Armadillo is documentary about a group of Danish soldiers followed to an army base (called Armadillo) in Helmand province, Afghanistan. The film, which won the Grand Prix de la Semaine de la Critique at Cannes, is a harrowing look at a war where the terms winning and losing don’t seem to apply, and the real victims are the people who actually live there.
The most powerful part of this film is the fact that it shows you what is really like. Hollywood so often gives an action-packed, sexed-up version of conflict where the characters are caricatures of what people like to think soldiers are like – psychotic killing machines – because it makes them feel better about the fact that people are capable of killing each other. But Armadillo makes you realise that, guess what? Soldiers are, for the most part, no different to anyone else, and their life is mostly comprised of waiting; waiting until their tour starts, waiting for action, waiting to go home.
The film doesn’t contain any post-production additions other than subtitles, so there is nothing to get you into that ‘comfort zone’ of making you feel like you’re watching a film. The silence as the group go on patrol is unnerving, because scenes like this where nobody is talking would usually be supplied with mood-building music. Consequently there is a horrible feeling of anticipation, waiting for the unseen enemy to attack, whenever they leave the base. The conversations between the officers only add to the unease, when they reveal that the Taliban not only know where the base is (although it’s not exactly a secret), they also seem to know exactly how many soldiers are inside which reveals they have an excellent level of intelligence gathering.
As a result, the conflict, at times seems to be loaded overwhelmingly in favour of the Taliban. The Danes might have better guns, equipment and reconnaissance technology but the Taliban are almost like ghosts – they attack, but as soon as the soldiers get to their location, they’re gone. We see the Danes searching local villages for signs of the people who have just been shooting at them but they find nothing and can only leave exasperated. As a result, there are plenty of shots of locals leaving their homes because the Taliban use the places that the live as cover. ‘The country is exhausted’ says one old man, as he describes how much he’s lost.
Leading up to the climax is one intense scene of conflict. Remember how in war films the soldiers are dynamic fighting machines, who cut through the enemy heroically? Well reality is a little different, and is best summed up by the phrase ‘get down and try not to get shot.’ One Dane ends the fight by throwing a hand grenade that wounds four of the Taliban members, and they get finished off with ’30-40’ rounds of ammunition. But both sides have taken casualties and the look of wide-eyed confusion on the face of one Dane that gets shot offers reinforcement – if any were needed – that there’s nothing glamorous or fun about this war. These soldiers have very little to gain but literally everything to lose.
Armadillo offers viewers a chance to vicariously experience the reality of the war in Afghanistan. It strips away all the layers of political spin that have been used to try and persuade that this war is right or wrong and presents the facts: that there are people living and dying in this place every day in a war that seems much more like a game of hide and seek than two sides lining up and gunning each other down. “Welcome to ‘Nam,” jokes one Dane, but he may well be right.