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With the opening premiere of The Union, director Cameron Crowe's documentary about Elton John and Leon Russell, the 10th Tribeca Film Festival kicks off. Though this 12-day event has enjoyed mixed reviews after its noble start as a response to the 9/11 World Trade Center attack's devastating effects on downtown Manhattan life, it has become an annual event in the city's spring calendar.
Initially created to regenerate interest in and bring people to Tribeca and lower Manhattan, the festival evolved into a sprawling set of contradictory ideas and goals -- was it meant to be a high-profile red-carpet, celebrity-driven media circus, or a celebration of international cinema? In any case, one thing has been certain: with the support of its founding sponsor, American Express, the festival had the secure financial bedrock from which it could be nurtured into a yearly event sustained by more than its original rationale for existence.
Read more: Meet Tribeca's Angel - AMEX CMO...
Armadillo has been a huge success in Denmark, although you’ll have to follow the Danish press to find out what’s happened to the soldiers charged with killing prisoners.
In this interview, recorded at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, director Janus Metz Pedersen and members of his crew talk about filming in Afghanistan and bringing the war back to Denmark.
DD: To be with a US unit in that situation, you would have to get permission from the government. It’s a policy that’s been very controversial. First, you’re bound by certain rules set by the military, and second, it creates a kind of bond and your loyalty is not necessary to the truth in that situation but to the men you’re traveling with.
What’s different about the Danish situation?
JMP: You have to have permission from the army to film. You’re going to be there on their terms. But we managed, due to the great work of my producers on the film, to get an agreement with the Danish army.
They would have the security screen a final cut, in a sense that we were not allowed to reveal any information that would endanger national security or the operational security of the soldiers. And I think you have to make that kind of agreement; it’s very difficult not to. But that tackles then the other issue, which is the loyalty that’s at stake.
Fortunately, I was there with my cinematographer, Lars [Skree], and when you get into the editing room with a guy like Per [Kirkegaard], the raw material is there and it’s not just you but you have to tell the film as the film is.
I think we were very careful not to become soldiers ourselves. We chose to go away from the war zone and come back in order to clear our perspective of the things that were going on.
And in the end when we edited the film, it was very clear that we had some quite controversial material that would also probably mean a military investigation, or an outcry by the public for a military investigation, of something of the things that were happening -- which was, of course, an exposure of the soldiers participating in the film.
I’ve come to care for them, so it was very painful for me to in a sense break that bond and not be a member of the gang anymore.
I chose to become an outcast to tell this film, and some of the soldiers I’m not speaking with anymore. Others think it’s a great film and it’s an important film, and it tells the story as it was. So it’s been met with very mixed emotions and has been a very rough process of getting the film out.
I have to say, it’s also come out at a very good time in Denmark in terms of the fact that the military was struck by a couple of scandals where they tried to stop the publishing of a book. They manufactured an Arabic translation of the book themselves in order to prove this was endangering their troops.
DD: What book are we talking about?
JM: This was a book written by one of their own Special Forces soldiers, so it was like an inside story -- a very positive, glamorous, heroic book. But there were certain types of information that were politically sensitive in that book.
Maybe the author wasn’t fully aware of that, and the army tried to stop it and they didn’t have any success with that. The chief of the army had to step down and it was a big media thing. So in that sense, their teeth and claws were kind of taken away already.
DD: For an audience outside of Denmark: what kind of status does the military have in Danish society and Danish politics?
JM: It’s gained an important status over the past 10 years because of the conflict in Iraq and because of the conflict in Afghanistan.
We had a prime minister who became a great ally of George Bush and his administration, so the military has become a stronger powerhouse and a stronger symbol for an activist foreign policy in Denmark, and that topic is very discussed and very heated.
Whereas before, if you go back just 10 years, the army would be not an outgoing, aggressive force, but a protection force. There’s been a change in perspective in that, definitely.
DD: Did you always conceive of this as a feature-length film?
JM: No. In the beginning, this actually started out as a 30 minute film for a series about the war in Afghanistan, a TV series where six directors were invited in to make a 30-hour documentary program. But it very quickly became clear that, with the level of access that we gained, we had a bigger film in the pipeline and a bigger responsibility as filmmakers.
