Janus Metz Pedersen is a Danish director known for the remarkable documentary Armadillo. It is a film about a group of Danish soldiers at Armadillo, an army base in the southern Afghan province of Helmand. Above all – it is a film about the chaos of war, both internal and external, about the mind games soldiers play in silence, and the spells of black magic that catch their shadows everywhere they go.
The film had a strong impact on me, and the least I could do was to discuss it with the director – Janus Metz Pederson.
Armadillo is a film that, I imagine, was a real challenge in terms of preparations and expectations. No matter how well one is prepared, war is something hard to prepare for and conflict areas always manage to surprise. What were the great differences (if there were any) between the situation on the ground in Afghanistan and your preparations in Denmark?
There were two preparations that I went through. I had to prepare myself, and prepare the film, in terms of grasping what the film was about. Preparing myself and preparing the film was sometimes part of the same process. I figured the best way to do that was to go and embed myself with the troops, to grasp the experience of the soldier. I did a lot of research, talked with the soldiers that were in Afghanistan, but also to Afghans I knew, to get a view of the conflict from a different perspective. I tried to immerse myself in the military culture and analyze how that affects the war. I did a lot of training with soldiers and tried to get to know them personally. I think of myself as an anthropologist filmmaker, I like to stand beside the characters, go through the process with them, and observe what they are doing. I particularly pay attention to emotion, to be able to tell it and film it.
About the differences on the ground – the thing is, you can never prepare for what’s happening on the ground, there has to be a level of stupidity or naivety in you to go out there and do it. You know, I’m not a war reporter, I’m more of an artist, an anthropologist. It was like, in a way, I got into the job, did the preparation and just couldn’t turn back and not do it. I think that’s what happens to a lot of soldiers too. I mean, you go through this whole process – you have to write a farewell letter to your family, settle your scores before leaving. In that sense, I was forced to deal with a lot of personal issues that I wouldn’t usually deal with. Suddenly, your relationships become very important, the world around you becomes important, because you have to say goodbye to it. There is at the same time this myth of importance, the feeling you are a part of something big and you can go on and do it now. It’s almost like a soldier is a character with a death wish, with a desire to feel the world here and now, liberated from his old ties. So the whole preparation and the experience on the ground offered a lot of challenges and interesting insights for me personally and for the film.
In relation to the film, I was surprised to see how young most of the soldiers were, and I also had a feeling they came from relatively safe background (financially). Generally speaking, a lot of the soldiers deployed to Afghanistan choose to go on missions because of the money, and in the US – the idea of ‘defenfing ourselves’, but what was the motivation of these Danish soldiers? From the film, I get a feeling that a lot of them did it out of the need for ‘adventure’. From your experience, living and filming among them – what is, at the end of it all – the main reason these young soldiers had for going to Afghanistan?
I think a lot of it has to do with my life has a purpose thing, although it may not be expressed by soldiers in such a way. They also did it for political reasons, there was a feeling of ‘defending ourselves’ in Denmark too, a feeling of fighting for a better world, but I always feel like that is almost an excuse, or just a surface layer of reasoning. I don’t think money is a high drive, although you can earn good money that way. A lot of the soldiers come from low middle class families with lower level of education, but I still wouldn’t think of money as the main reason for going on these missions. There are also career reasons, a lot of these young men wanted a career in military, and this was one important step towards it. There is also a great level of friendship and comradeship in these circumstances and that is appealing to many. Above that all, I feel like in the Western world, war has become something like an identity quest, an identity travel you undertake as a young person. In the 90’s everybody used to go backpacking, and now they go to war. It’s this desire for close to death experience. Have you noticed how nobody does bungee jumping anymore? They search for adrenaline in other places.
From my experience on the ground I can tell you that soldiers are not politicians, and they don’t dwell on politics too much, or at all. They were given a good reason to be there, in their minds, and from that point onwards there’s a lot of parroting, a lot of mimicking of what someone else had said.
The film was criticized in Denmark for its portrayal of some of the soldiers and their behavior in combat. Where you suprised by that and, reflecting back, what would you say about the criticism you received?
