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Horror and humour in Afghanistan, lest we forget

The first thing you see on the screen is this: "The soldiers seen in this film say it will take you as close to a war zone as you can get without actually being there."

It's a documentary, 15:13 (CBC documentary channel, 10 p.m.), and the title refers to the passage in the Bible from the Book of John: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."

The filmmaker is Catherine Jones, a Halifax-based war artist who has previously concentrated on painting. Her art includes At the End of the Day, 21 life-size portraits of Second World War veterans, and Representative of Their Numbers, a large work to represent 19,660 Canadian soldiers from the First World War who have no known grave.

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In 2009, Jones landed at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan on Christmas Eve, with a video camera. She arrived just as a ramp ceremony was unfolding for Lieutenant Andrew Nuttall, a Canadian soldier who was killed by an improvised explosive device (IED) while on foot patrol. A few days later, four other Canadian soldiers and Calgary Herald journalist Michelle Lang were killed in another bomb blast.

15:13 has no narration, no voice-over. It simply records soldiers talking, working, relaxing. Mostly, the focus is on members of the Canadian Forces National Support Element, who are called "the beans, boots and bullets people" in the documentary's introduction.

It is enormously powerful in its minute observation of its subjects, whether working under pressure or joshing, becoming comfortable with the camera and being sarcastic, angry, emotional and funny. There's a fair amount of swearing, much of it aimed at the strange and labyrinthine ways of the Canadian military. There is also bluntness in a soldier's description of exactly how he spent that Christmas Eve of death. He shrugs, but his eyes tell you the impact of the terrible events.

There is pride in the work done, the efficiency of the operation. There is also bewilderment at the situation in Afghanistan. One soldier says, "Contractors are shot at continually. People have lost their lives delivering toilets here." Another man, an officer, tries to explain how dangerous the surrounding area is for the Canadians. He does this over the noise of a group of Afghan boys playing soccer behind him, in the safety of the camp.

Jones has edited her straightforward chronicle expertly. Small details emerge organically, either underlying the truth of what her subjects say, or illuminating the fact that people are joking while under terrible stress.

Some of those she meets are pleased that she is a documentary filmmaker, not a journalist. One says to her, "Reporters ask what the morale is in the camp today. I get upset because I think, 'What do you think the morale is? We just lost five people.' " And, standing beside the speaker, another soldier talks about the anger he feels when he reads online news stories about the Canadian operation in Afghanistan, and then reads the negative comments by anonymous readers.

One man, caught in a rare moment of relaxation, just sighs and says, "Can't wait to go home. Wanna go home, yeah." And after a long pause, he says, "Miss my wife, my dog, my truck."

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As Afghanistan fades as a fractious issue in Canada and we move toward the end of the country's training mission in Kabul in the spring of 2014, the narrative of our presence there will shift and change. Even recent history becomes hazy in the present. There have been times when the meaning of our mission was clear and times when it was fraught with bitterness, rage and righteousness.

In that context, 15:13 is highly important, a meaningful tribute to men and women maintaining sanity and humour in extraordinary conditions, and a fine record of their day-to-day existence.

Airing tonight

Stars & Scandals That Shook 2012 (CTV, 10 p.m.) is what it says: an hour of prime time devoted to "eTalk personalities" nattering and going all "OMG!" about the celebrity universe in 2012. Thrill to the insights of Lainey Lui, Tanya Kim, Traci Melchor and Danielle McGimsie, with Ben Mulroney acting as host. Apparently a highlight is Lui's strong stand on Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. "I don't criticize the family, as I don't doubt they're very loving. And I don't doubt that they care about each other, but ultimately, I think this kind of television is wrong," she says. Well, all kinds of television are wrong, I'd say back to her.

All times ET. Check local listings.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More


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