The Beast in Civilisation

INTERVIEW. How little do you have to scratch a civilisation's veneer before the dark, primeval forces appear? That's a fundamental question for the Danish director Janus Metz, whose documentary "Armadillo" spurred heated debate in the Danish media. The film is selected for IDFA's Reflecting Images.

What did we learn from "Armadillo"? Janus Metz scratches his reddish-blond beard a bit and stares thoughtfully into space. "Well, there has to be a lesson in there somewhere," he chuckles and thinks some more.

"The screening I had with the soldiers before the film came out is one of the worst experiences I've had in my life. They had an extremely violent reaction."

"The screening I had with the soldiers before the film came out is one of the worst experiences I've had in my life. They had an extremely violent reaction."

There is, for sure. As it turns out, Metz himself learned more than a little from "Armadillo". When the 36-year-old director laughs at the question and has to think about it, it may be because he's not quite sure how precisely to sum up the uproar his film caused when it was presented at this year's Cannes Film Festival. The advance word was that this film would change the Danish view of the war in Afghanistan that, now in its eighth year, had become a distant and sluggish fixture on the news just before the weather.


Photo of Director Janus Metz
Photo: Robin Skjoldborg

Janus Metz

Born 1974, Denmark. MA in Communication and International Development Studies with a thesis on anthropological film. Metz made his debut, "Township Boys" in 2006, about a group of small-time gangsters in Johannesburg. The same year he directed Clandestine about a group of illegal African migrants heading for Europe. "Love on Delivery" (2008), awardwinner at CPh:DOX, nominated for IDFA's Silver Wolf, and bringing in Metz the hBO emerging filmmaker award at Full Frame, is Metz' first of two films about Thai women and their pursuit of a Danish husband, the second being "Ticket to Paradise" (2008), selected for IDFA's Panorama. "Armadillo" (2010) was, as the first documentary ever, awarded the Grand Prix at Semaine de la Critique in Cannes. The film also took home London Film Festival's Grierson Award. Selected for IDFA's Reflecting Images.

Fridthjof Film DOC

A newly launched documentary division of Fridthjof Film focused on high-end, director-driven documentaries for a broad international audience. Fridthjof Film founded 2000 by producer Ronnie Fridthjof. Projects ranging from TV documentary series and corporate films to commercials and single documentaries – and from 2008 feature films. Widely successful was the feature documentary "Solo" (2007) about Danish ex Popstar Jon. "Take the Trash" (2008) is the company's first venture into feature films, followed by "The Christmas Party" (2009).

Photo of director of photographer Lars Skree

Cinematographer Lars Skree – Tough Guy and a Poet

Lars Skree put his life on the line while filming "Armadillo", and he is also credited on IDFA competitor Blood in the Mobile. Winning several awards, director of photography Lars Skree has a keen eye for both detail and the broader picture.

"Lars Skree has a unique ability to live in the moment – listening and observing intensely," said the committee behind the Roos Award 2010, an award that honours outstanding achievements in Danish documentary filmmaking.

"He masters effortlessly the 'staged' and 'real' setting within documentary, as well as poetic reflection and raw drama," the comittee continued in its motivation. "He is willing to go to great lengths to bring back his images. He has a 7th sense when it comes to what is about to happen, and he knows when to let the camera roll."

Lars Skree graduated as director of photography from the National Film School of Denmark in 1997. He has received awards for his work on films such as "The Swenkas" (by Jeppe Rønde), "Love on Delivery", "Ticket to Paradise" and "Armadillo" (all by Janus Metz). Lars Skree is also credited on "Blood in the Mobile" (by Frank Piasecki Poulsen), selected for IDFA's Feature-length Competition.

Skree spent six months on the front lines in Afghanistan's Helmand province shooting "Armadillo". The project took him through all the dilemmas and choices of working in a war zone. For instance in a scene depicting dead Taleban soldiers.

"Of course I had mixed feelings as I stood there filming the dead bodies. 'Is it really necessary to film this?' But I had to stay professional and say 'We'll make that decision later.' You can't decide something like that when you're under pressure from all sides (… ) To see this person who was breathing only 30 seconds ago, lying there in a pool of blood, off course that was tough. When I see that image today, I turn my head away."

"For me "Armadillo" is a very poetic and philosophical film. I was determined to be open and avoid too many prejudices and try to get a poetic quality into something that is so horrifying."