So from a very early point in the process, we chose to pitch the film to various broadcasters and film institutes and get some more funding and speaking to the soldiers and the army about making a bigger piece.
DD: When you were on the ground, were your expenses covered by the Defense [department or] by the Danish military?
JM: No, in no ways.
DD: So explain to me how this works. You’re with the soldiers, when you’re shooting them you’re on the base, right? Then you’re there independently. Your provisions come separately?
JM: No, no, no. The production company pays a separate amount to the army, a cost per day, to cater for me and a cinematographer.
DD: It was just you and the cinematographer on the ground?
JM: Yes, just me and the cinematographer in Afghanistan. So in that sense, there hasn’t been any sort of co-financing by the army in this film.
I don’t know what the actual costs of our stay has been compared to what the production company paid, but I think there’s a standard rate for those types of things.
DD: What’s it like just shooting with one camera? Because so much of what you’re dealing with are reactions, as well as the things that are happening. Are there disadvantages to doing it with just one camera?
JM: We actually worked most of the time with two cameras in the field. In order to cover the communication between the soldiers, that’s the only way you can understand what’s actually going on in the situation.
DD: So you and the cinematographer had cameras?
JM: Yes. He’s done the main part of the filming, but I’ve done additional footage in the film. Inside the camp, we worked on big HD cameras, proper film, lenses. We wanted to work with the imagery and the aesthetics of the film in order to create almost like an epic story and to work with the juxtapositions between this almost fictional, hyper-real realities, and how that meets a [certain] style type of filming in the field.
And the reason for doing this was also because I was very occupied with the way that the soldiers fashioned themselves, and the mediated realities they bear with them into a war situation, and it spills into their understanding of the conflict and into their understanding of their own actions. And I think we used also the images to talk about that.
DD: Had you done journalism before? Had you come out of a television news background?
JM: No, I actually come out of an academic background, from education. But I’d worked within film for a number of years and done what I would call filmic documentary.
DD: Feature-length docs?
JM: Nothing more than one hour before Armadillo.
DD: One thing you could say about war imagery, depending on the country you live in. If you’re in Israel, it’s all the time. If you’re in the US, surprisingly -- depending how old you are -- you may have grown up with it, although you see very, very little on television in the US right now. If you’re in the UK, France, you see quite a bit.
I found that this is infused with cinema, that it wasn’t just your sort of ground truth image visual record. Did you come in saying I want to bring a cinematic perspective to what I’m going to look at? Or was this really documentary style dealing with what you found and then distilling it, compressing it?
JM: This is a question of filmic language I think, because documentary style is also about conventions of filmmaking. There’s no truth per se, as such, connected with the way that we perceive traditional documentary.
But coming more specifically back to your question, I always try to focus my film before shooting, knowing the kind of trajectories my story would take in order to be one [step] ahead of the story line.
DD: How did you know what the trajectory of this story was going to be?
JM: That’s a question about research. But your research has to meet the things that are going to happen in reality.
Certainly when you film in a war, you’re filming in a very chaotic situation, where things change radically in a second. You can’t plan for an IED to go off, or someone to get shot.
DD: Well, it depends on which side you’re on.
JM: I want to just elaborate a little bit more on that. I think one of the important things for me about filmmaking is that we can work with images in a way that images have become more powerful, and they actually testify to another level of reality or another level of truth.
We in Armadillo are not as occupied with political, sort of nitty-gritty, one-to-one reality. We’re more occupied with the mental challenges, the psychological developments, and the types of hyper-realities that spill into a war and affect the way the soldiers act.
[We wanted] to also make a portrait of a generation and a portrait of how soldiers fashion themselves and how the mechanisms of the war have ramifications on a bigger scale.
Then you have to use filmic language -- or then it was my, you could say, to use filmic language -- to point out some of these things that have an importance. [They] maybe are not as clearly visible if you are in a more traditional documentary, where you are running around chasing your characters with a small handheld camera.
DD: When you say a portrait of a generation, are we talking about a portrait of a generation in Denmark or are we talking about a portrait of a generation that goes into the military -- that part of a generation?
