|Photo: c.Everett Collection / Rex Features|
It’s a rare film that can inspire a furious nationwide debate in its country of origin, as well as widespread public hand-wringing about the loss of core national values. Yet that has been the achievement of Armadillo, a war documentary about a platoon of young Danish soldiers serving in the Helmand province of Afghanistan, where they are pitted against the Taliban.
Director Janus Metz, who with his cinematographer Lars Skree was embedded with the platoon over a six-month stretch at Armadillo, their front line base camp, wanted to make a film about the brutalising effects of war.
“You’re battling with keeping your own sense of civilised behaviour but succumbing to barbaric acts,” he says of the soldiers.
“That’s always the [danger] in a war zone. We were trying to get close to a study of how they would react to this situation. We didn’t know what the result was going to be: would they emerge as heroes or villains?”
The outcome could hardly have been more sensational. Towards the end of Metz’s time with the soldiers, they found themselves caught in a firefight with the Taliban, and killed some of them, who were lying in a ditch. What exactly happened is never made clear, but the film suggests that some of the dead Taliban may have been trying to surrender or were already wounded – which would mean the Danes broke the rules of engagement.When Armadillo received its world premiere last May in Cannes (where it won the Grand Prix in Critics’ Week), it caused such controversy back in Denmark that it was rushed into immediate release. The presumed brutality of the soldiers shocked the Danish people, many of whom felt their role in Afghanistan was essentially peacekeeping.
The most influential opinion was expressed by one of Denmark’s best-known authors, the novelist and political columnist Carsten Jensen, who said: “The Danish self-image was smashed in Armadillo. After [this film] it will not be possible to talk about Afghanistan in the same way as before. Nor will it be possible to look at us Danes in the same way. It is an earthquake in the nation’s self-understanding.”
None of this hurt Armadillo’s prospects, of course; on the weekend of its release it topped Denmark’s box-office charts, outstripping Hollywood films such as Robin Hood, Prince of Persia and How to Train Your Dragon.
So all-encompassing was this controversy that the Danish military ordered an inquiry into the events depicted in Armadillo. “They were exonerated,” Metz says. “It was all a bit of theatre, really. The military had to be seen to do something. Those guys would have needed to testify that they did liquidate those people who were trying to crawl away or trying to surrender. There was only a slim chance of that.”
That Armadillo turned out to be such a compelling story should not obscure the fact that it’s also a remarkable piece of film-making.
One of its most remarkable qualities – which it shares with recent American documentary Restrepo, also set in Afghanistan – is that its embedded film-makers are in the heart of the action.
“We were there for three and a half months on our trip,” Metz says. “But we travelled back and forth between Afghanistan and Denmark. That was deliberate. We needed to get a clear perspective.
“Yet we were embedded because we needed to understand what these soldiers were going through. We bonded with them. There was trust between us. At the same time we were separate, too. We slept in a tent, while they were in barracks.”
Armadillo also includes visual images that scorch themselves on the memory, notably a wounded Danish soldier who sits awaiting treatment. His eyes stare uncomprehendingly; he looks awfully young. It’s a jarring contrast to the macho antics and banter in base camp.
As a result of the success of Armadillo, his first full-length film, Metz finds himself in demand. He has been in the United States, searching around for his next film idea.
“I don’t regard myself only as a documentary maker,” he says. “I’ve been looking at fictional stories, too. But I feel very connected to reality. I’m like an anthropologist! So I’ll make more documentaries, I’m sure.”