By Gary M. Kramer.
When you talk about the military and troops, you see them as a large group of people who go together as one thing to do something. And in this film, we try to focus on the individual.”
Director Shariff Korver’s quietly powerful Do Not Hesitate, had its World Premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival June 14 (and is now available to stream in the US). This disturbing drama plunges viewers into the headspace of Erik (Joes Brauers) a young Dutch man doing soldier duty in the Middle East.
Erik is part of a platoon that is driving some trucks through the desert when an accident occurs. Erik and a handful of other soldiers are forced to spend the night and guard (e.g., babysit) the vehicle and wait for assistance. The boredom of this mission is palpable, so when one soldier notices something moving in the bushes, he shoots, killing an innocent goat. When the goat’s 14-year-old owner, Khalil (Omar Alwan), appears demanding compensation, he is given $50 as per the military’s rate, and asked to go away. Erik, sympathetic to the teen, tries to appease Khalil by giving him food.
Do Not Hesitate shows how this minor conflict soon escalates. As a group of soldiers head off to an observation point—there is an increased security risk—Erik, Roy (Spencer Bogaert), and Thomas (Tobias Kersloot) stay behind with the truck Then Khalil returns. He wants more compensation. Before long, the balance of power starts shifting. Erik tries to maintain control of the situation, but things soon spiral out of control prompting various characters to reach their breaking point.
Korver keeps viewers on tenterhooks as Do Not Hesitate unfolds, and viewers shift their perspective from identifying with Erik to questioning what transpires. The filmmaker spoke via Zoom about his fantastic new film.
Erik is a fascinating protagonist. How do you think you would have behaved if you were in his shoes?
That’s the whole thing. What would you do if…? I think he’s the one as the audience we identify with. He represents the right, or liberal, choice, if we can say it that way. Thomas says what’s on his mind and does not trust the situation. I think I would try to connect with the other, and in a way, that’s what the film is about for me—it’s a weird encounter between two cultures that are not supposed to meet this way. That’s the situation of war. They are two kids meeting, one is in a uniform and with a big gun and the other is fed up with guys with uniforms and big guns being on his territory.
It’s very hard to answer this question. I would never join the army. But I do respect the kids that do. That’s why we made this film. We see a lot of young kids joining the army. It’s about what your expectations are when you are young, and you join the army. What do you encounter when you are there in foreign territory, and probably not mentally prepared for what is waiting for you? You are just too young for it. We only give the point of view to young characters—we are not trying explain how the situation of the war works, or how the military works, but just what it means to be 18 and wearing a uniform and carrying a gun and carry this responsibility in a territory that could be Mars. We wanted it to be apolitical. The research is based on a Dutch mission in Afghanistan. I interviewed soldiers who were there, and I focused only on 17-18 year-olds. The military gives you adventure and something to live for, camaraderie, obviously, but what happens when you get there?
You capture the boredom and the tension of the scenario of waiting. Can you talk about finding a balance that both engages viewers, but also distances them?
I developed the story with my screenwriter, Jolein [Laarman], and she wrote the script. We didn’t want to make a movie that was a mission to accomplish or to save somebody. We are going to focus on psychological experience of them being there. To do that, we need to get them stuck in one place. The tension is based not on action, but on what could happen, but is just not happening. The danger is in your head instead of what you see. You don’t see the enemy often in the film. Is the enemy in your head, or your anticipation of what could happen? And that, combined with the way that soldiers don’t carry the big responsibility—because they have a superior telling them do or don’t—is that right? Does that exist, not to be responsibility for your actions? As a filmmaker, I like films that have a certain pace and entertain you and thrill you, so I was very keen to not making it just “heavy drama” but to give it some tension and suspense to enhance the viewing experience of the film. I wanted to make it exciting.
On that same theme, your film is often claustrophobic. Even though it features many wide shots, the atmosphere is stifling, oppressive. I can feel the heat. Can you describe your visual approach to the material, which unfolds in an almost surreal landscape?
Regarding my visual approach, it’s not like seeing mountains in Italy when you are on holiday. In talking to soldiers doing research, they said when you get there, it was like being on another planet. I wanted to give this idea. What is this soil? It’s menacing, and different. I went to Morocco, Croatia, and Spain, so many places, and it was in one Greek 2000 km high plateau that had the characteristics we wanted. How do we make the location as a character? They are stuck in one place and you should feel like danger can come from anywhere. In wide landscapes, sunset shots are romantic, but at no moment, should this film be romantic; it should always have a sense of danger. We shot in 4:3, because shooting a horizontal landscape in 4:3 you go against the flow of the landscape, so the horizontal goes vertical and the landscape is above you and you are not allowed to see the whole thing, and that creates a claustrophobic feeling. The 4:3 thing had another creative impact on the story. In the military, the way your hair gets cut and you get a uniform, you are not supposed to be an individual; you are a group. And landscape shots are perfect for groups. But going 4:3 focuses on the individual because it’s the perfect portrait framing. So, it had a double purpose. We were happy to discover that. Because it’s tempting to go to the mountains and shoot in cinemascope.