Lars Skree is quoted from an interview by Louise Kidde Sauntved in the Danish daily Urban, May 2010.

The Danish writer Carsten Jensen got to see an early version of the film and predicted, "After 'Armadillo' it will no longer be possible to look at ourselves as Danes in the same way as before. The film is an earthquake in the nation's self-image."

Tough words. Possibly too tough, but his prediction did get politicians and pundits out of their seats. Even before it opened, the film had already been subjected to the curious, but not unusual, discipline of politicians discussing a film they haven't even seen a single still from.


One scene in particular from "Armadillo" was destined to cause a stir. After spending more than six months keeping a lookout for the Taliban militia, which operates in secret, hiding behind the civilian population, a handful of young Danish soldiers finally get to engage the enemy in open combat and kill five Taliban fighters. The Danish soldiers pitch a hand grenade and fire hundreds of rounds to make sure the enemy is no longer a threat, then they drag a pair of the bullet-riddled bodies out of a ditch. Their reaction is of a kind rarely seen before – shock spiked with the thrill of the kill. Back at the base, spirits are high, ecstatic even. Words are said, like "fucking cool", and during a debriefing a jubilant soldier mentions the "liquidation."

"Maybe the troops crossed a line, maybe they didn't. Maybe they don't even know what they were doing," Metz says. "To me this is a grey area that testifies to the darkness that comes with war. We don't know if the soldier is actually describing what happened or if he made a gaffe because he was excited."

While Metz contemplates what lessons he wants to draw from "Armadillo", we can proffer a quick conclusion. In today's media reality, the old axiom that "what is seen depends on who is doing the seeing" is hopelessly imprecise. As soon as a camera appears to immortalize an event and presents it in a public medium, things very quickly get very complicated, especially in the case of a potentially controversial event. What were the circumstances? What's the context of the event? What's the background? What's the camera operator's agenda? On the one hand, we have a soldier who was trained to fight an enemy, not to express himself verbally, and in his giddiness is searching for the right word – without finding it. On the other hand, we have some politicians who hear that a soldier has been caught on film saying he has liquidated a wounded enemy in a war that reaches far beyond the small, impoverished nation where it's being fought. An abyss of meaning separates the two perspectives on the same situation.

This word, "liquidation", made opponents of the war smell blood. Were young Danes really running around in Afghanistan ignoring the sacred commandments of the Geneva Convention?

"Armadillo" was all over the Danish media in the days after its world premiere in Cannes on 16 May, and again at the Danish premiere on 8 July. Defence-policy spokespeople from every party had prepared comments, from left-wing horror at seeing young Danes "sent into another meaningless situation" to the politician on the extreme right who thought the film stood as "a monument to the heroic effort of the Danish troops in Afghanistan".

Metz contends that "Armadillo" made more headlines in Denmark than any other film ever. The film was also exhaustively debated in Norway and Finland. When a Norwegian soldier recently was quoted as saying that "war is better than sex", the Norwegian defence minister commented, "Now Norway has its Armadillo."

"The Danish attitude to the war in Afghanistan has changed after Armadillo. There might be other reasons for that, too, but I still like to think the film left a wound."

Photo from Armadillo
"Armadillo". Photo: Lars Skree

Not An Overt Political Film

It can seem a bit ironic, then, that "Armadillo" was never conceived as a film that would take a political position for or against the war.

"The premise was open curiosity about what's happening in Afghanistan," Metz says. "Investigating how little we have to scratch our civilisation's veneer before we get to the dark, primeval forces that so clearly come into play in war when you come face to face with death."

This may be a good time to point out that Metz is both a very reflective and a very talkative person. The director Kasper Torsting, who got the original idea to do five documentaries about Afghanistan, one being "Armadillo", has described Metz like so: "He's not the one who speaks loudest in a group of people, but he's definitely the one who speaks longest." In fact, that's a pretty accurate description not only of Metz but also of "Armadillo" – not because the film is longwinded, but because it's not very loud. It documents, reflectively and deliberately. It's not Metz, but everyone else who has been raising their voices.

The director scratches his beard with satisfaction, noting that the film didn’t end up in a big fight with Danish Defence or the Danish government but, in fact, elicited a broad range of reactions.

