Canadian filmmaker Paul Gross was never a soldier, but he has great respect for them. He comes from a military family; his grandfather and his father both served. Gross ended up in the arts, but he believes that soldiers represent their countries with an enormous amount of dignity and honor and they should be acknowledged for that.
"A soldier signed a piece of paper at one point, saying 'I am willing to die for my country,'" Gross says. "That's an extraordinary fucking thing. Did you ever sign such a piece of paper? I know I sure as shit didn't."
Gross wrote, directed, and stars in Hyena Road, a film about a Canadian Forces effort to build a road into the heart of enemy-held territory in Afghanistan. Gross plays Pete Mitchell, a sage intelligence officer responsible for convincing the local warlords to stop planting improvised explosive devices along the construction path .
"My character is loosely based on this real officer who was my guide," Gross says. "Through this intelligence guy I started to learn stuff about Afghanistan. Not just the combat, I started to learn about Afghans."
Mitchell needs to understand Afghan culture as he tries to bring a mysterious former Mujahid known as "the Ghost" to his side of the fight. The Ghost, played by Niamatullah Arghandabi, is a local Afghan elder who has a hidden identity as a legendary warlord who disappeared after the Russians withdrew.
Gross made two trips to Afghanistan to visit the Canadian Forces fighting there. The second time, he decided to film everything he could. He didn't have a story at the time. A lot of that footage wound up in the final cut of Hyena Road. He talked to a lot of soldiers and took a lot of notes. When he returned to Ontario, he wrote a screenplay.
"Everything in the movie is pretty much based on stuff that I either heard or witnessed or was sort of common knowledge," Gross says. "In other words, I didn't make up anything."
The film also features a very non-traditional actor in Arghandabi. He now serves an advisor to the Afghan government, and in 1979 he was a mujahid during the Soviet invasion.
"Since he was a kid, he was fighting Soviets," the director says. "When he was 16, he was living in a cave coming out with Stinger missiles to knock down helicopters. I dragged him out and made him an actor."
The director met the Arghandabi at Kandahar Airfield while on a visit there in 2011.
"I sat down with this guy and talked with him through an interpreter for about two and a half hours," Gross recalls "I thought to myself, 'I could spend the rest of my life with this guy and I would not understand one thing about him.' That's how different our cultures are."
'The Ghost' told Gross of the time he met Osama bin Laden. To him Bin Laden wasn't a fighter; he was a "clown."
"It's the weirdest thing,"Gross remembers of Arghandabi. "Talking to these people who knew all these bad guys. Bin Laden was one of the baddest guys we ever thought of, and [Arghandabi] thought he was a clown."
Gross wants people to walk away from the film entertained, but also better informed because in his opinion, everyone should understand what it is they're asking their military forces to do.
"That doesn't mean you have to be against war," Gross says. "It's just that most of us wander around with blinders on. We should know what our neighbors, our cousins, our friends are doing there because we're the one sending them there."
Hyena Road is in theaters and on iTunes on March 11th.