Janus Metz’s astonishing film follows a six-month tour of duty in Helmand province’s Armadillo army base with a platoon of Danish soldiers, Team 7. With 170 British and Danish soldiers stationed at the camp less than a kilometre from known Taliban forces they must balance the safety of the country, the importance of their mission and the needs of local people if their stay can be deemed a success in any way. This is an even-handed affair, no-one comes out of proceedings without blemish, but it also allows you to empathise with the soldiers and the frustrations they face. Such is the skill with which the film is constructed (there are strong character and narrative arcs, innovative camera work and editing as well as an exemplary and immersive score) that it is easy to view Armadillo as a more immediate version of Jarhead. The most shocking aspect of Armadillo though is that it is not fiction but a documentary.
The United Nations’ efforts in Afghanistan are often sidelined in the news in favour of reporting the activities of the US forces and any national interests but there are, of course, a great many countries involved in the effort to remove the Taliban resistance. Team 7 are based in the camp Armadillo in Helmand province, accompanied by British troops also stationed there. We follow the fresh recruits from their final fling in Denmark (all strippers and booze), the tearful departures at the airport to their eventual deployment in the heat of the Afghan countryside. Every day they are promised ‘a challenge and an adventure’ but the combination of constant gunfire, mixed with a lack of one-on-one encounters with the enemy takes its toll – they are constantly alert but have failed to experience conflict first hand. Keeping peace with the civilians caught in the middle doesn’t make things any easier as they have no point of reference as to who is innocent, who is trying to extort the army and who is Taliban.
Janus Metz and his cameraman Lars Skree were given unprecedented access to film the soldiers during their tour, from preliminaries to the conclusion of their return home. It is an intimate and immediate film that, in order to make the viewer identify with the team rounds out certain ‘characters’ to provide proceedings with a narrative and emotional direction, notably shy but eager Mads and the team’s medic Kim. What is striking is how the film goes to great lengths to explain the soldiers’ frustration at the lack of face-to-face encounters; it’s not as though they have a death wish but the nature of their deployment and the excess testosterone creates frustration and a need for action. Indeed an early, long distance encounter is scuppered by jammed weapons and a lack of awareness of the danger of bullets. Day to day work seems more focussed on ascertaining whether stray coalition bullets have killed local cows or trying to persuade frightened villagers to reveal information. Eventually this need for encounter transpires when the group finally face the Taliban in direct conflict, a sequence that, for a large part, relies on subjective point of view camerawork that really places the viewer in the heart of the claustrophobia and confusion of the situation. The outcome is harrowing and callously matter-of-fact, an insight into the realities of even a minor skirmish that is deeply uncomfortable on any human level. Unsurprisingly Armadillo caused a great deal of controversy and soul searching when it was released in Denmark.
Engrossing and compelling, Armadillo is less a document about the war in Afghanistan and more a journey into how men can act in ways that civilians facing increasingly sanitised news coverage cannot begin to understand. It is never judgemental about its subjects, the enemy or the people of Afghanistan and, as such, provides no answers even as, of itself, it affords no accusations. Through the film we can relate to and sympathise with these young recruits even when their exuberance leads some of them down dark and uncomfortable roads. Some might question Armadillo’s use of narrative cinema devices to create a 100-minute story out of six months of embedded footage or the use of mood-enhancing music to create tension and empathy but it rewards the viewer with insight and understanding that a more traditional documentary would struggle to achieve. A remarkable, engaging but challenging piece of documentary cinema.