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Armadillo in Helmand

Filmmaker Janus Metz discusses his disturbing experiences filming Danish soldiers on the front line in Afghanistan

In 2009, filmmaker Janus Metz accompanied a group of Danish soldiers on a six month tour of duty at the Armadillo base in Helmand Province. His unprecedented access resulted in an intimate portrait of life on the front line, including a controversial incident involving the killing of wounded enemy fighters, that led some in Denmark to ask whether Metz and his cinematographer, Lars Skree, had witnessed a war crime.

Dazed Digital: Armadillo grew out of a TV project where six directors were invited to make six short documentaries about the war in Afghanistan. What was the aim of the series?
Janus Metz: I wasn't part of the conceptualising but it came out of this notion that the war in Afghanistan wasn't resonating with Danes. Even when soldiers died, it hardly even reached the news anymore. So the reason for bringing in filmmakers rather than journalists to do this series, was to try and impact people on an emotional level. Not to say that journalists can't do that as well. But it's the main trade of filmmakers, I guess, to deal with emotion and identification and character development.

DD: What did you personally want to achieve?
Janus Metz: For me it was always about the moral/ethical questions of what war is. So I came at the project saying, 'What kind of story is this? What does it actually entail to make a war movie? What does war do, not only to soldiers that carry it out and the people that are also victims of the war – civilians in Afghanistan – but also what does it do to Denmark or to the western world, to all of us, and that includes, obviously, the UK as well, that's complicit in the thing?

DD: Why did your film end up becoming a feature that was released in cinemas?
Janus Metz: The story was too profound and the access we got was completely unprecedented, so we couldn't just do half-hour television. We needed to do the full story. And not just because of the type of material we were shooting, but because I also think it's a historic document, in a sense. We were writing history as we were filming.

DD: You got very close to the men and must have relied on them when you came under fire. Was it difficult to remain objective?
Janus Metz: You form very strong bonds with people when you spend three-and-a-half months in a war zone, but there were two of us – me and a cinematographer – and people that were editing, my producer and other people around me, that I've been able to discuss this film with. And the notion of objectivity, I don't know where that stems from, but I don't think it can be ascribed to any kind of filmmaking. Documentary filmmaking, even journalism, is always seen through a certain temper of the writer or the filmmaker.

DD: What did you learn being in a war zone?
Janus Metz: I think what I experienced going through this time in Afghanistan was that it became increasingly absurd to me what we were doing there and it became increasingly absurd to me the way that the soldiers make sense of the situation. For me it really became about exploring this architecture of how a certain kind of camp mentality develops.

DD: It is a very macho environment. How does that inform behaviour?
Janus Metz: I think the bottom line is there is a quest for masculinity and there is a quest for adventure. And there is a quest for unleashing some sort of beastly energy that is kept in check in normal society.

DD: How were you affected by being in that environment?
Janus Metz: I guess, and I think this was a point throughout the film, that methodologically I did experience the same things as the soldiers did, that you do become very confronted with yourself and your own masculinity, when you're in a war zone. You have to say, 'I can go out and do this. I'll come home and I'll be alright,' or you're going to feel like you chickened out. That's a very big part of what makes it possible for soldiers to go into these situations: they're living up to some certain idea of bravery and masculinity, and I think with time I started telling myself, 'I have to do the same thing to be allowed to tell this story'.

DD: Were you distinguishable from the soldiers when you went out on patrol?
Janus Metz: Apart from the fact that I was carrying a camera and everyone was carrying guns, there wasn't any distinction. We discussed that a lot but what convinced us to wear uniform was that the army said they had experience that people who stuck out from the group made a more interesting target.

DD: One of the characters you were following is involved in an incident which looks like it could be a war crime. Did having that footage create problems?
Janus Metz: When it became clear we'd filmed a guy saying that they'd 'liquidated' wounded people, they were very keen to get hold of our material, screen it, see what we'd filmed, to see whether this should be censored. So at that point we were in a very unpleasant situation. The film was shut down for several days and they were trying to get this material off of us. We had to smuggle some of it out of Afghanistan. There was a real stand down in the middle of the desert. I remember a feeling that at one point all my emails were being read, that all my conversations were being wire-tapped. It felt like being in a bad James Bond movie.

DD: No one's been convicted of a war crime. What's your personal opinion?
Janus Metz: I wasn't up there when the shooting was happening so I didn't see the state of these people [who were killed]. My impression, obviously, is that war is full of these kinds of situations. War is pretty nasty. We have to have conventions but these conventions are circumvented again and again.

DD: What disturbed you most: the incident itself or the way the soldiers reacted afterwards?
Janus Metz: What's most scary to me is the blind fact that everyone thinks this was okay. That they deserved to be shot no matter if they were crawling away or whatever they were doing. And it's the formation of this group mentality of this pack of wolves of soldiers, that you tell a specific story and leave out all the things that could jeopardise their sort of heroic self-perception, that I wanted to show. That's the reason, when you're talking about objectivity and embeddedness, that I felt I had a responsibility to tell this kind of story.

Armadillo is released April 8