A R M A D I L L O
interview with director Janus Metz
by Serge van Duijnhoven / IFA-Amsterdam
In February 2009 a group of Danish soldiers accompanied by documentary filmmaker Janus Metz arrived at Armadillo, an army base in the southern Afghan province of Helmand. Metz and cameraman Lars Skree spent six months following the lives of young soldiers situated less than a kilometer away from Taliban positions. The outcome of their work is a gripping and highly authentic war drama that was justly awarded the Grand Prix de la Semaine de la Critique at this year’s Cannes film festival. But it also provoked furious debate in Denmark concerning the controversial behavior of certain Danish soldiers during a shootout with Taliban fighters. The filmmakers repeatedly risked their lives shooting this tense, brilliantly edited, and visually sophisticated probe into the psychology of young men in the midst of a senseless war whose victims are primarily local villagers. Yet more disturbing than scenes in which Taliban bullets whiz past their cameras is the footage of the young soldiers as each tries, in his own way, to come to terms with putting his life constantly on the line.
ARMADILLO is an upfront account of growing cynicism and adrenaline addiction for young soldiers at war. It is a journey into the soldier’s mind and a unique film on the mythological story of man and war, staged in its contemporary version in Afghanistan.
Trailer (English subtitles):
CANNES – During the latest edition of the International Filmfestival, IFA’s special envoy Serge van Duijnhoven – a former war correspondent who covered the wars in Ex-Yuguslavia during the nineties for several media in Holland and Belgium – had a tough but honest hour of shoptalk with Danish director Janus Metz (35). Metz is the acclaimed director of Armadillo, the documentary that as no other entry had rocked the cradle of the entire entertainment world gathered as always around the turbulent lustrous Croisette near the harbour. At a time that Danish parlement was having a row over the quite horrific implications of possible war crimes committed by the platoon from Armadillo Forward Basecamp that was closely followed by Metz during a six month period, Serge sat down with Janus at the balcony of the Scandinavian Film Pavillon. A place with a spectacular view over sea, beach and moving crowds.
Janus Metz, a not so tall redhaired Scandinavian with a lavish beard and piercing eyes marked by fatigue, insists at the beginning of the conversation that that he did not make this documentary to create a work of thrilling drama, looming horror or nerve-recking suspense (which it all has become). And that in fact he did not even mean to tell a specific or clear story to begin with. Neither did he intend to send out a specific political or pacifist message concerning the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan. Metz: “I tried to follow the process of how soldiers were developping their perception of being a soldier all along the road of their descent into the hell of Hellmand. Being sent off to a warzone, even as a so called peace keeper or enforcer, has consequences. It’s a brutalization that takes place in the minds of the army personel. There’s a seduction to which each and every one of us can and will succomb if one is sent off there long enough to get addicted to the smell of danger and the feeling of adrenaline rushing through one’s body.”
“I consider myself to be an anthropological filmmaker. My movie tries to picture the moral painfulness the protagonists feel while they are proceeding with their work in the danger zone. That is the path I mainly try to follow. I realize that my position is an ambivalent one. You are part of the conflict you’re filming but you’re also standing outside of it. There needs to remain some distance in order to perceive, to picture and to do my job as a filmmaker. I realised that the more I started to wear a uniform, together with the soldiers, the more I became a soldier myself.”
“I also was interested in the interaction between our soldiers and the Afghans. But it was difficult to get a clear picture of the Afghans since we could not speak with them in a normal way. We were always heavily armed and came in convoy driving up their land, which must have been extremely intimidatinig to them. I talked quite intensely with the interpreters. They gave me some ardent descriptions of what life in Afghanistan was like. Outside of the military world. Of course the whole military presence of the West in Afghanistan is a highly questionable matter. We are trying to create or impose some kind of illusionary security by bluntly killing the mostly invisible and ghostlike enemy. And with it, per chance, a whole bunch of civilians.”
“War today has become such a complex issue. There is definitely something like the seductive nature of war. That is something that we have to take into consideration. My focuspoints were more of a filmic, anthropological or some would say artistic kind. I wanted to film what it means for the soldiers individually to experience death. How is the reality on the ground being perceived by the soldiers in the area? And how do the soldiers perceive themselves as soldiers? This last point of hyperreality and auto-sensitivity fascinates me as well. How is it and what does it mean to experience death for a person from that close up? Can we understand what we are part of when we’re dealing with violence and death in the first degree? And afterwards? How do the soldiers imagine themselves as being soldiers? They’ve all seen a huge amount of war movies, they play computergames, they hear about other people’s stories of war, they exist within this masculine community of the army where you have to be a man and stand your ground, and hold your position and mean what you say.”
“It is true that I wore the same uniform as the soldiers of the platoon. And even though I was tempted or ask to do so several times, I never wore a gun or shot bullets at the enemy. The matter of identification with the subject matter, which is inevitable in a situation of being embedded in such an intense way as my cinematographer Lars Kree and me experienced at Armadillo Forward Base, is a complicated one indeed. In a lot of ways. The more you join in with the soldiers, the more difficult it is to look at the war from an outside perspective. The more you wear the uniform, the more you become the uniform. I could feel it, with the way I was standing, moving, talking. The longer I was in the warzone the more I became a soldier.”
