Le Semaine de la Critique makes for a rather unimpressive, secondary section at the Festival de Cannes. The films showcased in Le Semaine are meant to highlight young talent, but the selection usually turns out to be less exciting than Cannes’ other similar competitions for young film directors like Director's Fortnight or Un Certain Regard. Only very few films which are shown through Le Semaine receive international release and attention from outside of the festival and this fact alone is a huge indicator of the mediocre status of the competition and the films themselves. In spite of all this, it was very exciting to watch Armadillo – the first ever documentary to receive the Grand Prix at Le Semaine de la Critique. The film not only received attention from a multitude of international distributors but caused a political uproar in its native Denmark. It tells a story of a group of young soldiers landing in “Armadillo,” a military base in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. For many of the men it is the first time in combat and Janus Metz, the director of the film, turns their first war experience into an exploration of the male psyche and its primal desire for fight.
Aesthetically Armadillo can be easily grouped together with a canon of war documentaries that are a part of the very well-established subgenre of documentary film-making in America. At first glance Armadillo isn’t in any way different from Taxi to the Dark Side, No End in Sight, Control Room or Restrepo. Many of these films present a critique of the governments that conduct war in Afghanistan and present the misfortunes of the people who have to fight in that war. But Metz’s approach is on a much more personal level than any of the aforementioned films. The director investigates the everyday life of a soldier and asks daunting questions about the dark side of human nature. Armadillo makes an inquiry into the mind of a warrior. We see bits and pieces of the background stories of each character, seeing them at their homes before departure. At a farewell party where all soldiers are enjoying the company of a stripper we identify the individuals as young men, eager to showcase their masculinity, immaturity and impulsiveness. That immaturity manifests itself later on as we see their superficial view of war. One of the characters while waiting for combat refers to experiencing war without killing as going to a theme park and missing all the fanfare. While waiting for a real life bloodbath the boys play video games in which they imagine their actions in the battlefield. They spend their days talking about warfare and almost day dreaming about killing the enemy.
Metz’s commitment to his story and the courage he demonstrates by marching into the battle with the soldiers is truly staggering. The camera follows the soldiers wherever they go so that the audience can understand the full scope of the situation the characters found themselves in and possibly make sense of the primal instincts that overcome the soldiers when confronted with the enemy fire. Metz’s crew risk their own lives during the fight with the Taliban; they never release the camera from their hands. Thanks to that the film achieves a certain aesthetic artistry which resembles warfare video games. But even though the film looks beautiful and the sense of danger is poignantly translated on screen, it somehow feels disappointing. One gets the feeling that the director wants to achieve through his documentary something that was done in the Oscar winning film Hurt Locker, where the combat is presented as a force of nature. In Hurt Locker war is portrayed as a source of exceptional thrill and as such it appears dangerous and addictive. Armadillo flirts with a similar angle but in the end Metz fails to deliver.
Instead, we see the characters of Armadillo running in pointless circles, wanting to find the bad guys without trying to understand the local community and their situation. The ignorance of the Danish is similar to the unawareness exemplified by the American soldiers in the aforementioned Restrepo. The soldiers see themselves as saviours; an attitude which has its source in their Christian identity highlighted at least a couple of times throughout the film. Armadillo rather unintentionally reveals that the war in Afghanistan is a defeat for the Westerners, definitely in cultural terms. But it is a defeat that Danes can only blame themselves for due to their own ignorance. There is a scene in which one of the soldiers tries to interact with the village’s youth. They complain about the death toll that is caused by the military and warn them that the Taliban will eventually come after them and kill every single one of them. But the soldier unable to speak their language is left laughing idiotically and ignores the children.
“In the early research of the project, I was surprised that the majority of those who had already been to war, had a desire to return,” states Metz in one of the interviews. But the soldiers’ compulsion to return to the battlefield is never really explored. We do get hints of what might be the reasons behind the boys’ fascination with war: video games, distraction from the monotonous life at home, camaraderie, and the thrill of being in a life and death situation. But Metz doesn’t succeed in thoroughly analysing his subjects. In another statement the director makes an observation that during battle, "The soldiers are so close to death and they actually kill someone." Metz seems astonished by the fact that gunfire is used in the warzone and both sides of the conflict are determined to kill. He tries to excuse the killing as an outcome of soldiers’ fear of death, but the film proves that according to the soldiers, it’s the act of killing which is the main attraction of war.
The director stumbles upon something profound in one of the final scenes of the film in which the soldiers find themselves under fire from the Taliban. They kill the enemy and then victoriously stand over the dead bodies of the Afghanis and handle them in a somewhat disrespectful or joyous manner. But as soon as the director exposes the effect killing has on the soldiers (one of the boys explains later that it feels like they “were on a high” right after the battle) he goes into debating if it was right or wrong of them to do what they did. Metz’s desire to explore something primal and essential for the study of human nature feels genuine, but unfortunately for him the material he gathered wasn’t reflective enough to support his thesis. As the director does not want to interfere in the documented subject he is destined to rely in search of his answers entirely on the actions of the platoon. The effect is only a partial success – the film often forcefully fills the gaps between important events with meaningless conversations and the soldiers’ routines of day to day life. It works perfectly for a documentary about being a soldier, but fails for a film about human nature.