Doing the film, I was prepared for the big debate, I knew the film would be taken apart. Most of the criticism can be summed up in one sentence: You haven’t filmed all the good things we do. But a lot of the so-called good things are fragile, unsustainable. Armadillo is about the psychological dynamic this war creates, about mistrust, about resistance to the occupation, about all those things. The political arguments were an expression of spin politics, right-wing parties were very clever about it – they said Armadillo was great because it showed how difficult being in the war is and we must remember difficulties of those who serve, but also remember that – they are doing it for the ‘higher purpose’. The film was a shock to the nation, it really was. It think it was the most discussed film in Denmark ever probably. But, all in all, that is good, because the debate about the war in Afghanistan was necessary.
Since ISAF entered Afghanistan, Denmark has been a committed and loyal coalition partner. The year 2014 marked the 17th rotation and final deployment to Afghanistan for DANCON. Since their first mission began, more than 18,000 Danish soldiers have deployed to the country. Throughout their deployments in Afghanistan, 43 soldiers were killed in action. Could you talk about the opinion of the Danish public about this mission and how has it changed since Armadillo was made?
A lot of things have changed, I think there is an understanding now that this war was not our victory. We have war veterans in Denmark now, for the first time after 19th century, and we have to learn to deal with that reality. When the film came out Afghanistan was a good war, Iraq was a bad war. Political climate was different, there was no place for criticism of the war in Afghanistan. Soldiers serving in Afghanistan were perceived as an extened version of ourselves, as the ones doing the dirty job for us. It has changed with time, we had to retreat, and discuss the war in-depth. That is what Armadillo did – we explored the true nature of war, and I am not saying we did it perfectly but I think we did help in starting the debate and the reflection process.
Armadillo is beautifully filmed, visually polished, with many striking images. Were you afraid of that aspect – of making it so beautiful aesthetically? It makes me think of one of Banksy’s anecdotes – he remembered how an old Palestinian man said his painting made the wall look beautiful. Banksy thanked him, only to be told: “We don’t want it to be beautiful, we hate this wall. Go home.” Were you afraid of getting a similiar reaction?
Yes, I understand that fear. You don’t want war to look beautiful, but in a scary way it is beautiful. I mean that in terms of all the darkness, the heart of darkness you can explore. I wanted to use all the filmmaking tools available to present this war story, not just the obvious level of it, but all the deeper ones, the levels of the unsaid. I wanted to use all the artistic tools to get to that deeper level. I also wanted to transcend the usual presentation of war. Making the film visually beautiful provided even a greater shock in some of the horrible situations like seeing a shooting and dead bodies. All that ugliness stood out more when it was put in this polished frame, it offered us to give a crack and the audiences to see that crack, to witness the dichotomy. That was our way of mediating the war to people.
From the interviews I did with war veterans, it was always surprising that they wanted to go back, most of them. One would think that, after witnessing all the horrors of war, they would never want to go back, but – just like in Armadillo – they do. Why do you think that is the case?
It’s one of the first things that started puzzling me… When I talked with some of the older soldiers about their experiences, they often said it was the best time of their life. Some of them have seen horrible things, but they still said they would do it again. I think it has a lot to do with that purpose of life thing, I think it made them feel their lives have higher meanings. I think they were longing to feel alive. Also, when you are a soldier, life is really simple. You’re told what to do, you have the same routine every day, you are a part of intense comradeship, and for many – it is a satisfying life. Even I, as a filmmaker, miss it sometimes. It’s just that intense. I think it also has a lot to do with some of our primal instincts, it’s like a drug in a way.
Finally, what are you doing at the moment, and what are some of your plans for future projects?
I recently came back from LA, I was directing one of the episodes of the second season of True Detective. I am soon going to Thailand to work on a documentary, which is actually a continuation of the two films I did – Love on Delivery and Tickets to Paradise, which deal with prostitution, sex industry and migration. My wish with this documentary is to see what happened to those people and around them, to do a character study over a ten year period (Love on Delivery was made eight years ago).