“The Danish soldiers I was with, had a very strong understanding of why they were there. They were there in order to – and these are their own terms – “create security” in Hellmand province. Creating security in Hellmand means killing the enemy. They are reasoning that creating this security is a precondition for development in Afghanistan. That is the fluffy rationel that is being put around these crude battle scenes. And obviously you can ask yourself whether by the shere presence of the Western troops such as the Danes in Armadillo, we are actually not enhancing the insurgency ourselves? The more intimidating we are as a military force of mainly non-muslims, the fiercer shall be the resistance we face.”
“The rules of engagement were astonishingly liberal. I could not disclose things that would compromise the army operations. But there was no strict list with conditions that had to be followed or obeyed to during our stay. Quite remarkable if you think about it. There was a genuine interest from the army’s side to make a thorough picture of where we actually are as a warring troop from Denmark that got involved in this conflict so many thousands of kilometres away. I don’t know whether we would have had the same privileges and freedoms to film in any other country like the Netherlands or the USA. Danmark is much more innocent regarding recent war history.”
“There are scenes that are being shown in the movie about which one can debate whether they are war crimes or not. I think these scenes have to be seen. I cannot talk about them from a military perspective. I can talk about them from a human perspective. I can say well we were actually in a very tough battle situation. The enemy was three to five meters away. And a handgranate was thrown and guys ran over and shot into that ditch. And whether that was done according to military law or not I cannot really say. Its left open in the film. The film plays that incident with no editing. It is a real take. All-in one.Uncut.”
“What I am mainly interested in, are all the imaginations going into that incident. If you are a young soldier and you have to go up to that ditch, and you know there is going to be enemies there, two of your friends have just been shut and wounded, and your vision of your enemy is one of a crazy religious fundamentalist ready to explode a suicide bomb, how are you are going to pull yourself together and keep your nerves in control? And also, the film does show that these young soldiers are not running away from the darker issues. They are very curious about the dark side of war, about death, they want to scratch that surface. And that instigates something in us. I think you only have to get into a paintball course to get a scent of that jouissance.”
“I had a very hard time taking certain decisions in this film. Because obviously it is clear to everyone that this film is not necessarily fun for the people that are in the film. That’s been very painful, for me as well. I do not feel good with some of the repercussions that this film is having for certain people. But you also have to think about: how much do I want to compromise my perspective? How much do I want to compromise the importance of getting this out? When does something become bigger than yourself?”
“I cannot give examples of where my limits were. Maybe I went above my limits? I think when youre faced with the type of material that we were faced with during the shooting of Armadillo, then there comes a point where you have to realize that this picture is not actually about the people in the film or about me. Its about all of us. This is about millions of people. And of course that is very painful.”
“I often think about how regular life must feel by now for Mads and Daniel and the other lads. I think war will always stay with you in some way. But it is my impression that most people are able to take that experience and box it as an experience and get on with their lives. Actually. I am able to do that personally and I think we can come to terms with many things in our lives.”
“Since the film has come out I have not spoken to the soldiers I depicted . Mainly because I was too busy with the promotion of the movie, such as here in Cannes. But partly also because some of the soldiers do not want to talk with me anymore. Its obvious that certain protagonists who offered me their trust and allowed me to follow their footsteps and get under their skin as if it were – have been very very nervous about the release of “their” movie. Especially after the impact of the shooting incident became obvious. But I have to say that at the same time as well there are soldiers in this film that think this is a much needed image. This is what a mission in Afghanistan is really like. This is what it is like to be in a platoon as a young Danish volunteer that was sent off to war in the year 2009.”
“Believe me, quite a few soldiers and even higher ranking officers have told me that they’re actually happy that there’s a film out that doesn’t bullshit. To them this is important, because at home they find it very difficult to tell how it was really like. Their loved ones have a much more pleasant image of the mission, or no image at all. All they want is some understanding of the task they fulfilled at their outpost in the combat zone. With understanding comes, perhaps, some basic appreciation for what they did and had to endure.”
“All of the soldiers in the platoon have seen the movie before its release here in Cannes. Some of them even did so several times. The range of emotions that some of the soldiers feel while seeing this film is obviously quite big. I am sorry, but I think it is quite a sensitive matter. It’s troublesome, really. Also for me. Sorry but I really cannot say more. Can we call this an end? Thanks.”
Actors: Soldiers fra the Danish HOLD 7 in Afghanistan
Theatrical release: 2010-08-27
Production Country: Denmark, Sweden
Registration: Janus Metz Petersen
Length: 100 min.
Production year: 2010
Distributor: Folkets Bio (SE-Cinema)
© Serge van Duijnhoven / IFA-Amsterdam 2010