JM: I think these things are very interlinked in Denmark.
DD: Is there compulsory military service in Denmark?
JM: There’s compulsory military service, but you go to draft and put a number; it’s like a lottery.
DD: It’s like at the end of the Vietnam War in the United States.
JM: I know that they even did it on TV publicly, right?
DD: Like the draft for the NBA? That I do not remember.
JM: I was just in a company with a Vietnam vet a couple of weeks ago and he said that they did it publicly on TV. I guess that’s a way of everyone’s keeping an eye on each other.
DD: Or they’d take off. Or they’d just disappear. But about the generation. To what extent were these kids representative of their generation? Did they have to volunteer to go to Afghanistan?
JM: Yeah, you have to volunteer. This is a personal opinion, obviously, and to a great extent, this film is very personal. But for me trying to slice up Denmark 2010 and maybe contextualize that historically, Denmark’s been moving in a more right wing perspective of politics and outlook on the world.
That definitely informs the younger generations as I see it. I am 10, 15 years older than the soldiers were, and I can see that there’s a shift that has happened.
But I think there’s something very universal about a portrait of youth as well, which is a search for meaning, a search for identity. What I’ve found with these soldiers was that a lot of them wanted to go to Afghanistan for an adventure, for the kicks.
But I think in that, also, was some sort of feeling that when you go to Afghanistan you are the center of world attention; you’re on the big stage, you’re on the big screen in a sense. And that creates an epic story for yourself where you can cast yourself as a hero and everything becomes black and white about good and bad.
The military and the political right is very efficient at telling a story about how we’re there to fight bad guys and how we’re there to support democracy and all that. And when you can inscribe yourself in that type of narrative, it makes a lot of sense to your life as a younger person, I think.
So I think that’s also a search for meaning or a search for becoming, in a sense, that’s at stake there.
DD: Sometimes you’re working with more than one cinematic language. On one hand, you’ve got the language of war and the history of shooting war. Then you’ve got this very powerful landscape, and then you’ve got kids who are barely out of teenage years. So you’ve got at least three different ways in which there were codified images for these different things.
Was that a problem or a challenge to integrate that sort of thing? Because a lot of the time, they’re not fighting. They’re just sitting in a tent or in a place where there’s a generic interior, and sometimes they’re just acting like kids on a Saturday night, and sometimes they’re just bored, looking at pictures of nude girls.
And then sometimes you’ve got these breathtaking mountains in the background, almost like a frame.
JM: When you’re making a film, whether it’s a documentary or a fiction or whatever, if you harness your filmic language towards the story that you want to tell, you get a more powerful film.
And in this sense there are a lot of things at stake. Part of it is contextualizing the filmic space: where are we?
This is a story about an outpost, so we want the images to speak the languages of an outpost. It’s not only a geographical outpost but it’s also a mental outpost.
What happens when you’re at the very extreme of human rationality in a war? So we’re trying to get our images to speak that language in a sense, and that’s where when you work with a very skilled cinematographer like Lars Skree, who did these types of images, he’s obviously hyper-aware of the iconic value of his images, of the symbolisms that go into them.
And sometimes you just have a lucky shot as well. But I don’t know if Per could comment on this, because he’s the editor.
DD: There are certain things where the film edits itself, where you have such a clear line of what’s going on. Somehow if you shot 300 hours, I can’t believe that this just fell into place so automatically. So how did the editing take shape?
PK: In the beginning, Janus showed me about 13 hours of material and said we’d try to make this film out of this. I didn’t believe that was possible, because normally we have to go into all the material.
Very quickly we found out it wasn’t possible without doing that, so we extended the editing period, instead of 14 weeks, to seven months.
DD: Seven months? So you spent more time editing than you spent in Afghanistan.
PK: That’s right. I think that’s important when you make such complex storytelling.
DD: And by the time you had all the footage back in Denmark, did you clear the raw footage with them? How did that work? To what extent was what you saw useable -- in other words, beyond control of the military?
PK: There was no control in the editing process.
DD: Do they review the finished product or do they review the raw product?
PK: They review the final cut.
DD: The things that struck me were not just the foreground and background, the situation and the landscape.
