TRUE/FALSE FILM FESTIVAL 2011
By Don Simpson | March 8, 2011
Director: Janus Metz
Armadillo begins in January 2009, as a group of young Danish soldiers make their final preparations (including doing what young soldiers do best: get drunk and party with strippers) for a six-month stint in Afghanistan. The troops say their goodbyes to their families and head to the Armadillo military base — where approximately 270 Danish and British soldiers are stationed under NATO and ISAF command — in the Helmand province of Afghanistan.
Once we — and I really do mean we, since Lars Skee’s cinematography throws us right into the middle of the action — arrive at Armadillo, we tag along with the Danes through the thick and thin, exciting and mundane, violent and peaceful. We spend a decent amount of leisure time with the soldiers, gaining a very important perspective of how they wind down after their patrols; they maintain their weapons, exercise, phone home, drink beer, play video games and watch porn. A majority of their patrols even seem uneventful, if not incredibly tedious; but the soldiers must always remain prepared for when the shit really hits the fan — such as when a Danish commander becomes a victim of a roadside bomb (he recovers and soon rejoins his cohort at Armadillo).
A group of soldiers who have opted to volunteer (yes, volunteer) for a risky night patrol find themselves — and the cameras — pinned down by Taliban gunfire. One of the Danes tosses a hand grenade into a ditch infested with Taliban fighters; two soldiers follow-up to ensure that the Taliban fighters are finished off by peppering the severely injured enemy with a deadly barrage of automatic gunfire. The patrol returns to Armadillo, congratulating each other on the victorious battle. After a debriefing (during which time the soldiers are visibly still quite high on the adrenaline of war), it is explained that an unidentified soldier called home to discuss the episode with his parents, expressing concern that the soldiers laughed about the liquidation of the Taliban. The parents immediately contacted the Danish Command and Armadillo now faces the possibility of being reprimanded severely. (The release of Armadillo in Denmark has further inflamed this debate.) Nevertheless, two of the soldiers from the patrol are awarded medals of honor. The next thing we know, their six months are up and the soldiers return to Denmark.
Armadillo is a truly amazing and stunning film. Danish documentary filmmaker Janus Metz and his team became fully immersed in Afghanistan’s Green Zone in order to follow this platoon of young Danes. The resulting film is not only proof that Metz and his production team risked their lives in order to bring these images to multiplexes around the world, but Armadillo is also a staggering technological achievement — albeit a questionable one — in the world of documentary film making.
I can only go so long without addressing the elephant in the war room: the legitimacy of the images. (Need I remind you that this is True/False.) Do not get me wrong, I have absolutely no doubts that the battle scenes are 100% authentic (and I cannot stress enough that Skee’s capturing of the war footage is breathtaking). The characters are real and I suspect that most, if not all, of the dialogue is natural and unscripted as well. I just have a sneaky suspicion that most of the non-battle scenes are constructed and orchestrated by Metz — mainly because the scenes seem too perfectly staged. (One of the more gratuitous examples: the closing shower scene.) Armadillo is structured, photographed and directed much more like a fiction film (think: The Battle of Algiers meets Apocalypse Now) than a documentary; it is a gritty neo-realist war drama, except no one (as far as we know) is acting.
Reality is not the only thing that is blurred in Armadillo, politics are too; in fact, the political message of Armadillo is left quite ambiguous. Metz teeters a very fine line, intertwining footage showing the senseless atrocities of war while never disrespecting the Danish soldiers or the legitimacy of the war itself. Armadillo is by no means a critique, instead it is Metz’s attempt to humanize the combatants on both sides of the nontraditional battlefield.
Armadillo premiered at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival where it was awarded the Grand Prix de la Semaine de la Critique.