As Real As Can Be
Premiering at Cannes 2010 and winning the Critics Week Grand Prize, Armadillo is a documentary that's surprising hard to be treated like one, with its picturesque cinematography of an ongoing warzone in Afghanistan from the titular forward operating base that's home to almost 300 British and Danish troops, and with a host of character soldiers that boggle the mind to know that they are not scripted, because in many scenes the narrative does look as if there's someone who had put in a lot of work with the devil in the details. Which is what makes it a startling film to sit through from start to finish, especially if one had served in the armed forces before.
We follow a platoon of Danish troops who get sent to Armadillo for their 6 months tour of duty, beginning with the sending off from their hometown, where it's natural for friends and especially family to struggle in coming to terms with their loved ones leaving home to fight another man's war in a faraway land, especially so when the threat is very real and the soldiers are headed for the frontline. From then on it's getting acquainted with a number of characters especially that of Mads Mini, a Nicklas Bendtner lookalike, and an Asian medic, amongst others such as the fearless platoon commander.
As mentioned, this documentary is so expertly filmed that it looks very much a fictional narrative, which it isn't. For instance, to the viewer it's hard to reconcile, not that it's a bad thing of course, how the troopers here seem more like characters rather than real people (kudos to the editing), and constantly brings to mind whether director Janus Metz Pedersen and his camera crew had to be embedded with the soldiers constantly during their dangerous missions in order to get the footage they obtained so up close, with the obvious element and sense of danger, exactly how and where they had to be around and yet not getting in the way should the soldiers get engaged by enemy gunfire, and not to forget that bullet rounds cannot differentiate film crew from soldiers.
We get to go behind the scenes of this high-tech army (which I think SAF is trying to emulate with the 3G capabilities on display here), their professionalism even when the call of duty means mundane, incident free patrols of the surrounding areas of their camps, getting acquainted with their rules of engagement, and being very much in tune to life in a secured barracks, with their involvement pretty much in defensive ops to try and win over the hearts and minds of the local Afghan community. It isn't easy since they're being viewed as the enemy still, and more so when they go about their burly ways of trampling onto crops, or worse, to cough up compensation when things go awry, from the destruction of crops, livestock and property, to the more serious loss of innocent lives by way of being collateral damage in any offensive operations.
It opens up insights as to how tense a situation can be when one is out there in the field where anyone, by way of the people's dressing, could be more than meets the eye, weapons properly hidden away, not knowing who's friend and who's foe since everyone's intent is pretty much walled away through the inability to communicate directly without an interpreter, and where loyalties still lie with the Taliban otherwise the villagers will be subjected to cruel torture once the Danish troopers leave. Improvised Explosive Devices also litter the landscape, and can be planted easily overnight by the enemy such that no trodden path can always be absolutely safe. All these play a part in the mental well-being of anyone having to live it up on a high alert status, with most events being much ado about nothing. Think of Jarhead, and you'd come to understand better what life on site would be like.
You get to learn things as well from a soldiering standpoint with the experience these troops undergo, besides rushing to wait and waiting to rush, understanding how important or more significant the success of diplomacy is on the ground, and to read tell tale signs of enemy presence when civilians start to abandon their land to get out of the way of a major fire fight. Those worried that there are no action in this film can be rest assured, although the gun fights are never as glorified as what you've seen in war films, with the great unknown on enemy identities and locations being a constant pain, and a pivotal moment in this film involved conquering the enemy, but in the real world rarely does one get to walk into the sunset. It's a little controversial since the filmmakers captured an aftermath that won't go down well with any civilian, but for those who have been in those uniformed shoes before, it's nothing that far fetched when one gets caught up in euphoria (stemming from being alive or dead).
In every theatre of war we get to know how soldiers who return never really go back to their selves before their tour of duty, and looking at the group in focus, that again is quite true with perspectives being changed from harrowing experiences gained, epitomized by Mads Mini who started off looking for adventure, but probably got more than he bargained for, returning a more sombre person than one seeking thrills. If it's an up close and personal look at a modern day active warfront, you can't get any closer with a more nuanced feel of being there and having done that, with Armadillo. Highly recommended!