ARMADILLO


Dir.
Janus Metz. Denmark. 2009.


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What would make a young man who has just completed a harrowing and brutal six month tour of duty in Afghanistan decide to return for another stint? The answer to that question is puzzling, but it is made a bit clearer by Janus Metz' powerful documentary Armadillo, Gran Prix winner at the Critics Week competition at the Cannes Film Festival. Armadillo, like Restrepo, is named for the military base where the subjects are stationed. The film depicts the bravery and camaraderie and also the addictive high of several Danish soldiers, seemingly just out of their teens, that comes from their participation in the war in Afghanistan. 


Edited by Per K. Kirkegaard, Metz follows the soldiers from their farewell party at home filled with naked strippers to their arrival at base camp, moments of relaxation, briefings by their superiors, times of boredom, and the combat that includes some stomach turning sequences. The camera seems to be ever present and it hardly seems like an understatement to say that the director and cinematographer Lars Skee's lives were as much at risk as the soldiers. The film also demonstrates the plight of the villagers who are afraid of Taliban retribution if they cooperate with coalition forces. Caught in the middle, the Afghan civilians suffer greatly, standing to lose their crops, their animals, and their lives either from NATO forces or from the Taliban. 


What makes it even more distressing, as the film points out, the soldiers cannot distinguish between friend and foe. When one of the soldiers accidentally kills a young girl, all that can be offered is compensation while the Platoon commander tells the soldier that did the killing to shrug it off because these things happen every day. The camerawork is up close and personal and the horrors of war perhaps have never had such an immediate impact. We can see the look on a young soldier's face after he has just been shot and we see decapitated Taliban bodies being pulled from a ditch. 


While the film takes no position either pro-war or anti-war, the inhumanity of war has never been shown more clearly and the soldiers boasting and laughter after obliterating a wounded enemy while high on adrenaline, caused considerable debate about appropriate military behavior back home in Denmark. Depending on your point of view the soldiers are either making a difference or perpetuating atrocities in an unwinnable war. What does become clear, however, is the bond formed by the men and their lack of questioning of their mission. Like adolescents on a drunken rampage, they are excited by the thrill of the moment. We owe Metz a debt of gratitude for showing us the mindless, sadistic, and dehumanizing behavior that war can induce. Armadillo stands as one of the most visceral and frightening documentaries about combat ever made.

GRADE: A
 

Seen at the Vancouver International Film Festival


Howard Schumann

 
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