Armadillo, a war documentary by Danish filmmaker Janus Metz Pedersen, works on many levels. He spent six months with a platoon of Danish troops: From the point when they tell family and loved ones they were heading to Afghanistan to their return home. With all that material, he packed together a tightly edited movie of a little over an hour and a half that unfolds like the narrative of a Hollywood war movie while also stirring up many questions.
Apparently a huge hit in its native Denmark (see this article in “the Guardian”), Armadillo offered a rare embedded look at operations in and out of a UK and Danish controlled base bordering a farming village in Helmand Province and near a stronghold of the Taliban. The film unfolds in a cinéma vérité style with no outside narrator, beyond title cards denoting the months during which events occur and some supers noting names, locations and defining a few terms.
Besides capturing the routine doldrums of a tour in Afghanistan for Danish troops, the documentary also captures moments of sudden violence using shaky handheld cameras typical of Hollywood battle scenes and quick edits between the director’s camera and his cinematographer, as well as helmet cams on several troops. Everyone is represented here: the young troops, the officers leading them, the translators, the villagers. The only characters who remain a mystery are the Taliban. They only appear as distant images or dead bodies. At one point they are presented as spooks, as one soldier warns Taliban fighters are not to be underestimated as many are also former mujahideen who fought Russian soldiers during the eighties’ expansion of the Soviet Union and have no fear of taking on 20 troops with four men.
In their few scenes, the villagers are shown as strong, frustrated, tolerant, cynical and sometimes sinister, as one soldier notes, the Taliban could easily hide among them. Meanwhile, certain troops are developed as characters. There is a soft-spoken soldier on his first visit to Afghanistan after volunteering for combat in hopes of going to the passive station of Kosovo. Then there is the tattoo-emblazoned, gung-ho soldier excited for a firefight. Their platoon leader comes across as a fearless man devoted to a military career. After he suffers a skull fracture from an IED, he returns to the base to show “you can’t get rid of me that easy.” There are many other distinct characters of note, and all are efficiently established with short bits of dialogue edited from months of footage Metz recorded as an embedded journalist. It serves the story arc of the picture well, but points out the problems of the supposed objectivity of journalists.
Toward the end of the movie, this “objectivity” hits home hard, when the platoon’s leader brings up an incident never shown in the movie that may be construed as a war crime. He gathers the men and scolds one among them who supposedly shared with their parents that some troops “liquidated wounded people and piled up the dead to take pictures of ourselves as heroes” (which is also the focus of the UK article linked above). Here comes the movie’s transcendent moment into the fog of war, as this “incident” never appears in the movie, except for some hints that the possibility might exist that this could have occurred.
During the end of the firefight that culminated with the deaths of several Taliban in a ditch after one soldier lobbed a grenade at them, the Danes start disarming the corpses. As a soldier approaches the scene of death, which seems to be the only direct combat the platoon experiences during their tour, he says, “This is surreal.” One jokes as he disarms the limp, flimsy, shredded corpses, revealing a sort of gallows humor that seems to help him cope with the encounter of the brutal reality of such a violent scene of death. During debriefing the jokes continue. One soldier said he found the enemy combatants moaning and on top of each other and “liquidated them as humanely as possible.” Another soldier even admits to unloading 30 to 40 bullets into one of the wounded.
There was an amazing amount of controversy over this grey area that involves these scenes, as the UK article linked above notes. The film does what it can to question whether the soldiers committed a war atrocity. The “Guardian” article quotes the filmmaker as saying: “It was my intention to place the viewer in a position where he could say that it’s not even possible to know what was going on. Maybe the soldiers don’t even know themselves.” In the end, Metz indeed offers a successful testament to the false notion of objectivity among journalists embedded with troops. With these final scenes in the movie, this idea hits home hard.
During the movie, Metz also shows the troops reasoning away the possible perception of their actions. “Outsiders cannot understand,” one says. In the end, the film cannot capture the true, life-altering experience of war, but what Metz is able to capture is the sense that it is life-altering and shocking. The best you can do is sympathize with these men. There is one scene when one of the soldiers is not only literally wounded by the reality of war but also on an apparent deeper and unknowable level. With a bullet in his shoulder, this soldier’s nearly catatonic look captures it with an immense, simple look. These kids were no longer on an adventure nor playing football. It is a shock of the “real” captured on camera one rarely sees. They have entered the world of the shadow, the dark side of humanity Carl Jung defined in his studies of the mind that, according to his theories, exists in all men.
I can’t find the article, but I read somewhere that Metz said his film presents an image to some as if they are peering through a keyhole into a world one cannot experience or understand beyond that tiny window. A glimpse of the window appears in that soldier’s eyes, and one can chose to look in or not, but I would recommend one take the leap and experience Armadillo for themselves.
Armadillo won the Grand Prix Certain Regard at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival and opens at 9:15 p.m. Friday night (June 3) and plays through Thursday, June 9 (Except Wednesday, June 8), exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, who loaned me a preview screener for the purposes of this review.