By David Mutimer
In 2010 Christopher Dornan argued that “Alone among G8 nations, Canada apparently has no great appetite for making war movies.” While that observation is probably still apt, it is perhaps a little less true than it was at the time. Earlier this year, Paul Gross released the second of his Canadian war movies, Hyena Road; this follows his 2008 World War I film, Passchendaele. Hyena Road is set in the context of Canadian military operations in Afghanistan. The film follows Ryan, the commander of a small squad of snipers (Rossif Sutherland) and Pete, an intelligence officer (Paul Gross), as Pete tries to find and enlist the assistance of a former Mujahideen fighter, ‘the Ghost’ (Meamat Arghandabi). The film takes place in the Canadian theatre of operations around Kandahar, in the south of the country, an area that was the focus of intense conflict.
Hyena Road … is striking in its (re)production of a very conventional patriarchy.
The war in Afghanistan was, or so we were told, fought for women and girls. It was fought for the right of women to live public lives that were not ‘covered’, both literally and figuratively. It was fought, particularly, for the right of girls to get an education. Given that there is now at least one Canadian film about the conflict, it is worth at least asking: are there any women here? (The line is from Monty Python’s Life of Brian, when at a public stoning the official (John Cleese) rightly senses that there are women all around him with fake beards preparing to participate in the stoning, which was restricted only to men.) The answer (in Hyena Road, unlike Life of Brian) is that there are startling few women, and those present seem as veiled as anyone actually wearing one: veiled in the (western) traditions of female deference and emotion.
A small case in point is a female video operator whom Pete charms into providing information that he needs. The operator is clearly attracted to Pete, who equally clearly plays off that attraction to get what he wants and then immediately leaves. It is a short scene, but fortunately requires little interpretation!
The only major female character in the films is Jennifer (Christine Horne), who is in a sexual relationship with Ryan. While she outranks him – she’s an officer, he is an NCM – she appears largely subordinate (or more precisely he appears largely insubordinate) throughout. Her role is, indeed, dominated by the relationship rather than the work. In the first half of the film she breaks up with him, clearly against her better judgement (she both weeps and jumps into his lap in the breakup process), in order to protect their careers. However, upon discovering that a weekend holiday they had together has resulted in her pregnancy she returns to him and (tearfully again) accepts his marriage proposal.
The conflict between emotion and the rational requirement of the job is thrown into stark relief at the end of the film, in which Ryan is trapped by advancing Taliban forces and calls in an airstrike on his own position to kill himself and his comrades rather than have them fall into the ‘barbaric’ enemies’ hands. (The way in which Afghans are represented in the film could form the subject of another blog post.) Jennifer is the point of contact at HQ, and so she is the one who must give the order to fulfill Ryan’s request. Her hesitation, indeed her outrage at the idea, is entirely understandable and reasonable, but the film-maker’s decision to put the character in that position is more telling. In keeping with both the tropes of war cinema as well as the cultural practice of patriarchy, the man is facing danger and sacrificing his life for the benefit of his comrades (while condemning his child to a fatherless life); the woman is providing support from the rear and clearly privileging family over duty.
In many ways Hyena Road reflects the lack of appetite for war films that Dornan notes, as the war as portrayed in this film is, in a number of interesting ways, morally and strategically complex. Few American war films end with the hero bombing himself! However, for a film about a war nominally fought for female equality, it is striking in its (re)production of a very conventional patriarchy.
David Mutimer is Professor of International Politics and Chair of the Department of Political Science at York University. He recently gave a talk sponsored by CIPS “On the Road to Afghanada – militarisation and popular culture in Canada”