After the Taliban were removed from power in Afghanistan in 2001, it was left to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to try to stabilise the country. However, as we now know all too well, this was no easy task.
In 2009, director Janus Metz and cameraman Lars Skree accompanied a platoon of Danish soldiers to Armadillo, a combat operations base in southern Afghanistan. For six months, often while under fire, they captured the lives of the young soldiers fighting the Taliban in a hostile and confusing environment.
Beautifully shot, Armadillo takes us straight into the heart of war. We are there with the soldiers during their ‘down’ times - playing Xbox games and watching movies - and during the times of terrifying and intense combat. The dramatic swings between boredom and action are nightmarish.
Many of the soldiers that take part in the documentary have not seen any real combat action before. They are eager to get started on what many of them view as an 'adventure'. They do not have to wait long.
The scenes of action are unbelievable - chaotic, tense, heartbreaking and horrific. Armadillo is often tough to watch.
Armadillo shows us just how difficult it is for the soldiers - the terrain is challenging and it is often almost impossible to tell if someone is a harmless local farmer or a dangerous Taliban fighter. It is not as if the Taliban wear a uniform.
The Danish troops try to get intelligence as to the Taliban’s whereabouts from nearby villagers but the locals do not trust either side in the war. (If they tell the soldiers about the Taliban, the Taliban will kill them.)
The documentary conveys the mounting sense of frustration, made greater as the soldiers lose friends and colleagues - mainly as a result of IEDs.
Often on the back foot, their need to let off steam and celebrate the small victories that they experience is understandable. However, this also poses significant ethical questions for the group particularly after a controversial scene following the deaths of several Taliban fighters.
Should they be allowed to celebrate? What does this say about our view of war? Metz offers no easy answers.
Meanwhile, Armadillo also left me wondering about the impact of the camera. For those watching, the camera and the film crew seem invisible. However, the soldiers must have been all too aware of being filmed. Would this have made them act differently?
At one stage, the soldiers are asked to volunteer for a dangerous night mission. Many of the men who the documentary had not focused on bowed out - too upset following the recent deaths of their colleagues.
The camera then watches a young soldier who we have been following closely. We have been in his house, with his family. He volunteers for the mission - did the camera have any influence on that I wondered (the Kodak courage effect that Jimmy Chin considered while making Free Solo)?
Maybe or maybe not but, as a more general concern, it is an interesting question nonetheless.
War Documentary Recommendations
Armadillo is part of the war sub-genre of Documentary 7. If you enjoyed this movie, I would also recommend:
My honourable mentions include The Unknown Known, Dirty Wars, 5 Broken Cameras and Hell and Back Again.
Do you have any war documentaries that you would like to recommend? If so, do share them in the comments section below or over on Twitter. You can find me @500DaysOfFilm.