POV: What is Armadillo about?
Janus Metz: Armadillo follows a deployment of Danish combat soldiers to the front lines in Afghanistan. It’s an exploration of the effects that war has on the minds of the people that are in the middle of it. Also, it explores the still ongoing situation in Afghanistan, where civilians are getting increasingly alienated to the troops that are officially there to help them. My motivation as a filmmaker to engage with the story was to look at some of the bigger questions about war. On one hand, I have an interest in the deeply rooted psychological structures at stake when young men travel to an outpost to face death — and by an outpost, I don’t simply mean a physical outpost in Afghanistan, but also an outpost in the mind. And on the other hand, I wanted to ask questions about the way Western nations are leading these so-called new “democracy wars” and how they become increasingly conflicted in their efforts when their ideologies and their often well-intentioned perspectives for creating stabilization and democracy meet the realities on the ground.
POV: Tell me about the production process. How did you and Lars Skree work together?
Metz: We did a lot of research on how to shoot this film before going to Afghanistan. We camped with the soldiers for about two weeks, out in the woods in Denmark. While they were preparing for their job, we were learning how to position ourselves within a platoon or a combat unit when there’s a firefight going on. How do we avoid getting caught in crossfire? Lars and I took a kind of “Musketeers’ oath” with each other. We were putting our lives at risk to make this film. As I was the director and he was the cameraman, it would have been unfair if I had just pushed him into the firefights while I was sitting inside the camp, drinking coffee. So at a very early stage, we made a decision to do everything together. I was also handling cameras, to be able to get enough coverage. A lot of the scenes in the film I shot with at least two cameras. On top of that, we equipped some of the soldiers with helmet cameras.
POV: What are the living quarters like in Armadillo? What’s it like when you’re actually there in the camp?
Metz: Armadillo is originally an old Afghan farmhouse that’s just been overtaken. The farmers that used to live there have been thrown out and it’s been made into a military base. Lars and I stayed in a tent in the yard of military camp, right next to the mortar gun and cannons. We didn’t get much sleep ever. The soldiers were sleeping inside this farmhouse. That was a very deliberate choice on our part, to give them a space of their own and for us to have a space of our own. On a more profound level, it had to do with creating a distance between us as a film crew and the soldiers. One of the things that soldiers do, I think, to handle being in a war is shut down their emotions, to not let the war in. If you start getting scared or if you start questioning too much what’s going on, it’s difficult to do your job. Obviously, as a film crew, to do the same thing would have been catastrophic. It’s similar to an anthropologist embedding him or herself in a culture, while still being able to take one step back. That’s what our job really was.
POV: Can you talk about the stylistic choices that you made in how you approached the scenes in both Denmark and Afghanistan? How did you make your editing choices?
Metz: We tried to develop an aesthetic for the film that was based on some key concepts. The general feeling of being in Armadillo was one of alienation, paranoia — a sort of Moonbase Alpha, isolated experience with the enemy right outside the door, or, if not the enemy, at least some people who could have been either friends or enemies, you weren’t sure. That lack of transparency and that huge mistrust were very important, too. It’s not only about Afghanistan. It’s about a fall from grace, a sort of Heart of Darkness narrative, that unfolds and brutalizes the minds of the soldiers. Probably even, I would argue, it brutalizes all of us who send people there. In order to get to that, I wanted to harness cinema so that images became just as much mental representations of atmospheres and experiences as documentation. The mindset inside the camp was so difficult to penetrate that we had to pull the film out of the embedded perspective by using music that would counter the way the soldiers would speak about something. If they showed huge relief or a cathartic proud feeling of having defeated their enemies, of having shot someone’s brains out, basically, it felt too much as if we were going with that feeling and not sensitizing, contextualizing or adding nuance about the experiences. We used very melancholic, tragic, beautiful music to underscore scenes like that, in order to say the angels are crying up there. It’s a tragedy that anyone should be in this kind of situation.
POV: One of the main subjects in your film is a young man named Mads. Can you describe him and your relationship with him? Why did he become the focus of your film?
Metz: Mads became a good reference point for the film because he is in a lot of ways a very unlikely soldier. But he wants to be a soldier. He wants to be part of the group. He’s a small guy who’s trying to overcome his inferiority complex about being very short. He wants to live up to the ideals of the army and military. To be able to do that, he needs the acceptance of the others, particularly of Daniel, who’s the counterpart to Mads in the film. Dan is a very tall, handsome guy with tattoos. He’s very sure of himself. He’s a very good soldier in the battlefield. Between the two, there is a narrative of the cynical mindset of the military, represented by Daniel, and the more doubtful, openhearted, open-minded nature of Mads and the struggle between those two throughout the film.
POV: This tension between Mads and Daniel plays out in the battlefield. I want to talk a little about your experience in the midst of a great number of firefights. Can you describe the experience and what it was like to us?
