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In the documentary In The Land of the Enlightened two worlds collide visually, technically and spiritually. This is a hybrid documentary, meaning some shots were staged while others focus on the environment of Afghanistan and its people through an observational style. The cast, if you may call it that, are all real people. Some of the action scenes are rehearsed and others are presented as they happen. The blur between fiction and non-fiction is intentional, as Belgium Director and Photographer Pieter-Jan De Pue takes on a non-traditional view of how to craft a true story, with imagines elements that respond to a lived experience of Afghanistan, rather than real-life depictions. Shot over seven years, the documentary focuses on the lives of a group of children who are also fighters. Their lives are all about survival and war in the mountains of Afghanistan.

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7The Oscar-nominated film from Danish writer-director Tobias Lindhol, A War (Krigen) probably stands as the most subdued entry into the mix of foreign language films vying for the gold statuette this weekend. Split into two distinct settings, a small base of Danish soldiers in Afghanistan and a military tribunal back home in Denmark, the film follows a commanding officer on the field who must later face consequences of a rash decision during a firefight that ends in civilian deaths.

Everything about Claus (Pilou Asbæk) seems admirable though not necessarily sensible. He is invested in his men while also dedicated to what seems to be a pointless mission of patrolling the IED-filled desert near their base. After one of his soldiers dies, he reminds the survivors of their mission: It’s about winning over civilians and protecting them so they might rebuild. It’s not much of a speech or a mission. When one traumatized soldier refuses to go back outside of their short-walled base, Claus doesn’t hesitate to put his own safety on the line by leading the patrols himself. He also has a family back home, a wife (Tuva Novotny) and three young children who struggle with the mundane without their father at home.

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As with his previous film, 2012’s A Hijacking, A War is intelligently edited to focus on characters and create barriers in their realities. There are long periods spent with Claus’ family or on the base. Lindhol never even bothers with inter-cutting phone calls between husband and wife, staying true to the setting he has put the viewer in and enhancing a sense of separation. Even at the opening, when we meet a platoon on patrol and Claus at base, the editing (expertly modulated by Adam Nielsen) is carefully paced to highlight the chaos and humanity of the front, while in the base the troops are remotely referred to by Claus with numbers. This is the first reveal of Claus’ frustration with having to stay in the base while leading troops on their patrol. Just as he used editing to highlight the behavior of corporate suits and a captain whose cargo ship has been hijacked by Somali pirates, Lindhol presents an incredible example of how key the film’s editing is to establishing its message and character development.

This continues into the fateful firefight that ultimately sends Claus home, the mystery of the location of the attackers only enhanced by Lindhol’s tendency to choose a perspective and stick with it. This style makes the struggle to reconcile the unknowable truth of what happened with the stories told through evidence and testimony feel genuine. The film is grounded by the unrelenting handheld camera work of Magnus Nordenhof Jønck. Even during the trial, the film has a feel for chaos normally reserved for characterizing the battlefield.

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Asbæk’s leading performance is also outstanding. The viewer will understand Claus is still haunted by every event that has happened until the film’s final, revealing frame. Lindhol sparingly leans on close-ups and uses no flashbacks, much less any exposition, to reveal Claus’ thoughts or struggle with his conscience, to emphasize Claus struggle. Instead, it is in Asbæk’s low-key performance filled with slight ticks of hesitation and apprehension.

Ultimately, what Lindhol is trying to show is how the chaos of war is more to blame for the tearing apart of humanity than those wrapped up in it. He is careful not to characterize the Taliban as people as much by their cruel acts. Save for an encounter with a solitary member of the Taliban, the enemy comes across as an unseen boogeyman who strikes at night and leaves bloodied bodies of innocent children in its wake. As we can tell by the last half of the movie, the enemy is the military and a system that ineffectively polices itself. But with Lindhol’s concern for humanity above all, no one comes across as a bad guy, just people caught up in a machine run by an enemy as faceless as the vicious Taliban of A War.

Hans Morgenstern

A War is in Danish with English subtitles, runs 115 minutes and is rated R. It opens in Florida exclusively on Friday, Feb. 26, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema. It may be currently playing in your area outside of Florida or coming soon. For other play dates, visit this link. Magnolia Pictures provided all images in this post and a preview link for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2016 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Last week, Kino on Video announced the release of the Danish war documentary Armadillo (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon) in the US. I reviewed it during its theatrical run earlier this year:

‘Armadillo’ offers chilling document of the fog of war

With Armadillo, filmmaker Janus Metz Pedersen dives deep into the personalities of a handful of Danish volunteer soldiers who are assigned to an outpost near a Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan. From a filmmaking standpoint, the tension is palpable and human throughout. As a lesson in today’s current events, it remains relevant, as the Western allies continue to maintain a presence after the take-down of Osama Bin Laden, back in early May.

