Tonight’s guest Janus Metz, who with his cinematographer Lars Skree, spent six months embedded with a Danish infantry company at Armadillo, a forward operating base in Afghanistan’s Helmand province –part of the NATO-led ISAF (International Security Assistance Force).
The result is Armadillo, winner of the Cannes International Critics Week, an unselfconscious look at war and those who have to wage it; because as the men are told at the film’s beginning, their government has determined a national policy and it is the duty of soldiers to implement it.
Armadillo follows four soldiers as they tell their families the news they are shipping out; as they party their last night away with booze and a stripper; then, in country, through patrols, bombings and memorial services to finally seeing fierce action, and to that end, what comes of warfare.
There is no narration, no talking to the camera, no exposition; simply doing the business of war and filling the time between sorties. Before their first mission, boring and unsuccessful with little progress made, the men are briefed that their mission is to protect the locals from the Taliban and to befriend them. But the locals are wary: The soldiers will eventually leave
If I talk they cut my throat,
says one local when the soldiers suggest that that by cooperating to remove the Taliban, it will be possible to build a school for the children.
The soldiers are wary, too, the Taliban and locals look the same and IEDs could be anywhere. The soldiers are told by their officers:
People fight because they’re poor.
True on both sides. Many join the military here because it can provide them with employment and options. If they survive.
Livestock and children are killed in firefights, fields are shot up and trampled. The villagers are paid for their losses, and in between our four protagonists interact with the unhappy locals, phone their families, watch porn, play video games, swim, maintain the camp, deal with comrades who are wounded or killed. When an IED injures one of their leaders, he vows to return from a Danish hospital to show his troops it can be done. But the death of three fellow Danes in another camp spurs a funeral pyre, and the need for a different kind of mission than simply patrolling. They wanted action, they get it.
In a stunning sequence, the soldiers blacken their faces for an ambush and watch as a compound is cleared of women and children (and possibly Taliban members carrying out weapons), then Metz and Skree take us right into the line of fire as the Danes battle the Taliban. Men are struck by bullets, we are unsure who at first. This is not Hollywood, this real real, and these are men we know, men whose families we have met, who potentially fall injured or dead; we won’t know until they get to safety.
What happens next caused an uproar in Denmark: Taliban members are spotted in a ditch, a grenade is tossed, and once the smoke clears, two soldiers dispatched the dying men
in the most humane way possible.
Taliban weapons are brought back to camp as spoils of war, there is a debriefing. And then hell breaks loose: Someone called his mother and told a version of what happened, a version we did not see, a version which the mother then called into headquarters, a version which could cause everyone a great deal of trouble. Loyalty is questioned.
Other questions are raised by Armadillo as well, and we’ll discuss them tonight.
It’s cool to make a difference.
says one after the victorious battle. Is this war making difference? Is it making Afghanistan safer, a better country for its citizens and making the soldiers who fight there better people?