Tuesday, June 21, 2011

SFF Review: Armadillo (Janus Metz, 2010)

Following the screening of Armadillo at Cannes in 2010, where it took out the Grand Prix de la Semaine, the gripping and highly authentic war drama sparked furious controversy and debate in Denmark. Politicians and senior members of the military commissioned an inquiry into events it shows. The centre of the controversy is the behaviour of certain Danish soldiers during a shootout with Taliban near the conclusion of the film, raising the possibility that the men broke the rules of engagement. The film is made up of coverage similar to what was documented in Restrepo, though stylistically heightened by the exceptional editing by Per K. Kirkegaard, a throbbing soundtrack and post-production colour filters.

In February 2009, a group of Danish soldiers accompanied by documentary filmmaker Janus Metz arrived at Armadillo, an army operating base in the South Afghan province of Helmand, home to 170 Danish and British soldiers. Repeatedly putting their life on the line to collect the footage, Metz and his cameraman Lars Skree spent six months following the lives of the young soldiers situated less than a kilometre away from known Taliban positions. The film opens with the young soldiers at home with their families preparing to leave to the front for the first time. Following a farewell party with a stripper and some teary goodbyes at the airport, the inexperienced young men are thrust onto the war front.

The soldiers are inducted into Armadillo, patrol the region on foot, survey the area using drones for confirmed Taliban compounds, question the locals and grow increasingly bored. Despite their limited contact, we still feel like they are entombed in a death trap wherever they go. They give up on expecting cooperation from the Afghan locals when they discover they fear the wrath of the Taliban for assisting the insurgents and grow increasingly frustrated and cynical at the senselessness of their involvement. In addition, the locals are angry because the soldiers have trampled their crops and killed their livestock, leading to compensation for accidental damages.

The problem is, the soldiers cannot tell one Afghan from another. They treat every local they spot with the potential to be a threat. What is tragic is that amidst the aerial bombing, their victims are primarily the local villagers. The film depicts the men dividing their leisure time between maintaining their equipment and working out, calling home, playing 'war-based' video games and watching porn on their laptops. The film gradually becomes more intense. A Danish commander becomes the victim of a roadside bomb and is evacuated to receive treatment, and three Danish soldiers from a neighbouring camp die in an IED incident. When volunteers are requested for the involvement in a night ambush, we see the men have to individually come to terms with putting their life on the line, and process the thought of potential contact.

Armadillo doesn't offer conclusive proof that the Danish soldiers broke the rules of engagement in the ensuing firefight, which occurs during a period of the film where the cameraman remains stationary and removed from the conflict. He captures a group of trees, which mask the ditch where the Taliban were hiding and where the firefight took place. I wasn't sure, at the time, whether he was remaining distant because of the dangers (likely, and understandable), or if he had actually been shot. If I remember correctly, a medic approaches him to check if he is fine. There was a sense of disorientation to the way he was moving about. Then reluctantly, the cameraman approaches the aftermath and captures the graphic images of the five bodies being pulled from the ditch and stripped of their weapons, and the soldiers jubilantly recounting what occurred. On very few occasions have we witnessed such images first-hand.

While it is clear that some of the men relished the adrenalin-inducing event, boasting and laughing when recounting the events to fellow soldiers later, the face of one wounded soldier, pumped with morphine, is enough to tell us that it was anything but fun. In a debriefing later, one of the commanders reveals that one soldier had called home discussing their actions with his parents, giving them the impression that the Taliban had been liquidated inhumanely and lumped together to make the men seem like heroes. What really happened with the Taliban in the ditch is never likely to be unravelled. Metz himself has said: "It was my intention to place the viewer in a position where we could say that it's not even possible to know what was going on."

Armadillo, which only utilises the conversations between the men, at times does not feel like a documentary. The footage is incredible and the whole experience is enhanced with a dynamic style. There is no voice-over, no talking head commentary. Metz, by predominantly focusing on a few of the soldiers, builds 'characters' we recognise and sympathise with. It addresses the psychology of these young men amidst a senseless conflict, sparking controversy by bringing to light the harrowing atrocities we know occur amidst the adrenalin of warfare, but no one wants to recognise.

My Rating: 4 1/2 Stars (A-)

1 comment:

  1. I'm really looking forward to this picture.

    Great review Andy!