The other thing I was struck by was the way the film showed these guys in the situation with almost a kind of mute, human landscape, which people barely got across to the children. But it was always -- even when the conversation seemed to be civil, it was not really that friendly with the local people.
And then the other thing that struck me was there was a kind of silvery-grayish palate to it, which maybe evokes some history, maybe evokes a kind of universality or timelessness to military footage.
So go back, if you could, and describe a bit how it took shape in the editing process.
PK: Of course, there was this clear storyline that you have this platoon of soldiers that’s going to the war and will come back six months later; that’s the simple storyline.
And then Janus and I were talking about what else is in the story, and then this community the soldiers make by themselves in the camp where they’re talking to each other, playing with each other, watching dirty movies.
[Then] we could make a [pause] in time in the storytelling -- to make a kind of a breath hole for us to stay in some kind of mental mind.
DD: Was there a rhythm that you tried to establish? In a way, people describe combat as a lot of boredom -- and then these spasms, that might last three or four minutes of fear and lightning reactions, and often demanding the kind of judgment these guys are decorated for, finally, for throwing on the hand grenade?
PK: One hand grenade and shooting into them afterwards.
DD: Were you trying to replicate the rhythm of the experience there or were you stepping back and doing something else?
In the editing process, were you trying for verisimilitude, or [was it] going to be your reality as the filmmaker setting this forth?
PK: I think we tried to make it our reality. It would take a very long amount of time if it was their reality, and we have this amount of time to tell the story and to get around to combat situations.
You have to make it very fast sometimes, and you have to make this kind of difference in rhythm. You have this moment of boredom, maybe, and nothing is going on. And then you have this very fast rhythm, to make this kind of effort at the audience, that they don’t know what is going on, they don’t know when it’s going on.
JM: I would like to add one thing to that, because I think what you’re talking about is something very violent happening almost as spasms within hours of boredom. I think we worked quite deliberately with that, actually, to try and mimic that type of reality.
When things happen in Armadillo, they happen suddenly. Obviously, there’s a natural type of suspense in a combat situation that I experienced as well, because they can listen in on their enemy’s radios, so they know when are we getting close to battle. And their suspense builds up and then the shots ring out and there’s this rupture of violence.
But obviously, when you’re making a film like the first battle scene, I think that took in reality around four hours. That battle was about four to five hours long, so in the film it’s two minutes.
You have to say, what’s the crux of the story here? Okay, this is about how they end up in combat for the first time and that loss of innocence that is at stake here.
What was mostly interesting to us was, you have a sense of chaos and you have adrenaline and then how do they react afterwards? How does that define their way of relating to each other and relating to the reality they’re part of when they come back to the camp? How they make sense of their experiences.
DD: And then in a broader way you have sections before and after with their families, with their loved ones.
Comparing this to something like Restropo, which inevitably would have some comparison, he has them at that outpost and then he’s shooting those interviews -- but he’s shooting them in Italy with a tripod.
What did you want to do with these bookends, beginning and end, those sections?
JM: If you want to compare the film to Restropo, I think maybe you could say that the camp is more the main character in Restropo than any of the soldiers, whereas we are doing a character driven narrative documentary.
So we’re following the development of particular individuals as much as the material that we had made possible.
DD: Yet you also give your film the name of the camp. Was that always going to be the title of the film?
JM: No, there were various titles of the film. It was called something about the outpost. It is also about a place, but also about a mental place.
DD: As much as you had a trajectory in mind, what did combat and the experience of combat there tell you about these soldiers?
JM: I think what was important to me was that combat first of all wears you down, wears out your nerves slowly but surely. And then there’s a certain type of brutalization happening to the mind. You either get scared and run away and go home or you have to become cynical.
And this to me was an important story to tell, because I think it’s also this kind of Heart of Darkness mythology -- or reality, you might say -- that’s part of the conflict.
The war becomes part of the soldiers and the war also becomes part of the system, in a sense. It does traumatize when you scratch the surface of the civilized and you get something maybe that’s more archaic or the nature of violence or the irregular warfare that the Taliban is fighting and you have to counter that.