Armadillo truly demonstrates— in a visceral, real way— the cultural difficulties of entering a country to help people that are often hard to distinguish from the enemy. It also does an amazing job at capturing the influence of war on young minds. It’s theme is probably demonstrated best with this image of a wounded, once gung-ho soldier, which was actually used for the cover of the overseas release:

Rarely can a fictional movie capture the shock of the “real,” in the Lacanian sense, with a picture alone. Aramdillo is more than a movie: it’s an experience.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Armadillo, a war documentary by Danish filmmaker Janus Metz Pedersen, works on many levels. He spent six months with a platoon of Danish troops:  From the point when they tell family and loved ones they were heading to Afghanistan to their return home. With all that material, he packed together a tightly edited movie of a little over an hour and a half that unfolds like the narrative of a Hollywood war movie while also stirring up many questions.

Apparently a huge hit in its native Denmark (see this article in “the Guardian”), Armadillo offered a rare embedded look at operations in and out of a UK and Danish controlled base bordering a farming village in Helmand Province and near a stronghold of the Taliban. The film unfolds in a cinéma vérité style with no outside narrator, beyond title cards denoting the months during which events occur and some supers noting names, locations and defining a few terms.

Besides capturing the routine doldrums of a tour in Afghanistan for Danish troops, the documentary also captures moments of sudden violence using shaky handheld cameras typical of Hollywood battle scenes and quick edits between the director’s camera and his cinematographer, as well as helmet cams on several troops. Everyone is represented here: the young troops, the officers leading them, the translators, the villagers. The only characters who remain a mystery are the Taliban. They only appear as distant images or dead bodies. At one point they are presented as spooks, as one soldier warns Taliban fighters are not to be underestimated as many are also former mujahideen who fought Russian soldiers during the eighties’ expansion of the Soviet Union and have no fear of taking on 20 troops with four men.

In their few scenes, the villagers are shown as strong, frustrated, tolerant, cynical and sometimes sinister, as one soldier notes, the Taliban could easily hide among them. Meanwhile, certain troops are developed as characters. There is a soft-spoken soldier on his first visit to Afghanistan after volunteering for combat in hopes of going to the passive station of Kosovo. Then there is the tattoo-emblazoned, gung-ho soldier excited for a firefight. Their platoon leader comes across as a fearless man devoted to a military career. After he suffers a skull fracture from an IED, he returns to the base to show “you can’t get rid of me that easy.”  There are many other distinct characters of note, and all are efficiently established with short bits of dialogue edited from months of footage Metz recorded as an embedded journalist. It serves the story arc of the picture well, but points out the problems of the supposed objectivity of journalists.

Toward the end of the movie, this “objectivity” hits home hard, when the platoon’s leader brings up an incident never shown in the movie that may be construed as a war crime. He gathers the men and scolds one among them who supposedly shared with their parents that some troops “liquidated wounded people and piled up the dead to take pictures of ourselves as heroes” (which is also the focus of the UK article linked above). Here comes the movie’s transcendent moment into the fog of war, as this “incident” never appears in the movie, except for some hints that the possibility might exist that this could have occurred.

During the end of the firefight that culminated with the deaths of several Taliban in a ditch after one soldier lobbed a grenade at them, the Danes start disarming the corpses. As a soldier approaches the scene of death, which seems to be the only direct combat the platoon experiences during their tour, he says, “This is surreal.” One jokes as he disarms the limp, flimsy, shredded corpses, revealing a sort of gallows humor that seems to help him cope with the encounter of the brutal reality of such a violent scene of death. During debriefing the jokes continue. One soldier said he found the enemy combatants moaning and on top of each other and “liquidated them as humanely as possible.” Another soldier even admits to unloading 30 to 40 bullets into one of the wounded.

There was an amazing amount of controversy over this grey area that involves these scenes, as the UK article linked above notes. The film does what it can to question whether the soldiers committed a war atrocity. The “Guardian” article quotes the filmmaker as saying: “It was my intention to place the viewer in a position where he could say that it’s not even possible to know what was going on. Maybe the soldiers don’t even know themselves.” In the end, Metz indeed offers a successful testament to the false notion of objectivity among journalists embedded with troops. With these final scenes in the movie, this idea hits home hard.

During the movie, Metz also shows the troops reasoning away the possible perception of their actions. “Outsiders cannot understand,” one says. In the end, the film cannot capture the true, life-altering experience of war, but what Metz is able to capture is the sense that it is life-altering and shocking. The best you can do is sympathize with these men. There is one scene when one of the soldiers is not only literally wounded by the reality of war but also on an apparent deeper and unknowable level. With a bullet in his shoulder, this soldier’s nearly catatonic look captures it with an immense, simple look. These kids were no longer on an adventure nor playing football. It is a shock of the “real” captured on camera one rarely sees. They have entered the world of the shadow, the dark side of humanity Carl Jung defined in his studies of the mind that, according to his theories, exists in all men.

I can’t find the article, but I read somewhere that Metz said his film presents an image to some as if they are peering through a keyhole into a world one cannot experience or understand beyond that tiny window. A glimpse of the window appears in that soldier’s eyes, and one can chose to look in or not, but I would recommend one take the leap and experience Armadillo for themselves.

Armadillo won the Grand Prix Certain Regard at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival and opens at 9:15 p.m. Friday night (June 3) and plays through Thursday, June 9 (Except Wednesday, June 8),  exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, who loaned me a preview screener for the purposes of this review.

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)