, Petch had founded Salt Film, a now successful London-based production company whose credits include several short films written and directed by him, including Low Street (2004) starring the chameleon-like French actor Denis Lavant.
“With my small production company, I thought that if we structured it right we could produce it ourselves,” Petch says.
Setting out to raise the million-pound budget that he needed to make The Patrol, his debut as a feature film director, he was surprised to find there were no precedents. “I had to look for a model for my business plan but there was none because no British war film had been made for a long time. We eventually raised most of the money using an Enterprise Investment Scheme; fortunately a lot of people took equity shares in the project because they believed in it.”
This investor confidence was rewarded when the 83-minute film won the best feature award at last year’s Raindance Film Festival in London, where the jury included Julian Assange – “We had to have it shipped to him in the Ecuadorean embassy,” Petch says.
Shot in grainy colour over three weeks in the sweltering conditions of the Moroccan desert, the film is set in 2006 in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, then the heartland of the Taliban insurgency. It tells a taut story of an isolated six-man patrol under Taliban fire as it attempts to secure outposts in support of the Afghan National Army. Petch eschews the gung-ho antics of recent American film Lone Survivor to focus on the fractious behaviour of a group of soldiers under unimaginable stress.
His inspirations included Norman Mailer’s book The Naked and the Dead (1948) and Willis Hall’s play The Long and the Short and the Tall (1959), which takes place in a Burmese jungle in 1942 during the Malayan campaign. The gritty realism of The Patrol is accentuated by a talented cast of up-and-coming British actors who underwent boot-camp training to prepare for their roles and also learnt to speak in military argot. “We then shot the film chronologically, had the actors drive their own vehicles and did not tell them when they were going to be shot at,” says Petch. “They were also accommodated in conditions similar to those of soldiers on patrol in Afghanistan – something they complained bitterly about.”
Petch’s film is fiercely critical of the way British soldiers were deployed in Afghanistan. His characters frequently complain about their outdated weaponry, their faulty protective equipment and a lack of coherent strategy.
“I had grown very angry at the way the war in Afghanistan was being portrayed in the media, with no commentary on how it was being fought or explanation for all the soldiers being killed,” says Petch. “I didn’t feel that anyone was asking the right questions. My biggest question was about the disconnect between the deployment of British soldiers who had been equipped for a reconstruction effort but were actually having to fight a counter-insurgency.”
The film begins and ends in voiceover, with the patrol’s commanding officer answering questions from either a coroner’s inquiry or a court martial (we’re never sure quite which) about something that went wrong during the men’s mission. The officer’s dialogue contains a raw poignancy that seemed to be culled from Petch’s own experience in the army, which included tours in Cambodia, Bosnia, the Middle East and Northern Ireland.
One of the toughest screenings of his film that Petch has had to deal with was the first one, which took place in front of an audience of British soldiers who had experienced the war in Afghanistan.
“There was one officer who had had terrible casualties within his unit,” says Petch. “At the end of the film he said, ‘Tom, I don’t like this film, I don’t agree with its message. Why have you made it?’ But in his questionnaire afterwards he said that he agreed with all the characterisations and recognised all the problems the characters faced. So even someone who perhaps doesn’t agree with the message of the film can still see it was a portrayal of what was going on.”
‘The Patrol’ comes out in the UK and Ireland on February 7 and in the US on May 26