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Armadillo (2011,Denmark)

13/06/2011

Director: Janus Metz Pederson

In 2009, filmmaker Janus Metz joined a squad of Danish soldiers destined for Camp Armadillo, a forward operating base in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Accompanied by a cameraman (Lars Skree) he spent a six month tour of duty with the troops, joining them on patrols and living among them at the base documenting everything on film. The end result was this film, a striking and highly unusual documentary that, as one poster boldy claims, is as close to war as you can get. I don’t think that this claim is far off the mark.

Unlike the majority of documentary films, Metz has eschewed the traditional “news media” style approach to documentary making. There are no interviews, the soldiers don’t directly address the camera, there is no narration and the filmmakers never step to one side to explain things or offer their opinions. Through a careful combination of camerawork and editing, Metz and Skree have clearly taken great pains to place the viewer directly into the situations faced by the Danes as they carry out their operations in Helmand. The effect of this is rather striking. At times it feels more like a dramatisation than a documentary, evoking recent war films like Black Hawk Down or The Hurt Locker with the kinetic camera work and washed out palette. Combining his film elements with footage from weapon systems cameras and other military sources they create a thrilling narrative of the troops’ tour of duty and a sense of almost hyper-reality.

Following the men (boys really) from their initial deployment, a genuinely emotional sequence where distraught mothers and clearly usually stoic and reserved Danish fathers show obvious signs of emotional wear and tear as their sons head off to war, through the boredom of uneventful patrols to the confusion of contact with the enemy when it finally comes you are really sucked in to what’s going on. Short of actually being there it is difficult to think of a more authentic representation of what these soldiers endure in their work. The crack and zing of incoming gunfire, the confusion of being shot at by an enemy you can’t see, the frustration of having high tech weapons and equipment at your disposal and being uable to bring them to bear on your enemy because you can’t see the enemy – all of these things are brought home in an intimately realistic way.

There is a lot of talk of the surreal nature of the task among the men, something that is strongly evoked in the footage. There is an absurdity to the scenario. The troops are there to protect the civilian population from the Taliban. The civilians refuse to help the troops engage the Taliban for fear of reprisals. In the ambushes that ensue it’s the civilians who come off worse in the end anyway losing their property, livelihoods and sometimes their lives as they get caught in the crossfire. It calls to mind Heller’s Catch 22 as they continue their cycle of seemingly endless and faintly pointless patrols.

What is most interesting is how the film blurs the lines between Hollywood war films and reality. It’s hard to tell which came first, the behaviour of the soldiers as they conform to the various familiar stereotypes we all know and love, or the Hollywood depiction of it. I get the sense that the action movie portrayal of the modern warrior has fed back in to the reality of it (see here a soldier quip “Welcome to ‘Nam” as he trudges through a stream or another trooper use the defence “you weren’t there man” when discussing the ethics, or lack of, employed during a particularly violent encounter with the enemy) and that these young men have bought in to the soldier mythology wholeheartedly.

The boldness of the film reaches its peak when the squad encounter a group of Taliban who, after a firefight, they eventually overrun and kill. Here is the unvarnished response of relatively green recruits to their first confirmed kills. It’s intriguing to witness their reactions to what happened. The initial adrenalised excitement gives way for some to quiet reflection, others beam with pride over the achievement. I suppose fittingly for professional soldiers, nobody seems particularly traumatised by the event but I suppose if there is regret and recrimination over this kind of thing it is something that arrives later, when the thrill of warfare has worn off. I must admit, to see the troops posing with their “spoils of war” seemed a little distasteful, although I must admit I have no right to judge them, safe on my comfy sofa, watching their exploits on a big screen tv.

Metz doesn’t seem to take a stance on the morality (or lack thereof) of the mission if Afghanistan or the behaviour of the troops deciding instead to let the events and people speak for themselves. You have to admire his nerve. It takes guts to walk into a war zone with troops actively looking for a fight with little more than a video camera and some kevlar. It becomes all the more impressive as members of the platoon are wounded or killed by IEDs or enemy fire. I suppose it would have been made easier by the knowledge that what he was doing was important and this film is important, if only to remind civilians like me what the men and women of our armed forces are subjected to on a daily basis. Beautifully filmed, it’s an eye opening insight into war that should not be missed.

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