"We were extremely concerned that Defence would do all they could to take the film apart. We've seen that before in Denmark with Christoffer Guldbrandsen's documentary "The Secret War". We were arming for an onslaught from politicians and Defence, but once they dropped cutting our footage while we were shooting in Afghanistan, nothing happened, probably because "Armadillo" isn't a film that aims to bring down the defence minister or the prime minister. It's not a film that takes an unambiguous political stand. Nor is it a documentary that tries to catch someone with their pants down because they did something they shouldn't have. It's an analytical film on another level, and so people have been able to find a lot of different things to grab onto in it. It delves into paradoxes and dilemmas, presenting them to us and asking questions. "Armadillo" tried to rattle Denmark's smug self-image, the idea that we can go out and save the world with our welfare society and our cooperative movement and our people-helpingpeople democracy."

No Emotions

But then, did Danes learn that they can't save the world? Metz, who, as we have seen, shuns hyperbole, will venture the claim that "the film shook things up." 

"Before "Armadillo", it was almost like a law of nature that, if we were going to hear anything about Afghanistan, we would have to ask the returning soldiers – or the army's advisors. Armadillo opened up a space for new viewpoints in the Afghanistan debate, and the Danish attitude to the war in Afghanistan has changed after "Armadillo". There might be other reasons for that, too, but I still like to think the film left a wound."

Carsten Jensen predicted that the film would be an earthquake. Now Metz is talking about a wound?

"Well, of course there's a difference between an earthquake and a wound, but if you think of an earthquake as something that shakes everything up, and everything then having to be rebuilt in a new order, I truly really think this was a tremor. It might not have been an earthquake, but it was a tremor."

Metz had to think about what he and the Danes learned from "Armadillo". But now that he has had some time to think, there is no end to the lessons that can be drawn. He concludes with a couple of important points about his role as a documentary filmmaker. One is that the story is always right there in front of your nose.

"I thought the soldiers would be much more affected by the war. I thought that's where the film would be, and that we would be mirroring ourselves in the experience of intense combat or dead buddies and think, 'It could have been me'. That's not what happened. The soldiers seemed to have no real emotional reactions at all to the things they were experiencing. It was 'work', a job that had to be done. They joked around. Violence was largely played down, made taboo, handled with black humour or ritualised in the form of heroic, theatre-like speeches and ceremonies. For the longest time, it frustrated me that no one was showing any feelings. After all, it's feelings we need when we're making a film.

"But after a while, it hit me that this was precisely what was interesting. There was a far more profound, dangerous, terrifying, far-reaching and interesting story about 'human nature' here. A counter-image to the hero, the Whole Human who fights for good. This is a fall-from-grace story, and so it's also a story about the violence we apply to maintain our notion that our form of civilisation is the right one. That's a big, basic story that challenges our whole cultural foundation."

Photo from Armadillo
"Armadillo". Photo: Lars Skree

Upset Soldiers

The final lesson Metz can think of – for now – may be the one that will stay with him longest. "Sometimes you run into a story that comes with such a big responsibility and such a heavy obligation to the theme and the material that you have to set aside your desire to protect the people in your film. "Armadillo" would become a significant historical document and a hefty political contribution to a debate that was not only of great national but also international importance. Major political interests are involved in the attempt to control the image of the war in Afghanistan. We are treated to a polished heroic image where soldiers' lives are sacrificed for a greater cause, and maybe we need that heroic image so we don't feel like accomplices in dark, unbearable barbarism. The foundation for the war is continually being justified, and Armadillo challenges that identity tale," the director says.

"Insisting on an unvarnished image also means challenging the self-image of the people in the film so much it hurts. The screening I had with the soldiers before the film came out is one of the worst experiences I've had in my life. They had an extremely violent reaction. They were angry, upset and nervous about being court-martialled, losing their jobs or being spit at in the street. They thought I had betrayed their confidence. In that sense, the film rocked the soldiers' own heroic image, but the film had to show how chaotic, tough and violent it is to deal with war, how primitivising war is in so many ways. An important lesson for me, in the aftermath of "Armadillo", has been how important it was that I held my ground regarding my experience of the things we witnessed in Afghanistan. The soldiers, too, have acquired a much more nuanced view of the matter and a greater understanding of why the film is the way it is. A lot of them are proud of it today."

These are a few of the experiences Metz is taking with him from "Armadillo". He is currently considering his next film project. Perhaps it will be fiction. Meanwhile, his country is still at war.