Because we have heard so many news about US Army struggling in Afghanistan, we sometimes overlook the fact that there are also the other soldiers from different nations who are dealing with the same difficulties in that dangerous area as the parts of the International Security Assistance Force(ISAF). “Armadillo” shows us what some of them went through in that difficult war still going on at present. Although it positions its gritty approach ambiguously between feature film and documentary, this is a vivid documentary you cannot forget easily, and, like other recent excellent documentary on the same subject, it takes us close to what they experienced. It is not easy to watch at times, but it is also a gripping and visceral watching experience on the whole.
Like “Restrepo”(2010), another very good war documentary, “Armadillo” focuses on the one period at the forward operating base named Armadillo in Helmand Province in Afghanistan. The base was occupied by British and Danish soldiers, and it was named after the mascot of a Danish company commander who was killed before the base was built completely(this reminded me that the forward operating base shown in “Restrepo” was also named after a soldier killed before it was built).
The documentary follows a group of soldiers from the Guard Hussar(Horse Cavalry) regiment in Denmark, who are about to be dispatched to Armadillo when we first meet them. This is the first mission for them. We see one soldier meeting his family before the departure, who naturally show lots of concern about him. We also see him and his colleagues having some fun time with alcohol and hired strippers. I guess army people always need such things to lose the tension among them.
They board the plane at the airport while their families seeing them off. They arrive at Armadillo. Not long after their arrival, their commander informs them and others at the base of the current situation and their upcoming mission. They go out on patrol, and they try to get the support of the local people around the base, though there is not much success in that.
Their daily routine seems to go on while nothing much happening, but they are well aware of the threat from the Taliban fighters, who may suddenly attack them at any moment. It is not easy for them to distinguish the Taliban fighters from the innocent civilians; at one moment, they are not entirely sure about whether the people moving in front of their eyes are the enemies or not.
I heard that the director Janus Metz Pedersen was very close to many dangers while shooting his documentary with the cinematographer Lars Skree. They prepared for their shooting approach in advance before going to Afghanistan, and they lived in the tent at the base while capturing the daily life of the soldiers, who spend their time in various ways including watching the porno movies downloaded from Internet. As the time goes by, the uneasiness is more apparent, and the documentary provides several beautiful but ominous shots from the harsh environment surrounding the base. Without narration or interview, it feels like a feature film from time to time due to its artificial touches, but that approach can be accepted as a way of providing the hyper-reality to the audiences despite some little awkwardness.
The most memorable parts of the documentary are the engagements between the soldiers and the Taliban fighters. While using the small digital cameras attached to the soldiers’ helmets, Pedersen and Skree also put themselves and their cameras into those perilous situations to capture that imminent feeling of chaotic danger amid real bullets, and the result is quite impressive. Thanks to their Cannon 5D Mark Ⅱ high definition camera, the fatal danger from the faceless enemies is palpable in each frame. War movies may have more spectacular moments, but this is the real situation when the people can get really wounded or killed.
And it is really a serious professional matter to the soldiers. Although they feel good for a while about killing enemies in the combats as the payoff or accomplishment, we also see them discussing about one small trouble caused by what happened during and after one engagement. The documentary does not show the whole situation, but it shows us the horrible moment when the soldiers take care of the consequence of their action during the engagement after the situation is over. It is a little disturbing to see how casually they regard that consequence, but you rarely feel compassion to the enemies on the battlefield when your comrades are shot by them. The trouble depicted in the documentary actually ignited another controversy when it was released in Denmark in 2010, but the soldiers were cleared of any crime after the investigation.
“Armadillo” received the Critic’s Week Grand Prix at 2010 Cannes, and Pedersen and Skree deserved the award for their technical achievement. I have a little reservation about how they present the story in their work, but I admire a lot what they attempted to show to us while more admiring the people doing very difficult and diligent jobs in the unenviable environment.
“Armadillo” have little to say about how these people feel after they safely come back to Denmark, but I remember what I observed from the documentary “Hell and Back Again”(2011). Even after heavily injured in Afghanistan, its marine hero yearns for going back there although he knows it is nearly impossible considering his health state. He probably understands well one of the soldiers in “Armadillo” who is eager to be back in action while going through the recuperation in Copenhagen due to his injury caused by a bomb. He eventually comes back to the base, and, not so surprisingly, the documentary informs us in the epilogue that he is one of the guys who come back to Afghanistan in 2011.