Then it’s very brutal and it is brutalizing to the mind and also to the whole system of the nation-state, because the rule of law is also challenged in that sense.
DD: What was the reaction of the soldiers? You mentioned that some of the soldiers liked the film and some of them aren’t speaking to you.
JM: The soldiers that are not speaking to me are the soldiers that are under investigation, so they thought I can’t be trusted, I’ve left the group, I’m not loyal, this kind of thing.
DD: Explain the investigation.
JM: There’s a killing in a ditch where they throw a grenade and then they run over and they kill the Taliban. It’s a battle where they’re fighting Taliban at a very short range, like basically you can throw a grenade quite easily and it hits someone on the top of the head.
And then they come back in the camp and they’re bragging about this and they almost became animals in this ditch. And then they have to try to come back to some sort of civilized behavior again. So it’s the ultimate story about a kill, basically.
DD: It’s like a hunting story almost.
JM: It unfolds like a hunting story and in some ways they almost relate to it like a sporting event. Afterwards this guy talks about the killing and he says "We liquidated the enemy and they were trying to crawl."
According to the Geneva Convention, that’s prisoners of war; you’re not allowed to shoot someone who’s not a danger to you anymore.
But obviously, this is a very blurred area, because you’re in a very close combat situation and you don’t know what type of dangers you’re exposed to. Maybe your rational judgment of the situation is completely sidestepped by the extremity of the situation.
And we see that with police behavior and all these types of things always legitimizes itself by the fact that we were threatened and we had to fight for our lives.
So the film ultimately challenges this scene and it asks the question of whether these guys actually went into a blood rush and [went] overboard, and there is an investigation into this case.
I think the soldiers will get acquitted because there’s no proof that they liquidated these guys, and the material doesn’t prove that.
DD: What do you think?
JM: There are only three guys that know what happened and I’m not sure that they even know it themselves. I think this is a war situation and war is very grim.
But as a filmmaker and an artist in this direction, I’m very occupied with that very split second when that decision is taken.
How does this soldier take this decision? What are you as a human being when you pull the trigger in that instance? Are you a machine, are you an animal, are you acting rationally, are you in a blood rush? How can you possibly perceive reality in that situation and what’s reality constructed of in that situation?
So I think for me it’s actually more challenging that no one knows exactly what happened. Probably the three guys that did it don’t know exactly what happened.
DD: You could make a film just about the investigation. Talk about how you decided to treat this element of the film.
JM: There was big pressure on me to leave out any doubt that that was done according to standard procedure. [It] was basically going to be a story about a heroic battle scene with Danish soldiers for the enemy and [they] came home and they could be celebrated as heroes and stuff like that.
And war is much more complex than that. There are no real heroes or villains in war; it’s very brutal, very bloody, very grim battle situations, and this is about this kind of Heart of Darkness and maybe the barbarianism of war at the end of the day.
DD: Were you satisfied by the way the film was received at Cannes?
JM: Of course.
DD: Sometimes you have a film out there and people don’t react the way you want them to.
JM: The film has had a very ambivalent reception. A lot of soldiers that see the film love it; they think this is what it’s really like, this is the shit.
Most of the soldiers I know they love films like Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter, which are disillusioned war movies to me. They’re not different from other people in the sense that they just maybe take a different conclusion or they find it interesting and they want to have that adventure for themselves.
I don’t think you can film war without also speaking to some sense of excitement or seduction in young men that have that interest already.
But then on the other hand, the film has been seen by a lot of people it has caused a big disturbance and people have been talking about [how] we can’t think of ourselves as Danes in the same way as we did before after this film.
It’s such a traumatizing earthquake type of experience to our identity and our self image as someone who’s a civilized do-gooder in the world.
DD: Right, but most of us don’t have to be reminded of that.
I want to ask you about the sound because there are certain films about war. Say for example in Saving Private Ryan when they’re in the town and the tanks are approaching, the only awareness you hear of this tank is the sound of it and the sound is the most overwhelming thing.
Or in this film Lebanon it’s practically black with a tiny, tiny glint of light, but all you have is sound in that film; no image.
You had all the sound recordings, all the recordings that were made, and then what did you do with it?
