Posted March 31, 2011 by Marcia Degia - Publisher in Features
 
 

Director Janus Metz


The Danish Film Institute must be doing something right. While governments around Europe are slashing funding to the film industry, the Danish government has maintained its financial support to the country’s film commission.

The Danish Film Institute must be doing something right. While governments around Europe are slashing funding to the film industry, the Danish government has maintained its financial support to the country’s film commission.

Most people think of Denmark as the home of bacon, butter, buns and beer, but this small Scandinavian country has a vibrant film industry with a particularly strong leaning towards documentaries. One reason for the Film Institute’s success could be the fact that the commissioners are filmmakers, and are limited to a maximum term of five years, so there is little chance of the cronyism that plagues such institutions. The DFI is also willing to take risks with new filmmakers, not massive, expensive gambles, but calculated risks, and ones that have paid off with intriguing documentaries that have won countless international awards, as well as cinema releases. Another initiative supported by DFI is CPH:DOX (Copenhagen Documentary Film Festival). This film festival is different to many other doc fests in that its remit is to show film that are positive in nature.

Janus Metz is one of the filmmakers who has benefited from DFI support. His interest is people, which his MA in Communication and International Development, specialising in anthropological film, makes clear. His latest doc is Armadillo, about the Danish army in Afghanistan. It was the first documentary to be awarded the Grand Prix at Semaine de la Critique (Critics’ Week) at Cannes. It also won the Grierson Award at London Film Festival in 2010.We caught up with the director at CPH:DOX to talk about his the film.

What drove you to go and shoot a film in Afghanistan in the middle of a war?

First of all, when we started out doing this project there was virtually no debate in Denmark about the fact that we are taking part in a very violent conflict very far away from our own borders. No one in Denmark really had the understanding that we were really a country at war, and no one related to it, no one talked about it, so we wanted to stir up the debate. We wanted to make people involved, in a sense. Secondly, from a filmmaking perspective, the idea of making a war movie was very compelling to me because war movies, if they are done well, are really explorations of some very basic issues regarding humanity and the human condition, if you like. When I’m saying that, I’m talking about the exploration of themes that are always at the forefront of any war such as the clash between the barbaric nature of war against our need to uphold a civilised understanding of ourselves. There’s rites of passage and journeys of becoming for young men that are going to war. There’s some notion of good and some notion of evil. There’s this battle between cynical, pragmatic and the open-minded humanistic approach to life…

And death. Surely death is a big deciding factor?

Of course, and that is one of the first things that I wrote down, I remember writing in my first synopsis of the film, “this film is exploration of what it means for young soldiers to face death, and what that realisation does to them”. If you take that question seriously it becomes an exploration into metaphysics and the very deep layers of our human understanding. You don’t have to spend a lot of time in a war zone to realise that life becomes very intense when you become close to death.

Because you are living in the present moment because you have no choice.

For sure, and that’s very seductive. There’s a seductive power in that that really speaks to a lot of young men. Most of the soldiers I spoke to wanted to go to Afghanistan, not for ideological reasons but for the adventure. I can relate to that. I’m 36 now, but when I was in my early twenties I went backpacking in Asia, and drove the biggest motorbike I could get hold of even if I didn’t have a driver’s licence. You want to feel alive and you want to test yourself, you want to get out there.

You also feel immortal when you’re that age.

For sure, you feel immortal and you feel you want life to be kicking back at you. There was also an aspect of that in me wanting to make that film. I like to think that I’m not a classic war reporter. I don’t have that adrenaline need in me but those aspects were still somehow there, and I had to realise that it is also that part of why I wanted to go over there was to put myself on the line, and realising that puts you on track of a bigger theme, like the seductive power of war, and the darkness that is lurking in that seduction. It’s got to do with things that have become taboos in our thinking of ourselves as civilised people. It’s not really on to talk about the desire to kill, for instance: the satisfaction of the hunt, and even of the kill.

You come from an anthropological background rather than a filmmaking background

You could say that. I did a masters thesis on visual anthropology.

Did that affect the way you approached the subject?

