Tuesday, 12 April 2011

armadillo (d. janus metz pedersen)

It's interesting to learn that Metz's film has attracted criticism on the basis that it's too aesthetic. This, it has been noted, is a war documentary that looks like a feature film. The cinematography, the use of music and editing, all serve to heighten the viewer's experience. This attention to technical detail also raises the viewer's awareness of the silent hands at work behind the camera. There appears to be something of a paradox here, because, in spite of the fact they, (at the very least the director and Lars Skree, the cinematographer) are present at all times, in the midst of fire-fights and porn-watching sessions, this is not the kind of doc where the filmmakers become characters within their own movie. Metz and Skree try to absent themselves as far as possible and let the soldiers tell their own story.

Something which can't ever, quite, be done. Firstly, some of the conversations between the Helmand based soldiers, where they talk about what they think of the war they're waging, feel staged and even awkward. Secondly, the film includes several 'debriefings' including one key scene where a soldier appears to boast about his clinical execution of four Taliban, killed in a ditch during a firefight the viewer has already witnessed. Did the presence of the cameras, no matter how used the soldiers might be to them, have some kind of an impact? Were Rasmus and the others starting to take on roles within the as-yet uncompleted film? I don't think it's to the film's detriment that it raises questions about what the impact of having a camera trained on you as you go through meltdown in Afghanistan might be, but this issue does skew the notion of capturing 'reality'. Reality with a camera is not the same as reality without one. Not yet, anyhow.

As mentioned, Armadillo has been criticised as being dishonest. However, in some ways this means that when it does capture moments which feel inherently, indubitably 'truthful', these are all the more powerful. Such as when the bug-eyed wounded soldier sits by the side of a ditch, in a state of delayed terror, traces of which still seem present in his demeanour when the company visit him in the medical camp a few days later. Or, tellingly, the attitudes of the Afghans themselves. Their candour seems at odds with that of the Danes: they say it like it is. "You should go home. The Taliban are going to kill you all." Or: "My wife and child are dead." They don't look at the camera, which presumably, from their point of view, is wielded by another of the robocop aliens who have descended on their land and keep requesting them to put their lives on the line and co-operate. Armadillo's capturing of the problematic dynamic between the occupying forces of 'the West' and the locals themselves, often glimpsed as figures fleeing the latest skirmish to affect their village, is as potent as anything the film tells us about Danish army life.

The film's aesthetics do raise issues and imply a contradiction between the filmmakers desire to deliver a portrayal of the truth of war and their intention to create a well-crafted film. All the same, the very act of capturing war is perhaps, for now, an endeavour beyond the reach of filmmakers. At some point, an inherent dishonesty creeps in. It may be that videos filmed by soldiers on their mobile phones in Iraq or Libya etc are a truer account, but these tell only the most fractured of narratives, they confuse as much as they enlighten. The sequence when the Danes are attacked and fight back, provoking the potential human rights abuse, is baffling, as war must be: who's fighting whom? Are we shooting in the right direction? What the fuck is going on?

My take on the way Metz has gone about this is that he has recognised this inherent dishonesty in the bid to capture war on film, and has therefore embraced it. The very last scene shows the tough Rasmus, back in Denmark, in the shower in his home. This scene is clearly and unambiguously staged. As though the filmmakers are acknowledging the artifice behind their art. Whilst stating, as we have seen to be true, that this doesn't mean that the things that we have witnessed did not occur. Nor that a price has been paid which we, the viewer, even after watching the film, still cannot fathom.

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