The War for Change in Kandahar

How Austin filmmaker Ric Roman Waugh made the first major Western film in Saudi Arabia since Lawrence of Arabia

"He was a child refugee," says director Ric Roman Waugh on the veracity behind Navid Negahban's performance as displaced translator Mohammad in Kandahar

Ric Roman Waugh doesn't do anything easy. A former stunt coordinator, the Austin-based filmmaker made his reputation as a director of crime flicks and action blockbusters that tackle serious issues. "My job is to entertain," he says, "and hopefully hide a little bit of peas in the mashed potatoes." In that vein comes Kandahar, a multifaceted action thriller set in post-American-occupation Afghanistan, and the first major Western movie to be filmed in Saudi Arabia since Lawrence of Arabia.

Like every filmmaker, the Angel Has Fallen director had a weird few years due to the pandemic. His 2020 eco-thriller Greenland "was No. 1 all over the world, but you can't open in America, you can't open in England." Next was National Championship, his dramatized exposé of the name, image, and likeness rights debate in the NCAA: shot under COVID protocols, and then released on video on demand in the fall of 2021. "So to come back with a movie that's fully theatrical, it's great."

Kandahar was to be Waugh's follow-up to Greenland, "so we went to Saudi Arabia to start prepping it, and then the Delta variant went through Europe, and it shut all the borders down." Waugh and his team had to get out before Saudi went into complete isolation and lockdown for months, "and then the U.S. withdrawal [from Afghanistan] happened, and it made the movie more relevant."

Waugh describes the original script by ex-Defense Intelligence Agency officer Mitchell LaFortune as "about the cycle of violence that just keeps going, and how guys are still in there but there's nothing to win anymore." After the U.S. withdrawal on Aug. 30, 2021, "Mitch got really upset, and a lot of the vets I knew were really upset. Because what the fuck was the last 20 years for?" Post-withdrawal, the script was rewritten to focus on "the shadow war that was still going. You've got operators that are addicted to the adrenaline and addicted to the rush and are going to stay in it."

But the story couldn't just be about front-line troops whose war had gone and who missed it so. Kandahar looks at the families at home – in England, Iran, Pakistan – at whistleblowers and press, at refugees and those that stayed behind. Waugh deliberately assembled an international cast and crew, "450 of us from 25 countries," including many people from the region "who gave us different context." Like Navid Negahban, who plays translator Mohammad: "He was a child refugee during the Iran-Iraq War and had to flee for his family's life."

It's that nuance that's so important for Waugh about Kandahar, which he calls "Sicario for the Middle East." The center of conflicts right now, as it has been so many times across the centuries, is Afghanistan. The ruling Taliban has fractured between radicals and moderates, and neighboring states like Iran, Pakistan, and Tajikistan sent operatives across the border, as did superpowers like Russia and China. "The world is making a big land grab right now," Waugh observes. The film is also about the ongoing culture war in the Middle East between "the ultra-conservative movement that's going to be there forever, and this new progressive movement – and their progressive is different from ours. Their progressive is, 'We just want some kind of culture. Can we just play music and not be in hiding, and educate our kids, boy or girl?'"

By filming in Saudi Arabia, a country where 75% of the population is under 35, he adds, "We were in a microcosm, watching it all unfold in real time." Major cities like Jeddah are modern ("I had more women working on this movie than any movie"). But go out into the desert "and you could be on Mars. ... At first, someone looks at you and they're not smiling and they're kind of looking at you in a way that you could be a threat, and then you just smile and wave, and suddenly they brighten up. You realize it's the awkwardness of, 'Who's this alien who just came into my area?'"

Yet there were very real security concerns. "They deal with real terrorism," Waugh says, "We were on our way to Jeddah, and there was a bombing." So it was no surprise that people panicked when one of their massive pyro effects shook the windows of an airport 5 miles away. "The security people let them know, 'They're just doing a movie.' 'A movie? What's that?'"

That's not a joke. Saudi Arabia's government banned cinema in 1979, and it wasn't until 2018 that a mainstream release – Marvel's Black Panther – was screened for general audiences. This also meant no Saudi film industry. Luckily for Waugh, there was Saudi Vision 2030, the plan by the Saudi Arabian government to diversify its economy. "The crown prince is no fool," Waugh said. "He knew that they're not going to live on oil forever, so he's going to tap into this market of this younger generation that wants culture, tourism. They want to know what the outside world is."

That reversal is huge, and the movie business is part of that. In 2020, the Saudi Ministry of Culture founded a national Film Commission, and as Kandahar was their first big foreign project "we had to work with the Saudi government, the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Defense and explain to them how we do things." But those meetings could also serve as reminders that the past is still very present. When Waugh met his two reps from the Film Commission, a man and a woman, he was stunned by how young and inexperienced they were. It was only when he was at the airport, getting ready to leave, that he got their life stories. "He was a young filmmaker, making satire against the regime, and he was constantly thrown in jail. They're finally like, 'OK, we're going to have culture and films. Hey, that Fahad kid, he made some stuff.'" As for the woman, she recounted how four years prior, she had to be completely covered in public, but now wears combat boots and dresses. "Her mother scorns her," Waugh said. "But her grandmother, who is completely covered up, applauds her and says, 'You be who you want to be.'"

Kandahar is in cinemas now. Read our review at right.

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