Medium: film
Year: 2010
Director: Janus Metz
Keywords: documentary
Language: Danish
Country: Denmark
Format: 105 minutes
Website category: Foreign language
Review date: 14 December 2012
It's a Danish documentary about the war in Afghanistan. It's interesting, for a number of reasons.
Firstly, it's good. The filmmakers follow the soldiers even into firefights. At one point, the cameraman calls for a medic. These guys aren't chickening out. You thus feel as if you've got to know both these Danish soldiers and (a teensy bit) Afghanistan, both of which surprised me.
The soldiers are completely different from the soldiers in any war film you've ever seen. The difference is that they all wanted to go. They chose it. No one's screaming in misery, having a nervous breakdown or the like. Instead they discuss what they're hoping to get out of their six months on the other side of the world, as if this were an adventure holiday instead of a war. Some are hungry for the experience. Others went for the camaraderie. They're there to do a job, basically, and they'll get bored if they don't think they're seeing enough action.
This is reflected in the way they run themselves, which is like a management textbook. They try to get the local population on-side, hold detailed debriefings and identify mistakes for correction next time.
Then there's the tour itself, which isn't a war as you or I understand it. Imagine it more as aggressive policing. Our soldiers aren't trying to take territory from the enemy. The Taliban's already been beaten. It only took a few weeks in 2001 to kick them out of Kabul and send the regime scurrying into hiding in Pakistan... but unfortunately these guys are ex-mujahideen who spent the 1980s fighting the Soviet Union. They haven't gone away. They've just changed their role, fighting a guerilla war instead of running an Islamic dictatorship. Thus a decade later the Western soldiers' job is simply to guard the area they've been assigned, which translates to "stay put and kill anyone who tries to kill you".
Armadillo's the name of their military base, by the way.
If this is a war, it's an unusually gentlemanly one. Both sides warn the locals to get out of the way if there's about to be a fracas. The Western soldiers are told how to kneel and to give food to children. They offer compensation for losses. They're trying to be nice... except that it's the kind of "nice" that has regular air strikes and explosions, while the Taliban will slit your throat if they think you've helped the Westerners. The locals naturally have no enthusiasm for being caught in this crossfire, since it's their homes, livestock, etc. that are getting blown up. "The civilians get killed. We sit in our homes and get bombed."
Anyway, this gives the soldiers an unusual problem... not enough action. We only see two and a half enemy encounters in this film, although apparently in fact the team had over thirty enemy encounters during their six-month tour. Still, that's only about once a week. Thus the soldiers get bored, then conversely get a bit hyped when they do manage to win a battle. They're excited. They think it's fun. They want to do it again. It's slightly disturbing, but it's also natural and understandable. These are professional soldiers who volunteered to go somewhere dangerous and shoot people, yet in fact they're spending most of their time on "be nice to the locals" patrol, watching pornography and/or playing shoot-em-up video games. No, really.
As for Afghanistan, it doesn't look as it did in The Living Daylights. It's fairly green. You could almost believe you were somewhere in France, but with an Asian population and more unhappy cows.
Originally this was part of a six-part TV series, by the way, but then it became a feature that played Cannes and won the Grand Prix de la Semaine de la Critique.
It's a bit slow in the first half, largely because that's what the real thing is. Life's slow for those soldiers, but with occasional bursts of violent activity. However just as I was writing "not exciting" in my notes, along came a firefight. This documentary is expertly shot by lunatics who don't have an objection to bullets going past their heads. It's not war porn, but we do see freshly killed corpses. (There's digital fogging of the dead men's features, to stop it being too exploitative.) However at the end of the day, it mostly comes across as a psychological study of these eager, dutiful, professional working men who are trying to do the job properly. They also get boisterous and happy after killing people.
It surprised me. I thought it was interesting and an eye-opener.
"We shot him 30 or 40 times."