RW: A lot of people ask about the shots and if it’s all real. All the gun shots are real, they happened, and they sound like that. I was really happy when I saw the movie the first time. The shots worked so well, and I’ve never seen a war movie where the shots sounded like this. It sounds so real.
I [don‛t] think the audience think about it of course. But in other war movies, you have the sound effects of a gun shot and you put it on.
And I never imagined that there would be so many shots; it’s just totally chaos in a real war situation. All over the place.
I was really happy that this element worked so well. It came from the recording, from the editing, and it worked really well so we just had to create the dynamics and of course make it right. But it came out of the raw material.
DD: How were the guys miked in the tent situations? Did you have a boom or what? You didn’t have lavaliers on these guys, did you?
RW: Sometimes I would; other times booming. Two guys in a frame having a conversation, we would often wire them.
DD: Did you have them on often enough so they just became comfortable of unaware of them?
JM: They were very used to putting this on. I would just hand it and say "Why don’t we try to reflect a little bit about what happened today."
DD: Did every guy in the unit agree to be filmed?
JM: There were guys who said no.
DD: And so you just didn’t film them?
JM: Yeah, you just don’t film them.
DD: And did they give a reason for saying no?
JM: I think they just were uncomfortable with being on camera. Some of them were shy, and if you don’t have that much confidence in yourself maybe it’s quite scary to get filmed.
DD: Were any of the officers -- or was the command -- did they have any skepticism or apprehension about you doing this?
JM: When we started getting very close to the brutality of the war, the command, which were luckily based in another camp, we felt were trying to keep an eye on us and keep an eye on what we were doing.
But we were on an outpost with a small platoon working with these guys for a long time, and there’s this sense of trust. They get used to the fact that you are there.
You spend much more time drinking coffee, eating food, watching movies, talking about this and that, than you actually do filming. So after a while you become part of camp life and they get used to the fact that there’s a camera filming.
DD: Did you have to do any jobs? Did you cook with them? How integrated were you into that unit? Did you eat the same food?
JM: Yeah, we had to eat the same. There are only field rations. MREs, bloody MREs; sickening. But yeah, I mean that’s the food there is and you eat. Often in military life, you eat when you have the time to eat, so sometimes you eat with someone, sometimes you eat on your own.
Lars, the cinematographer and I made a point of not sleeping in the same room. We had our own separate room, which was a tent, because we had to have a space for talking for ourselves and not being part of their group, and they had to have space from us as well.
DD: You opened theatrically in Denmark. First, how does it play just as a movie in a movie theater?
And second, if a lot of people went to see it, critics wrote about it presumably in the same newspapers that were covering the investigation.
Any policy implications? Does the discussion of the film take Denmark beyond this film into any policy discussions about the war, about the role of its military, what kind of soldiers it wants to have, that sort of thing?
JM: I think the film has pushed a discussion in Denmark. It hasn’t been the film on its own that pushed the discussion. It’s come out in a time when there are in the US and in the UK big discussions about exit dates and whether it’s going in the right directions, and that’s something that we’ve seen quite a lot more of within the last six months.
But the film, I feel, has opened a window where critical voices have been able to voice their opinion in the debate that the film created. Now suddenly the whole nation was looking at Armadillo. It had huge exposure because this is the first time that the Danes really see upfront images of the brutality of the war.
DD: Haven’t they seen it on television?
JM: But you don’t get that close. You’ve never seen Danish soldiers killing people upfront on television. You’ve never seen images of dead guys.
DD: How many murders are there a year in Denmark? Very few I would think.
JM: A lot fewer than the US, yeah.
DD: Well, we know that. Although in New York they’ve come down very significantly. What’s the word on US distribution? Do you have a distributor in the US yet?
JM: I don’t think there’s been a distribution deal that’s been closed for the US yet. The film is screening at Toronto, so I think distribution will happen. But we’ll see.
Armadillodirected by Janus Metz Pedersenwritten by Kasper Torstingcinematography by Lars Skreeedited by Per K. Kirkegaardsound design by Rasmus Winther
You won’t find a film that’s been at more festivals than the Danish documentary Armadillo. I saw it first and interviewed the filmmakers at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival last summer. It was then at the Toronto International Film Festival and at the New York Film Festival.