I think it does. I’ve always perceived myself as an anthropologist filmmaker in the way I immerse myself with the people I’m filming, but at the same time there’s this observational distancing, which is at the heart of anthropology. Anthropologists always talk about participant observation as an approach to science, and in that is a paradox because how can you participate and observe at the same time, but I’m always curios to see how a certain group makes sense of what they are doing, and how that is staged in a bigger context. In terms of Armadillo, it’s got very much to do with how can you see a small military camp in Afghanistan as an image of Denmark, in a sense, or an image of the world. How does the landscape of perceptions in that place talk about globalisation? What does it mean that there is a fundamental distance between the soldiers and the people they are officially sent there to help? And how does the conflict get enhanced by the mistrust and paranoia that’s reproduced in that place? There’s a landscape of various perspectives that talks about a bigger story.

While you were out there, did the story change from what you originally anticipated?

I did a lot of research before going there so I was pretty clear on what the cornerstones of the story were going to be. I was quite clear this was going to be a coming of age story set in a combat unit of soldiers, and about how politics meet reality and the realisations that come out of that. I was quite aware there’s potential for a Heart of Darkness fall from grace story in that. I think you have to be naïve to not know these things are going to be at stake in a war situation.

Many soldiers don’t occupy themselves with the bigger mythological backdrop to what they’re doing, they’re just being soldiers. They’re not necessarily thinking three times about it, but when you are a filmmaker you start exploring your subject matter. You quickly become sensitive to the kinds of stories that are going to unfold in your film. That being said, then you go with your ideas and that has to measure up with reality. When the film actually happens, I find it’s usually when your presumptions don’t match up with reality. And example of this in Armadillo had to do with spending a lot of time being frustrated in Afghanistan that the soldiers weren’t very emotional about, for instance, death or the loss of some of their comrades, or the civilian situation. I thought, I don’t understand this, and it frustrated me because as a filmmaker you need those types of emotions.

I thought war is going to be immediately traumatising to a 20-year-old when he’s experiencing combat, we’re all going to piss our pants and run back into camp. Having this mirror effect at an immediate level of seeing death would be imagining your self as the dead person or as the wounded person. Instead, what I found was that military and soldiers have professionalized death in a way that’s become a corporation, there are rituals around it and there are certain things that are not talked about, that are taboo, and there are ways that you bite your teeth in order to withstand that situation.

So, realising that is where the film is, there is a much more disturbing story to be told, taking that seriously instead of looking for the good-natured human in each of everyone of us, you have to think of the military as a very brutal corporation that has professionalized its capacity to kill and to handle the barbaric, and that is ultimately barbaric to me. You have a big machine, that is a corporation and a machine of death to our self-image of the ones that are doing good, because then you have to start legitamising the killings, legitamising the acts; then all the cracks start appearing. That’s when the film started coming together, and that’s where I could see it as a fall from grace story, or we have to realise our role as, I wouldn’t say sinners but as perpetrators as well.

The film created some controversy when it was shown in Denmark?

In Denmark it was a true curtain fall to this naïve understanding of the situation in Afghanistan. I think political rhetoric has very much revolved around the fact that we’re there to develop the country, to make it a better place for Afghans and suddenly the Danish population was exposed to this very brutal image of the frontline that compares to images and movies that you’ve seen from Vietnam. It was a shock effect that started a debate, and I know for a fact that there’s been no other film in Denmark that has made as many headlines as Armadillo. It was a much-needed grounding of the debate.

I guess most people don’t really know what’s going in Afghanistan

And most people don’t even care. We’re a safe distance and as long as we can tell ourselves we’re doing good, we’ll support sending troops and support the war. When you get a film that starts challenging that, then people start questioning the whole project. Danes have mysteriously been probably the most uncritical nation in the world regarding the war in Afghanistan, and that’s certainly changed now.

What about the actual practicalities of shooting out there, was it just you and a small crew?

There was just two of us and it was very difficult to bring 24 flight cases of equipment to the frontline in the first case, and just that technical side was a nightmare. Secondly, what we talked about before, you’re putting your life on the line to make a film and it makes you realise it was a pretty stupid thing to do. We were lucky to finish the film, seriously. We could have been hurt as easily as any of the soldiers that got hurt. We were right there in the combat unit during 12 to 15 firefights with the insurgents, and some of them at very close range.


Marcia Degia - Publisher

 
Marcia Degia has worked in the media industry for more than 10 years. She was previously Acting Managing Editor of Homes and Gardens magazine, Publishing Editor at Macmillan Publishers and Editor of Pride Magazine. Marcia, who has a Masters degree in Screenwriting, has also been involved in many broadcast projects. Among other things, she was the devisor of the documentary series Secret Suburbia for Living TV.