Janus Metz’s directorial debut, Armadillo centers on a Danish Army platoon stationed for six months in rural Afghanistan. As an ally to the United States in Afghanistan, their missions focus on traveling around the hardened countryside and appealing to farmers to inform on Taliban members who may be hiding in the region. Their limited interaction with the local population is not heartening, as locals express fear they will be killed if they are known to be assisting the soldiers. And the constant shell campaigns and forced clearing of their poppy fields do nothing to endear the soldiers to them.
It’s intriguing to see what motivates young people from a country without a long or romanticized military history to join the forces. In a fantastic opening scene, the commanding field officer gives newly arrived soldiers their first debriefing. “You might be asking yourself, why do I belong here?” he begins, and goes on to elaborate that they must continue the work their countrymen have started and try not to get too caught up in the details. In later conversation, soldiers mention that prior to enlisting they thought (hoped) they’d be stationed in the Balkans and simply oversee a mostly peaceful situation. They’re not optimistic about intangible victories in a warzone furhter mired by a hopeless political situation.
There’s an interesting comparison to be made here with Sebastian Junger’s and Tim Heatherington’s film Restrepo (review to come). On the surface, they exist at opposite ends of the filmmaking spectrum. Armadillo is beautifully shot (the film was apparently a test campaign for a new model of HD cameras to see how they handled in the worst possible field conditions), cinema-verite style with no talking head interviews or voiceover. Restrepo has a much gritter look and relies on Junger’s direct conversations with soldiers on the ground and after the fact. Despite differences in technique, both films rely on a strong, three act narrative thrust and recognizable tropes from the war film canon.
Additionally, Armadillo and Restrepo were both released this year with extremely prestigious festival runs. Armadillo opened in the Critics Week section of Cannes (a rare honor for a documentary, also bestowed this year on Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job). Restrepo premiered in January at the Sundance film festival.
Both films show soldiers playfully wrestling with each another to substitute for the physical comfort of home. Each film takes care to highlight the extreme Otherness of the soldiers’ situation; dressed like camouflaged spacemen, they try to negotiate agreements with extremely poor Afghan farmers. The two films’ final act hinges on an unfortunate miscommunication that causes things to get very bloody. Restrepo builds towards a particularly gruesome and chaotic gunfight that stemmed from a double-dealing village elder. In Armadillo, a misconstrued phone call home leads to an internal investigation, making everyone in the unit suspicious of one another and revealing a great deal of rancor between the commanding field officers and generals back home.
This past year, Scandinavian documentary filmmakers have created intense work pluming their sense of national and masculine identity. But where films like Steam of Life, The Regretters and Freetime Machos drew men out about their very intimate experiences and connected them with more universal truths. Despite the Afghanistan war being an American-led enterprise with spotty international support, Metz has clearly made a film for the homeland. The bloodshed he captures is gruesome, but fairly standard practice for wartime conflict and will be of little shock to an American audience. In fact, most American reviews have focused mainly on how beautiful Armadillo is to look at. But the civilian casualties in particular have captured the Danish imagination. Armadillo has dwarfed Hollywood fare at the box office, received reams of press coverage and evoked so much public outcry that every elected official has been forced to comment.
Even The Tillman Story, which unearthed a deliberate campaign of lies and misdirection that traces all the way to Donald Rumsfeld (and also benefitted from an extremely prestigious festival push), barely made a dent in the box office or public discourse about the war. I write this on voting day of a heated mid-term election where candidates have made serious hay on issues like taxes, healthcare, deficits and the media while Afghanistan has gone wholly unmentioned. Armadillo is a thoughtful reflection on how the Afghan war has impacted the young lives of soldiers from our allied countries and could represent a tipping point in where those allies will stand as we move forward in a war that has all but left our collective conscience.
Armadillo makes its US debut at the inaugural DOC NYC film festival November 4th.