IDFA programmers thought that it merited exposure in Amsterdam at the world’s largest documentary festival, even though the press and industry crowd at IDFA had surely seen it. The doc won the Critics' Week Grand Prix at Cannes.
Armadillo’s subject is one small part of the "coalition" offensive against the Afghan Taliban, in which US troops are augmented by European allies. The title of Janus Metz Pedersen’s feature debut comes from a base in southern Helmand Province from which the unit operates.
Metz’s to-hell-and-back story films pro forma tearful departures from girlfriends and the anxieties (feelings of "terror") of young volunteers confronting the "ground truth" of bullets flying at them, plus the boredom of viewing porn DVDs in their tents, all of which the camera scrutinizes at point blank range.
Metz and his cinematographer, Lars Skree, are also there when a well-targeted grenade from the Danes kills a band of Taliban fighters who have pinned them down. The Danes finish off their wounded adversaries with guns.
The soldiers’ unrestrained celebration of their small victory (we watch as two are decorated later) triggered outrage in Denmark, where opposition to the war is strong. Investigators are now probing the execution of the wounded Taliban. Don’t expect any convictions.
Unlike Sebastian Junger’s nuts-and-bolts Restrepo -- last year’s Sundance doc opener, which grunts its way around an observation post with American GIs isolated near the Pakistan border -- Armadillo brings an aesthetic eye to the war documentary genre.
Stark mountains in the distance frame the field of operation, and the camera lingers on the green farmlands and silent stone mounds where the Danes never seem to find friends. It also doesn’t hurt the film’s allure that some of these young troops look like movie stars.
Yet Armadillo doesn’t tell the whole story of the squad. Some of its members face charges for the killings in the film (you’ll hear more about that scandal in the interview with Janus Metz), and the Danish public got a taste of the horrors of war.
As with so many documentaries, events eclipsed the story on the screen. Even before the film premiered at Cannes (and long before the Wikileaks era), the Danish military was already wounded.
In 2009, a Danish soldier, Thomas Rathsack, published Ranger: At War with the Elite, a memoir about fighting in Afghanistan, in which he revealed all sorts of classified operational techniques. To make things worse, Danish military officials said, the book was also published in an Arabic translation.
What they didn’t say -- which was later revealed in the media -- was that the Danish military commissioned the Arabic translation to amplify Rathsack’s crime (i.e., proving that the revelations reached people who wanted to harm Danish soldiers). The scheme seems to have been part of a plan to justify a greater punishment for the former commando.
A Danish military spokesman "leaked" the news of an Arabic translation to the press, hoping to scare the Danish public. They had already felt threatened when a jihad was declared against a magazine that published unflattering cartoons of Mohammed. When the translation scheme was found out, the head of the Danish military resigned.
Rathsack’s book became a bestseller…. in Denmark. The backstory sounds like a movie to me.
Will Armadillo and its ongoing story reach beyond its natural festival audience into the US public? Considering how films about Iraq and Afghanistan do at the box office these days (even Fair Game by Doug Lyman, with a budget and Sean Penn and Naomi Watts), it’s a long shot.
Here’s some coverage of that scandal:
If The Social Network were on Facebook, everyone would want to friend it. Opening the 48th New York Film Festival, director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin's story of Mark Zuckerberg's controversial founding of Facebook premiered to ecstatic reviews spanning highbrow to lowbrow, from The New Yorker to the New York Post -- where Lou Lumenick hyperbolically called it "quite possibly the first truly great fact-based movie of the 21st century."
The comment, aside from other eye-rolling considerations (United 93, The Queen or Fincher's own Zodiac, anyone?), is ironic given the hotly contested nature of just what is true and what's not in the Facebook creation myth. Sorkin worked in loose collaboration with author Ben Mezrich, who provided an outline and showed chapters of his in-progress book The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal -- a 2009 best-seller for which Mezrich was castigated by critics for spinning entirely made-up scenes and dialog, and by providing no footnotes or other typical tools of the non-fiction trade.
Read more: "Social Network"-ing with David...
Read more: "Social Network"-ing with David...
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