The next two weeks will see the release of Raindance Feature Film of the Festival in 2013, ‘The Patrol’ by Tom Petch. This is the first British film to tackle the Afghanistan conflict and uses a fictional story and characters to address the pressing issues of a war that has claimed the lives of over 400 British soldiers, and which is due to end with the completion of withdrawal next year.
The story of The Patrol follows an isolated patrol team in Helmand province and the problems the team face with faulty equipment, lack of communication with HQ and questionable tactics – as one disgruntled soldier remarks – “no one ever thought we’d have to fight a war”. The film encourages conversation and poses questions that have been asked – but frequently ignored – throughout the duration of the war: why did we go there? And was it worth it?
I have been speaking to Writer and Director Tom Petch on ‘The Patrol’ and his thoughts on his film and portraying war in the cinema.
For a podcast of the full interview, please click below!
In your own words, could you give an outline of the what the film is about?
The starting point for making this film is that I got frustrated watching the Afghan war, so this started in 2009 and we shot in 2011. I was trying to challenge what I was seeing in the press at the time which was we’re fighting this war and I didn’t feel anyone was asking the right questions, nobody had said “We’re in Afghanistan, but what is this all about?”. We were told we were going there to reconstruct the country and now we have footage of a full on conflict with our soldiers being killed and killing civilians, I mean it looked like the Vietnam war on TV! Yet there wasn’t negative press or at least questioning press… I feel part of that is that Britain has a big tradition of supporting our soldiers, so when we support our soldiers then we also support policy. No one sat back and said “OK, well we can challenge our policy and still support our soldiers”.
Then I tried to think of ways of tackling the subject. I had never made a feature film, but because I have written and sold scripts I thought the way I’m going to tackle this is by writing… I didn’t even have an idea that this would be a film, and in some ways the structure is a lot like a play. It never changed that much, the structure was always pretty much the same from the start, I just wanted to get it out there.
I had to choose a point of view, and the most obvious point of view was that of a British soldier. So what the film then came to be about is how to create this drama about these ordinary soldiers who have been sent to this extraordinary war, and they don’t go around having fun adventures, they just do what soldiers normally do. I suppose that’s where the films strengths come from. Through my experience of being a solider, I was able to take the language that they use and the way they behave and use that dramatically.
I liked the fact that you used military language. You’re not patronising the audience.
I think writers are used to making concessions for the audience and you get expositions which are unrealistic. That’s what I thought was refreshing about The Wire – it didn’t make any concessions, it used the language of the Baltimore police… I thought you can do that because soldiers aren’t going to explain what a MERT is or what a SA80 is, you have to deal with the exposition in a different way, and I think because you’re communicating emotions so it doesn’t matter anyway, the audience understand it.
How has the movie been received so far?
There was initial resistance when I first showed people the script, no one wanted to touch it. I think the reason for that, apart from being a first time writer, is the lack of contemporary British anti-war films and the touchy and heavily political subject. Some readers just didn’t know how to deal with it. Here’s a film that doesn’t portray us in a brave role, it’s not jingoistic and people were very wary of it. I think the Afghan conflict suffers the same problem in the real world: people don’t know how to deal with it, but we know we’ve got to support our troops. Consequently we think we can’t going around asking questions about what they’re doing there it because that’s seen as being unsupportive. I found this a lot while making this film.
Once we were showing the finished cut, just in time for Raindance, everyone went “Ah right, now I get it, now understand where this story goes and how it works” and from that point it got a lot easier. Raindance was great as a premiere and then we got a UK distributor. Strangely we already had a US agent before Raindance – maybe in America there is more of an awareness, they do a lot more war films.
Do you think this is because the stereotype of us Brits being a lot more reserved than our gung-ho cousins across the Atlantic is true?
It is, but in America they also have a good tradition of the Anti-war film. They’ve got Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now and Platoon, and also if you look at their response to the Vietnam war, they defined public resistance to war: they went out, the campuses burned and everyone was on the streets and no one agreed with the policies. So they have a history there that we don’t have, a history of protest.
So did you have a background in film and then the army, or did the army comes first?
So, my very brief history is: I left the army in 1997 and I did a very short course at the National Film and Television school and went into film production. I went into TV commercials because I worked out there wasn’t a lot of money in independent film making, but my ambition has always been to do Drama. So I actually made a few short films, my first film appeared at Raindance and was 1 minute long, and then my second short film appeared at Raindance and it was 10 minutes long and then this is my first feature. It took me quite a few years, and in between that I was commissioned to make scripts. I love screen writing but I was self-taught.
What were your thoughts and experiences when you joined the army?
I joined the army in ‘89 and left in ‘97 so I didn’t do Afghanistan. I joined a tank regiment in Germany and the moment I arrived the Berlin wall came down and the world caught fire, everyone started fighting. I belong to a generation of officers who got sent everywhere. I went to Cambodia, Northern Ireland, the Middle East, but we didn’t really intervene like in Afghanistan, where we were going to impose a solution. We learned a lot and I think my generation of officers got to see a lot of fighting and that informed us, it was very interesting times.
