A riveting documentary about Danish soldiers in Afghanistan provides an eye-opening view of the War on Terror.
The directorial debut of Janus Metz is a startling one and the title comes from the military base in Helmand province where troops are based for six months.
Over the course of the film we see various troops as they leave home, go out on patrol, get involved in skirmishes with the Taliban and deal with civilians caught up in the conflict.
Comparisons will be made with last year’s Restrepo, the Oscar nominated documentary about US troops in the mountainous Korengal Valley, and even Susanne Bier’s drama Brothers (2004) which explored how the conflict affected Danish troops.
But Armadillo has its own distinct flavour and part of this comes from the extraordinary level of access afforded to Metz and his crew, which one suspects would not have been afforded to a similar film about US and UK troops.
A brutal honesty pervades the film and it doesn’t shy away from showing details which don’t make it on to the nightly news.
We see soldiers bored in their downtime as they watch porn, play first-person shooter computer games and make phone calls to worries relatives.
When it comes to the battlefield, the uncertainty and mistrust of the locals isn’t whitewashed as the local elders demand to know why innocent people are dying in the crossfire and even children insult the troops.
But where the film kicks into another gear is with the remarkably candid and unsettling scenes where the troops confront the Taliban.
One fire fight involves a hauntingly ambiguous image of a corpse and the images captured are a world away from the carefully edited coverage you see on the nightly news.
The most memorable sequence involves an extraordinary shootout at dawn where the soldiers find themselves right next to five Taliban soldiers in a ditch.
After it screened at Cannes last year, this sequence proved controversial in Denmark and led to an official investigation which eventually cleared soldiers in the film of any wrongdoing.
Part of the footage was actually shot from a camera attached to a soldier’s helmet, and the resulting images provide an incredible glimpse into life on the frontline.
This will prove a turn off for some audiences, but as a document of the brutal realities of war, it remains vivid and valuable document of this conflict.
There are numerous interviews with the soldiers and some revealing conversations, which capture their love of battle as well as the anxiety of knowing death is close by.
Shot on a variety of digital cameras, the visuals by DP Lars Skree are highly impressive and effectively mix the energy of combat with quieter moments.
The mood of the film is also greatly enhanced by Uno Helmersson’s atmospheric score and the sound design by Rasmus Winther.
There also appears to be a use of colour correction to give the film a consistent look, giving it the visual sheen of a dramatic feature like The Hurt Locker (2008).
Aside from being a technically brilliant portrait of modern warfare, Armadillo also poses interesting questions about how the war in Afghanistan has been represented.
Could it be that mainstream media have subconsciously watered their coverage down to gain access and submit to a conventional narrative of the troops as heroes? Recent revelations would suggest things are more complicated.
It is easy to forget that Afghanistan isn’t just an American war. The allied forces which make up the International Security Assistance Force are drawn from many countries from around the globe, including Denmark.
Perhaps it took a Danish perspective to craft such an illuminating film, which doesn’t take sides but still confronts the audience with difficult questions about an intractable conflict.
Armadillo is currently out at selected UK cinemas and is released on DVD on June 13th
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> Reviews at the IMDb
> More on the ISAF and the War in Afghanistan at Wikipedia