Calgary soldier’s doc of Canadians in Afghanistan shows at Calgary International Film Festival

Desert Lion Thumbnail by Mike Vernon

In 2010, Mike Vernon, a then lieutenant-colonel with the Canadian Armed Forces, set out to make a documentary of Canadian troops in Afghanistan. The finished product, titled Desert Lions: Canadian Forces Mentors in Kandahar is playing at this year’s Calgary International Film Festival.

 The idea for Vernon’s documentary came because he was unsatisfied with the coverage of the Canadian military in Afghanistan. He wanted to make a documentary portraying his fellow soldiers as he knew them.

“I seemed to see the same 20-second video clip of guys firing their rifles over a wall,” said Vernon. He described the footage of the war in Afghanistan at that time as “ritualized” and “staged,” adding that, “You didn’t see the guys on the ground doing he job.”

Desert-Lion 7Vernon, Reintjes and Chambers on the compound in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Photo courtesy of Mike VernonVernon wanted to change this.

Master Warrant Officer Darryl Chambers, second in command of the team that Vernon’s documentary features said, “The perspective of having a soldier do a movie like that, I’ve never heard of it being done before and I think that really added to it.”

“I know a lot of my civilian friends have this picture of soldiers going off to Tim Horton’s and all of that and this (documentary) shows the other side of that coin,” said Chambers.

Desert Lions, the documentary

The documentary was filmed in 2010 in Afghanistan. It follows a team of nine troops on a mission to mentor groups of Afghan soldiers.

Vernon said the highlight of making the documentary was the time he spent on the compound with the soldiers.

“Doing something like that where you’re trying to make a difference,” Vernon said. “Even though you’re washing your clothes in a bucket and having a shower every second day from a bag hanging off a nail on the wall.”

“I tried to show soldiers as I know them, not as these kind of patriotic saints that some people have depicted them as,” Vernon added.

Filming in the field

“I tried to show soldiers as I know them, not as these kind of patriotic saints that some people have depicted them as,”

– Mike Vernon

Captain Pete Reintjes, the commanding officer of the team which Vernon’s documentary focuses on, said Vernon having a camera and being in the field with his team wasn’t distracting.

“Most of the time you forgot he was there,” Reintjes said, “He was just another guy and (we) were focused on the task.”

Chambers agreed mentioning that on patrols Vernon had on a helmet with a camera attached and carried around his rifle like the rest of the troops.

“When he sat down and talked to you, (at times) it was little uncomfortable,” said Reintjes, however, he continued that, “sometimes you had lots to say.”

Critiques of Desert Lions

Desert-Lion 5The team of Canadian troops featured in Vernon’s documentary.

Photo courtesy of Mike Vernon“It was a tiny little slice of the team and there was a lot of growing pains,” said Reintjes. “(The audience) saw a period when we were really short-tempered.”

Reintjes said that he would have liked Vernon to be able to spend more time with his team and that for the few days that Vernon was with them, his team was going through a transitional phase in which they were getting set up and getting to know the Afghan troops they were mentoring.

Vernon is proud of his film but he too wishes that he could have spent more time on the compound with the troops.

The festival

The Calgary International Film Festival will be the documentary’s first large-scale viewing. It is accessible online and has previously been shown at a few campuses and a legion, but this is its first showing in a festival since its completion.

“I don’t think the army knows what to do with it. How to promote it, if they should promote it or just kind of let it bubble along like it has been,” said Vernon, “It’s been finished for 18 months and this film festival is kind of an opportunity to hopefully make more people aware about it.”

Vernon thinks because the Department of National Defence funded the documentary, people are hesitant to show it.

“(You) wouldn’t show an hour documentary about Suncor, funded by Suncor,” he said. Vernon said that he is pleased that the Calgary International Film Festival is willing to look past who funded the film and put it in the festival anyway.

The film Desert Lions: Canadian Forces Mentors in Kandahar is scheduled on Saturday, Sept. 22 at 2:30 p.m. downstairs in the Globe Theatres.


A factual error occured in the reporting of this story.

Mike Vernon’s rank was actually lieutenant-colonel, not corporal-lieutenant.

The Calgary Arts Editor and Calgary Journal Online sincerely apologize for this error.

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