Likewise, can you discuss your use of sound in the film? There are some very effective moments of silence and sound.
I spent longer on sound design than on the edit. We were in a windy situation on the mountains, so we had to record the dialogue close so there was no atmosphere. We had to recreate how the place sounds and use that for creative purposes. That place had to live. There should always be sound. We spent a lot of time on giving that feeling of heat. How do you feel heat? It’s all about sound. The feeling you are thirsty and burning is all sound design. We did so many tests to find the right balance of how to give that place a voice. You could never relax. There is always this sense of danger that can be approaching you from left or right. A big thing for us audio-visually was how to create dynamism for a story where the characters that spent 70-80% of their time stuck in one place. We thought about how to shoot that film without changing scenery. We were really conscious of how to shoot the film that it keeps living and evolving and sound plays a big part in that as well.
What I find most interesting in the film are the ideas of masculinity and performance. These young men are both acting their age, and acting the way the feel they should, be it at the camp, in a disco, or when they are alone. Erik’s drumming in the opening scene reveals so much of his character. Can you talk about this aspect of the film?
That was something that is not explicit, but very implicit in the way they act. When you are 18, you are not fully formed, and still searching for identity. How do you represent yourself in a group? They are trying to figure out “How should I cope and behave in the situation I’m in?” Masculinity plays a big part of being a solider. I like that Erik breaks the code by showing his more sensitive side while engaging with Khalil, the young local kid, but even the kid is not reciprocating that.
How did you work with the actors on their roles?
The actors in the film are all theater school actors, besides Khalil (Omar Alwan). And they are very artistic, sensitive kids. I didn’t want theater school kids pretending to be soldiers. I need them to be soldiers. I had to train them to become soldiers, I hired a military consultant, and they spent weeks in the forest doing boot camp and gained massive amounts of muscles. We watched documentaries and interviewed soldiers. I told them I need them to be soldiers and walk and talk as soldiers. They all speak in dialect which they learned. I even trained them to not talk too perfectly. Kids in the army don’t have good speech. We had them not pronounce every word so perfect. That rough edge was needed to create believable performances. If you saw them now, you would not recognize them.
Omar was a Syrian refugee. He has an amazing personal journey. He fled Syria with his brother and uncle and spent months traveling through Turkey and Greece. In the end, he and his family found shelter in Holland. He’s this amazing raw talent. He is the nicest kid in real life. He had this button and could turn into this little devil boy. This energy was just amazing. I was concerned because I don’t know exactly what traumas he experienced back home, and he was open and enjoyed it. I think—hope—I was more worried than he was.
I was also very conscious of the ideas of protocol and respect in the film. Erik is put in charge of his men, who do not necessarily respect him; they seem to treat him like their peer. But there is also the relationship/conflict between the Dutch soldiers and Khalil, who is disrespected. What observations do you have about these power dynamics?
The soldiers go to [another] country wearing a big gun and saying, “I’m here to help you.” That’s sort of a mixed message if you think about it. They are on a peace mission, not a war mission. That’s all the missions the Dutch soldiers did. They are sent to help rebuild the country, not to fight the enemy. But still, you approach the local people with your gun. What’s a bigger element than one person having a big gun and the other one does not? Imagine how it is when your superior is your same age, and he has a tiny little rank higher and he’s in charge. He’s trying to do the right thing, and he has the voices of his peers in his ear, so the dynamic is between them and the boy—and the boy is fearless. That’s concerning for them because they don’t know how to deal and cope with that. That absolutely plays a part. It also says something about how Western countries deal with Third World countries. It’s about good intentions and has to be my way. And if not my way, then what now? They don’t know how to handle it.
But then again, who are these kids? When you talk about the military and troops, you see them as a large group of people who go together as one thing to do something. And in this film, we try to focus on the individual. Because at the end of the day they are individuals. These young kids should be in school or partying and worrying about other stuff and not the situations they are worrying about in the film. Our film is not about Is war good or bad?—but how prepared are young kids to represent your mission?
How do you want folks to read your film, or what is the takeaway?
It is shocking to the soldiers that Khalil is not happy with what he was given. They are not able to cope with that. They think: we’re following the rules. Why are you behaving like this? We gave you the $50 for the goat. The goat story came out of research, and having them staying in one place also came out of research. The film is fiction, but all these elements are things we picked up interviewing soldiers. We gave it the themes that represented what is actually happening. In the end, it’s also very suspenseful and stressful. It’s a thriller for them. Watching this film, you know something bad is going to happen. When is it going to happen, and what is it going to be? You’re just guessing.
Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, The San Francisco Bay Times, and Film International. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2.