Metz: It’s a strange thing — I was very curious and nervous to see how I’d react to being shot at. I remember the first time I showed Lars the film, which was about six months after we came back, he was just silent. He couldn’t speak for what seemed like an hour. He had to be by himself, because the way he was brought back to that situation was so difficult for him. That’s also the story with post-traumatic stress and the soldiers’ breaking down once they get back. There is an element that… where you have to shut yourself down when you’re in the middle of it. At the same time, there’s a huge sort of adrenaline rush. It’s a stupid analogy, but it’s a little bit like being on a roller-coaster. When it’s all over, you’re sweating from relief. You’re almost hysterically laughing about it. This is the extreme version. That can also become a drug to some people. It certainly does to some soldiers. Because they have to say to themselves, “This is something that we have to do time and time again.” Those aspects are very important, particularly when you’re a young guy. This is something that we’re all looking for — intensity in our love life, in our relationships to the people that we care about, in our friendships. And that’s amplified by hundreds when you go into a war. That’s why soldiers always talk about the friendships that they made in war and say that they never experience anything like that again. That’s part of what makes them go back — the powerful feeling of being alive.
POV: You captured a very controversial incident where a war crime may have occurred. The footage from the helmet-mounted cameras is there for everyone to see. Can you tell us a little bit more about this incident and this killing that becomes the focus of the documentary? What happened?
Metz: In the process of one of these firefights, the soldiers realized that there was a group of enemy combatants lying in a ditch about 30 feet away. These enemies managed to shoot and wound two of the soldiers — one in the arm, one in the leg. So, the soldiers threw a grenade into the ditch. Then they went up to the ditch and finished these guys off. That’s all captured on a helmet camera. That day, I was a bit further back with the platoon that would secure the retreat, and Lars was filming the wounded being medevacked out with helicopters. So, there’s not a real document of what actually happened in that ditch, but there’s a strong suggestion that these combatants were crawling around, heavily wounded, maybe trying to get away or trying to surrender. But in any case, they’re shot dead with a lot of shots. You’re left with a situation that’s not caught directly on camera, but something that might not have been done according to the book. These elements, I think, are extremely disturbing, and in a perverse sense, as a filmmaker, very interesting. This is an incident that can’t be tackled by civilian nation-states that have rules on how to carry out combat. They have to agree on what actually happened. And it’s certainly very important for them to find a word for it other than “liquidation.”
POV: So from the filmmaking perspective, how do you treat a scene like that? Because the act of filmmaking in a sense is also an act manipulation.
Metz: This was the most difficult part of the film to get right, because you can’t leave a tape running for the whole duration of a firefight. That wouldn’t make sense in a film. Your job as a filmmaker is to mediate the experience in the most truthful way. We made the choice to be very strict about chronology. When they’re doing the shooting, which is when the possible crime took place, we chose to not do any edits. There’s an unedited part of the film, raw footage that’s put right into the film, which is the material that we have from the incident that could be a possible document of war crimes or at least as much as we know of the incident at question.
POV: What impact has the film, and this scene in particular, had at home?
Metz: Well I think for Danes and Scandinavians particularly, the film’s had a very sobering effect on audiences. The attitude toward the war in Afghanistan was based on the idea that it was more or less a peacekeeping mission. We were there to build girls’ schools and wells for the farmers, whereas the sort of combat component of the mission has been very under-emphasized in communications about the war, probably for very good reason. What the soldiers experienced in my eyes was a fall-from-grace incident, and that was certainly true for viewers as well. Before Armadillo, critics of the war had been silenced to a great extent in Denmark by soldiers and politicians, who would say, “Who are you to talk? The only ones who actually knows what’s going on in Afghanistan are the soldiers. They’re the ones who are in the middle of this.” What Armadillo shows is that the reality unfolding in Afghanistan is somewhat more complex than what the soldiers usually communicate.
POV: In the inquiry around this incident, were you ever asked to provide raw footage for people to inspect?
Metz: They asked if they could see the material. Out of principle, I didn’t want to show them the raw footage, because I think that it’s my responsibility to deal with the raw footage for my films. It’s not for anyone else to see. Secondly, the footage that we had of the shooting incident was captured on a helmet camera, and that helmet camera file was already in the possession of the army, because the soldiers had it. They could choose to show this to the army or they could choose not to. I said, “What I have is in the film. I’m not going to share my information with you to either get the soldiers cleared or get them sentenced. That’s not my job.”
POV: What are your thoughts about having this film broadcast on public television in the United States? What do you want an American audience to take away?
Metz: One thing that I realized while making Armadillo is that it is very difficult to break down the image of the soldier as a hero. I think that is something that is used to legitimize war again and again. I hope that more people are going to realize that we’ve been in Afghanistan for over 10 years, and we’re not really creating a difference there. We’re not really creating the change that we’re hoping to see. We are producing enemies as rapidly as we can fight people we perceive to be our enemies. It’s just an incident of aggression causing more aggression. I hope people are going to come away from the film seeing that.