Life imitates art as gunmen attack crew of Afghan war movie

When David Whitney traveled to Pakistan to shoot his film about a man forced to flee Afghanistan after falling foul of the Taliban he didn’t expect fiction to turn into reality.

But that’s exactly what happened three weeks into shooting political thriller “Kandahar Break” in late 2008. Gunmen attacked the first-time director and his crew near the Afghan border. Four Pakistani crew members were shot and wounded in the incident and the entire crew was forced to flee the region. Pakistani authorities later told Whitney that the gunmen were affiliated with the Taliban and were in fact targeting the Western members of the team. “I was very upset. It was terrifying to know that somebody was trying to attack us, trying to shoot us,” Whitney told CNN. With the help of local security forces the team was immediately evacuated to Islamabad and put on a flight out of the country in 24 hours. Whitney had only managed to film three-quarters of the script and the film’s future lay in the balance.

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“When I heard that the crew members who had been shot were going to be fine I started to think like the businessman and the producer,” says Whitney. “I thought, ‘How are we going to finish this film We’re not just going to give up.’ And to a man everybody involved agreed to finish it.” After six months spent organizing financial backing, the original cast and crew flew to Tunisia to complete the movie and has been attracting interest from distributors. Despite the danger caused by shooting so close to the actual conflict zone, Whitney says he would shoot in the region again if he had the chance. “Every place you point a camera there’s a great shot. You don’t have to go very far to find fantastic authentic Afghan architecture and beautiful landscapes. “All the people are in the same sort of authentic costumes, so you don’t have the problem of trying to find authenticity — it’s all around you.” Whitney hopes the authenticity will help “Kandahar Break” enjoy the same level of success as Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” — the first film about the Iraq war to make a profit at the U.S. box office.

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Bigelow’s thriller tells the story of an elite army EOD bomb squad who battle insurgents and each other, as they disarm a innumerable roadside bombs on the streets of Baghdad. Bigelow shot “The Hurt Locker” in Jordan, as close as she could get to the actual conflict zone. She also made use of local actors. The film is based on screenwriter Mark Boal’s first-hand experiences gathered whilst embedded with a bomb unit in Iraq. “Because it was based on real life, we wanted to keep it as realistic as possible and keep it accurate,” Bigelow told CNN. “I mean this is a conflict that’s still on-going so we felt responsible to the troops still there and the situation on the ground.” The cast faced grueling shooting conditions: Temperatures ranged between 115 and 120 degrees Fahrenheit (46 and 49 degrees Celsius). It was even hotter in the authentic bomb suit worn by Jeremy Brenner, who plays Staff Sergeant James. The suit weighed 60 pounds. “You really can’t explain the heat and the weight of the suit,” Brenner told CNN. “That certainly helped the realism of it all. There were a few moments I felt like … I’ve been as close as I could’ve come to war without actually being in the military. “The heat was real, the dust was real, the costumes and everything was so real that the tension [was already there],” Anthony Mackie who plays Sergeant JT Sanborn told CNN. “Kathryn would come to us before every scene and say, ‘Remember at any moment you can die.’ And we kept that in mind throughout all the scenes.” While “The Hurt Locker,” has made over $11 million in the U.S., previous movies dealing with conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have struggled to make money. Observers have attributed this to “war fatigue” suffered by audiences due to an abundance of war-stories in the media. Bigelow and Whitney are confident that cinema audiences have a thirst for knowledge about volatile regions like Iraq and Afghanistan that goes beyond what is reported on the news. “I think the conflict [in Iraq] has been somewhat abstract for the general public, certainly speaking for myself,” Bigelow told CNN. “The film provides kind of a window, a lens onto what this particular conflict might be like, and gives it some specificity.” David Whitney hopes “Kandahar Break” can have a similar effect. “Afghanistan is at the moment quite central to global security. I think it’s good that people are looking at Afghanistan, questioning it, asking all sorts of questions. If my film can play any part in that, any small part, then I’m pleased.”