Janus Metz was commissioned to make one of six half-hour movies about the war in Afghanistan for Danish television. What actually resulted was a strikingly intimate feature-length portrait of military life called Armadillo, that sent shockwaves across Denmark when it was released in cinemas.
The original TV project had been conceived out of a feeling that “the war in Afghanistan wasn't resonating with Danes,” says Metz. “That no one really cared about the situation. Because even when soldiers died, it hardly even reached the news anymore.” Armadillo forced it back into the public's consciousness in ways that probably no one had expected: whilst chronicling a firefight between soldiers and the Taliban, Metz had filmed young Danes committing a possible war crime.
The astonishing scene comes near the end of the film, which follows a group of raw recruits during their first six-month deployment at the Danish/UK Armadillo base in Helmand province. Metz only expected to be allowed to spend three weeks embedded with them, and requested time at the beginning of their tour in order to capture what it feels like for soldiers experiencing combat for the first time. However, he and cinematographer Lars Skree were so successful at gaining people's trust, that they did four trips to Afghanistan, staying for three-and-a-half months. “We could more or less go where we wanted in the camp,” says Metz. “I think they felt we were honest about what we were doing and that we were not there to make quick conclusions.”
For him, the film was not about judging people but exploring the moral and ethical questions of war, and what war does “not only to soldiers that carry it out and the people that are also victims of the war, but also what does it do to Denmark or to the western world, to all of us, including the UK, obviously, that's complicit in this thing?”
The soldiers in the movie exist in a testosterone-saturated world of intense action, boredom, pornography, and violent video games. For a lot of them, “The bottom line is there is a quest for masculinity and adventure,” claims Metz, “and a quest for unleashing some sort of beastly energy that is kept in check in normal society.” One of the film's main characters, Mads, is a physically small soldier from a comfortable middle-class background, who clearly wants to prove himself as a man. By going on patrol with the troops and coming under fire with them, Metz discovered for himself how in a war zone, “you become very confronted with yourself and your own masculinity. You have to say, 'I can go out and do this and I'll come home and be alright,' or you're going to feel like you chickened out . . . I think with time I started telling myself, 'I have to do the same thing to be allowed to tell this story.'”
He laughs when asked if he ever regretted putting himself in such a dangerous situation. “I'm not this heroic filmmaker that's out to tell a story because I think it's important for the rest of the world to know. Obviously there's an element of urgency that makes you want to shoot a certain type of film, but I think also I was just stupid enough to do it.” He admits, though, that he did “start wondering, 'When is enough enough?' Because you're not there on anyone's orders. You don't have to go out on patrol.”
The risk was worth it: Armadillo offers a fascinating picture of a war in which the soldiers appear to be undermining their own aim of bringing peace and security to the local population by (accidentally) killing civilians or depriving them of their livelihoods, fuelling the very resentment and hatred that the Taliban feeds on.
Armadillo's biggest shock comes when Daniel, one of the recruits Metz was following, becomes involved in a situation where a grenade is tossed into a ditch harbouring five hiding Taliban. The wounded survivors are apparently then gunned down in cold blood. A more troubling figure than Mads, Daniel is in the army “much more for the thrill,” says Metz. “He has a dark side to him that if its not kept in check, he goes too far. And that's what happens, potentially. He doesn't back down, he's always at the front of things. And for some strange reason he's the one that's up there at the ditch, with five dead people.”
During the subsequent debriefing, Daniel coolly says the men were “liquidated in the most humane way possible.” Later, news comes through that someone has called their parents and told them soldiers shot wounded fighters and piled up the bodies so they could pose with them. What did or didn't happen is not entirely clear in the film. But the military were sufficiently worried that they tried to seize Metz's footage.
“We were in a very unpleasant situation,” he says. “The film was shut down for several days and we had to smuggle some of the material out of Afghanistan. There was a real stand down in the middle of the desert. Obviously we didn't have anywhere to go. You're either inside the camp or you're outside with the Taliban. Everything that happens in Afghanistan happens on military terms.”
Armadillo's screening in Cannes last year provoked a heated debate in Denmark about what the country was doing in Afghanistan, and about whether or not a war crime had been commmitted. Although an investigation was launched, no one has been convicted. Metz isn't sure if they filmed a criminal act, though he is convinced that such incidents happen all the time in war.
Ultimately, the “scariest” aspect for him was “the blind fact that everyone thinks what happened was okay,” he says. “That they deserved to be shot, no matter if they were crawling away or whatever they were doing.”
The soldiers involved in the attack feel Metz betrayed them and the recriminations have obviously been painful for him. Nevertheless, he is in no doubt that he had a responsibility to tell the story the way he did.
“If we don't somehow disclose this camp mentality," he says, "then we have no way to keep the military in check.”
© Stephen Applebaum