By Herve Asquin and Bronwen Roberts/ AFP
Afghan war film “Armadillo” follows young Danish soldiers deploying against the Taliban for the first time, intimately recording their confrontation with a complicated conflict, the battles, the waiting, the emotions.
It is a film that director Janus Metz said “very consciously tried to break with the sort of news footage realism of Afghanistan to get behind the scenes” of a war that this band of soldiers sees as their generation’s Vietnam.
It blurs the boundaries of documentary and fiction, reaching beyond the small combat unit at forward operating base Armadillo in the deserts of Helmand to a “bigger image of man and war and what war is.”
The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, winning the Grand Prize of the Critics’ Week, and is doing the rounds of European cinemas, opening in France this week.
It shocked Denmark, Metz told AFP in Paris.
“It was really a bomb that went off in the national self consciousness of the Danes that we are out to save the world and we are doing a good thing,” he said.
“I think the fact that it is a war and it is very brutal and it is very, very difficult was new to a lot of Danes.”
“In that sense the film was a curtainfall to a naive imagination of this project in Afghanistan about only being building of girls’ schools and having support in the local population, about all the softer elements of the Western involvement in Afghanistan,” he said.
The heroes are Mads, Daniel, Kim and Rasmus, part of a combat unit of about 10 men on a base of around 150 troops that they share with British forces.
Denmark’s contribution to the international military force, in Afghanistan since the Taliban regime fell in 2001, is relatively small — 750 soldiers of a total that has built up to 140,000 from around 40 countries.
But by deploying into Helmand, they entered the heart of a conflict that Western military might has yet to tame.
And proportionally Denmark has suffered the heaviest losses in the international force, with 39 Danish soldiers killed since they arrived.
The film shows the Danish unit confronting on the ground some of the dilemmas resonating in the war rooms: young Afghans tell them to go home, farmers complain they have destroyed their fields and homes, a man on a motorbike could be a civilian or an attacker.
“It is not you who will be killed, or the Taliban, it is us,” one man tells the soldiers.
“There is a questioning and an analysis going on an axis just by dealing with how the soldiers meet people outside the camp, how they make up their own sense of the reality that they are in inside the camp,” Metz said.
“And that camp mentality has in a way become an image for me of the bigger picture.”
One of the soldiers boasts after a battle of “liquidating” four Taliban already seriously wounded by a grenade — an event that caused a scandal in Denmark.
An investigation was opened into possible violation of the rules of war and the men involved faced court-martial, a threat since dropped.
“It is a real grey-zone area of not really knowing what actually happened,” said Metz. “I am not sure that they even know themselves what they did because these type of situations are so extreme … .”
The Danish military tried to confiscate some of the images but gave up, after a stand down in which filming was stopped for four days, knowing that could create an even bigger scandal, Metz said.
“We had some very strong lawyers and communication advisors on our team as well.”
For Metz, that case was about being as true as possible to what happened.
But he also uses “poetic relation to reality” to bring the viewers into the Helmand Delta, with its green and blue tones, red skies at dawn and dusk, open horizons, and to evoke more “universal subjects”.
“Armadillo is not only about Afghanistan, it is hardly even about Afghanistan,” he said.
“It is much more about the Western world and the increasingly militaristic approach of the Western world to what’s on the fringes of what we see as a civilised way of conducting societies.”
And what about Afghanistan?
“Afghanistan is a disaster,” he said. “We blew our chances in Afghanistan years ago.”