Did you have friends posted out in Afghanistan?
I’ve got quite a strong network who served out there; it is quite a closed group but if you’re in it you can asks questions. That’s why the public and press have had a problem because soldiers don’t really talk, it’s a close family unit. I suppose my advantage is that I can ask questions directly to soldiers who are in service and soldiers coming back; ask what is actually going on out there, because I’m seeing one thing and what I’m being told is contradicting it.
As you’ve previously stated, the plot and characters are fictitious, were the characters influenced by anyone in particular? Were the events or parts of the script influenced by situations that you personally experienced?
It was a combination. All the characters in it are an amalgamation of people I knew in the military and all the incidents are things I’ve seen in the military because that kind of stuff doesn’t change… You’re ultimately talking about a small group of men under enormous pressure. All the incidents they go through happened to me in some shape or form or to my men in some combination…
In isolated patrols it does become more of a Chinese parliament. Yes, you’re the officer, but as things get tougher and things start to go wrong, some of your men are going to turn around and say “What’s going on, boss?”, and the longer that goes on and the less able you are to answer those questions, the worse it gets. I took that and extrapolated it.
I know when Oliver Stone was filming Platoon, the cast underwent intensive training as soldiers. Did you use any tactics to ready the actors for this role?
We pretty much used what Oliver Stone did in Platoon. I have always admired his film, and the thing I admired in it as a soldier are the little details you wouldn’t pick up on if you haven’t served. You watch the film and you go “That’s absolutely right!” and I wanted to have that same feeling about my film. So, we took everyone to a basic training camp in the UK and we taught them all their weapons drills and their contact enemy drills; it was a bit of a shock to the system. We had awkward questions from their agents like: “What exactly does tented accommodation mean?”
When we took them to the desert, again we issued them with real equipment, and because they had been taught how to put it together we made them do it themselves. What I was quite pleased with was that during the course of the filming, the actors got better, they started looking a bit like a basic training unit. When they started they were shambolic, their kit was all over the shop, they could never get to set with their weapons the right way round, they always needed a bit of help, always dropping their magazines. By the end of it, there’s a shot of in the film when they’re patrolling on the horizon: I love that shot because they’re improvising everything and they do look, after four weeks in Morocco, like a little military unit. I was quite pleased with that.
As an audience member, watching the film, I found the focus on faulty equipment and tactics interesting. How important was authenticity to this film and why?
You can’t be totally authentic because you’re using actors and again, if you’re a soldier watching that film they’re loads of things you can pick up on… but for a general audience I wanted it to be as authentic as possible. So going back to how we taught them, all the patrolling and combat we improvised. They didn’t know at the start of any given scene what exactly would happen. There’s a scene when they drive in a big bomb goes off – the actors are really driving and they know something is going to happen, but they don’t know when and they don’t know where. The first part of that sequence is completely improvised, and when the bomb goes off you get that massive pause and absolutely nothing happens! And that is totally real because the soldiers go “Oh my word, that’s really bad, what am I supposed to do?”
And I found that even I identified with the characters; as a bystander it was nice to identify with the guys who are out there. So did you have a particular audience in mind when making the film?
I knew we would get interest from the guys’ audience, the military guys, but I also wanted wives and girlfriends who are going to the cinema to enjoy it, and what’s been amazing is we’ve had some early statistics back and actually the cross over is higher than expected: more women aged 18- 25 liked the film! When we got that back I thought “Wow, that’s worked!”. My fear for the film is everyone will judge it by the DVD package or the poster. It looks a bit like a traditional war film because that’s how you market war films – so a lot of women might be turned off it. But I wanted this to be a film that deals with war in a much broader way… I wanted to communicate that to everybody.
What is the future for this film?
My hope for this film is to start this conversation on Afghanistan. We need to get this information and disinformation out so people understand the decisions our government is taking… When we are better informed as a public we can then influence our politicians, because right now our politicians are listening to the MOD and the generals. What I hope comes from this film is a broader conversation about this; so a week on Monday we are doing a screening to Defense Journalists and I’ve got a panel of Afghan thinkers who are a bit from the other side of the fence, they’re not supporting this view that we’ve done a good thing there. I think we’re missing the other side, my side of the argument which is the one asking the questions.
Where would you like to see this go ideally?
We’ll go to cinemas and then it will be out of DVD in April, which is important because that’s when the Afghan elections come. I hope the film is going to change something, because we are now in a position where we’re trying to continue the Afghan war through remote means, like using drones. I’m hoping that once the film is released in the UK, there will be more debate about it, and the audience will go to the film and they will come out asking some questions.
If you could sum it up, what questions would you want people to ask?
There are only really two questions which is: why did we go there? What did we achieve? I think people need to ask those questions and then come to their own conclusions about what’s happened. This means that in the future, we’ll be a generation who have experienced mistakes and we’re better informed; for example parliament blocked the vote to go to Syria. So we’re seeing the start of that change so we need to be in a position where as a public we can stand and state our case and our politicians will listen to us. They have to, we elect them.