Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

As the British death toll mounts in Afghanistan and the disagreements continue at the highest level of the American military and political elites as to when (and if) the troops should leave, it’s easy to forget that soldiers from many countries make up the force trying to defeat the Taliban.

Janus Metz Pedersen’s remarkable debut follows a Danish platoon on their first tour of Helmand province but the horrors of war and the raw emotions he depicts are surely common to all the nationalities engaged in Nato’s “security assistance” mission – and to all those who’ve experienced combat through the ages.

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Last year, it became the first documentary to be included in Critics Week at Cannes, winning the Jury Prize. In the summer, it knocked Prince Of Persia from the top slot at the Danish box office. And it has prompted the government of Denmark to commission an inquiry into the events depicted.

Quite an achievement for a first full-length documentary – but the hype is justified. Armadillo is a raw and visceral picture of modern warfare. It’s a character study of young men called on to do a dangerous, difficult job that prompts a variety of intense, often conflicting emotions. And, without beating any obvious political drum, it’s a very clear illustration that the battle in Afghanistan, at both military and political levels, is a long way from being won.

It starts in fairly conventional fashion, as the platoon bid farewell to family and girlfriends. Early on, Pedersen exhibits his skill at blending into the background, as the emotional goodbyes feel in no way stilted or staged. There’s also an interesting subtext, subtly brought out, that many of the relatives obviously think Denmark shouldn’t be sending soldiers out there at all.

But the action promptly switches to a raucous eve-of-departure party with drink, strippers and bravado in plentiful supply. The boys have a view of war fuelled more by movies and video games than any personal experience or family history. And though some of them don’t look old enough to be out on their own, they’re up for it - ready to fight, kill and (by unspoken implication) die without really knowing what that might involve in reality.

They soon learn. Helicoptered in to a forward operating base in the heart of Helmand province and on the front line of the war against the Taliban they find a bare, featureless landscape requiring constant patrolling, a population whose hearts and minds have definitely not been won and an enemy which is never visible but constantly present, hitting the troops with sniper fire and roadside bombs all the time.

The ‘Armadillo’ of the title is the name of the base – but it’s an apt metaphor for the troops themselves. Their flak jackets and helmets bulk them up and protect them, but also render them anonymous; an alien species sticking out like sore thumbs in the Afghan landscape.

Their attempts to communicate with the locals are stilted and awkward, not helped by their habit of walking all over fields full of crops during patrol. The farmers and village elders clearly regard them as a nuisance at best and a positive danger at worst. As one headman explains: “If we tell you anything the Taliban kill us.”

And it goes without saying that the young squaddies have no real idea of exactly why they’re in Afghanistan or whether any of what they do is helping to defeat the Taliban or rebuild the country. Their only concern is “doing a good job” and not letting their unit (a prestigious former cavalry regiment) down.

But as the routine of warfare does indeed turn out to be 99 per cent boredom/one per cent sheer terror they chafe for a proper stand-up fight, distracting themselves by watching porn or playing first-person shooter games where the enemy is a good deal easier to see – and kill. So when an ambush leads to a chance to engage with the Taliban at close quarters, rules of engagement aren’t the first thing on their minds...

The Danish government may well be regretting the level of access they granted to Pedersen, but there’s no doubt it puts the audience right there with the troops. Every shot from nowhere and panicked dash for cover is experienced as much by the director and his cinematographer Lars Skree as any of the boys in the platoon.

The immediacy and sense of danger from an unseen enemy recalls news footage images from Vietnam. But for some of the troops, living out a Platoon/Apocalypse Now fantasy, that’s part of the attraction. The film makes very clear the uncomfortable truth that, for all its horrors and tragedies, war is exciting.

And in the aftermath of the ‘contact’ Pedersen is able to film the unexpurgated reaction of the troops; sacred and sombre at their casualties indeed, but obviously exhilarated at some proper action and defensively closing ranks when the “higher-ups” start to question their conduct.

The film will be uneasy viewing both for gung-ho interventionists who believe the battle in Afghanistan is being won and concerned liberals who would no doubt prefer these boys to come away suitably chastened and remorseful. But, like all good documentarians, Pedersen (who made his reputation with a series of short films on the sex industry and “marriage migration”) has an instinct for when to step back and blend into the background, allowing his subjects to tell their story naturally and truthfully.

Perhaps a bit more on the context of the troops’ operations would have been useful (the British at the base remain a very indistinct presence) and some of the troops’ personalities emerge more distinctly than others. It’s sometimes hard to remember which tattooed and tanned squaddie, dying of boredom or dying for action, is which. But perhaps that in itself is a point – war takes away personality and replaces it with a unit mentality. Only when the troops return are we reminded of who they are – young men doing a dangerous, thankless task with loved ones back home constantly worried sick about them.

Minor quibbles aside this is an honest, humane and very impressive debut. As well as obtaining some top-quality reportage Pedersen also has an undoubted flair for capturing the harsh beauty of the landscape and telling images from the day-to-day lives of the troops and the locals alike.

Always moving and often downright terrifying it reminds us once again of some uncomfortable truths. Grand geopolitical gestures always need hard work at the sharp end that’s never done by the politicians who dreamed them up. And, while war is undoubtedly hell, it’s also addictive.

Reviewed on: 04 Apr 2011
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A documentary charting the experiences of Danish soldiers in Afghanistan.
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Director: Janus Metz Pedersen

Year: 2010

Runtime: 100 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Denmark


London 2010
SSFF 2016

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