Wednesday 7 September 2011

On demand: "Armadillo"

"You can count on some action. I promise it'll be interesting." So speaks one commander of the Danish troops in Afghanistan in the opening minutes of Janus Metz's documentary Armadillo. He's making blithe conversation with the officer sent to replace him, but he could just as well be briefing Metz, or indeed the audience, as to what they might expect over the rocky 100 minutes that follow. Armadillo was the source of controversy in its native land, where footage of one incident in particular sparked a military review of the role Danish troops should be playing in the occupation; it began, however, with the simple remit of following one platoon over a nine-month tour of duty in Helmand Province in 2009, revolving around the base of the title.

The recruits flew out fresh-faced and laughing; they will return scarred and vaguely dehumanised, bonded by a shared trauma and - in several cases - worryingly keen to go through it all again, like giddy kids beating a return path to the waltzers. Last year's Restrepo, about an American platoon getting bogged down in similar territory, looked like a ragged extension of the directors' on-the-fly photo journalism. By contrast, Metz employs a sophisticated editing technique reminiscent of certain reality-TV spectacles, knitting together perspectives that could only have been collected by several camera crews working simultaneously; which is to say it is at once a more constructed, and less raw-seeming work than its American equivalent - the British troops with whom the Danes apparently share the Armadillo base have apparently been edited out altogether (at the MoD's behest, one wonders?)

The result is a chilly, problematic film - part outright horror, part detached, Dogme-infused study of the kinds of interpersonal dysfunction that can come to pass in the heat of battle. At the start of this tour, the men are instructed by the platoon's bright liaison officer to save those rations they don't like to pass out to Afghan children in order to get them on side, but more pressing issues of cohabitation (and invasions of space) slowly come to rear their heads. The locals plant their annual wheat harvest, only to see the troops trample it down for security reasons. As in Restrepo, we see huge consternation caused by the accidental demise of a cow, considered collateral damage by the invaders, and something else by the Afghanis: a symbol of the lack of care and attention the occupiers, hung up on their own business, pay to their immediate environs.

Metz is compelled to watch the effect this incessant, needling background conflict has on the young warriors: they retreat into porn and video games, whether as scant relief or as manageable simulacra of messy reality. And it gets messier still. A girl is killed in a grenade attack, and those affected are bluntly told there's no point crying about it. The enemy begins to close in. IEDs start going off. Unable to return home - despite the pleading phonecalls of their loved ones - the troops man up, painting their faces to go after the Taliban, and Metz fits one of them with a helmet-cam, to go to the places, to see the sights, he can't bring himself to go and see. (Isn't that what governments generally do with their armed forces?)

At which point, the whole film - from the cowering, fogged-up photography to the pulsing ambient soundtrack - gets terribly jittery: we're just waiting for the worst to happen, and it does, in a ditch in the outskirts of town, in a sequence that provoked howls of outrage from the Danish left when Armadillo was first screened, yet which is described by a commanding officer within the film as "some of the best fucking soldiering I've ever seen". (To split the difference: some of the controversy may derive simply because the film dares to show us what soldiers do at close range - in a way even the most committed news coverage cannot.) I have my doubts - or, at least, my questions - as to exactly how much of what is tricky about Armadillo existed solely in the eye and editing suite of Metz the beholder (were the troops really dancing and clowning around on motorbikes within hours of a major battle?), but it is joltingly well-assembled, and far less prissy than many other war movies about making the distinction between a conflict most commonly presented as bad and those individuals we've sent over there to fight it.

Armadillo is available to view for the next 29 days via 4 On Demand.

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