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Janus Metz Burrows Into “Armadillo”

Janus Metz Burrows Into “Armadillo” (photo)

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All great artists look at the act of creation as a life or death struggle. But they’re usually thinking in more metaphorical terms; director Janus Metz literally put his life on the line to make “Armadillo,” his viscerally exciting and emotionally troubling documentary about a platoon of Danish soldiers stationed at an outpost in Afghanistan. Over the course of several months embedded with the soldiers of FOB Armadillo, the Danish-born Metz recorded the mind-numbing tedium of their day-to-day lives and the hair-raising terror of their violent work. Metz was even present for an incident that sparked national debate in Denmark when the film was released. After an intense firefight with Taliban fighters near a large ditch, several of the soldiers, in their words, “liquidated [their enemies] as humanely as possible.” The cameras recorded the whole thing in the film.

After playing festivals around the world, even earning the Grand Prize at last year’s Semaine de la Critique at Cannes (where it was the first documentary to screen in twenty years), “Armadillo” finally opens in the United States this week. During our conversation, I also asked Metz how reaction here has compared to the controversy he saw in Europe. “I think that the response to the film is quite similar,” he told me. “But obviously the national debate is informed by other sources. In Denmark, we’d never had an Abu Ghraib. 9/11 wasn’t in Denmark. So the types of emotions that spill into the debate are informed by other incidents.”

Unlike the verite-style of most embedded war documentaries, “Armadillo” moves with quick cuts, multiple angles, and the sort of shaky camerawork that defines modern action films. Stylistically, “Armadillo” has no peer in the world of war documentaries. In talking with Metz I was interested in understanding not only why he made the film, but how he made what feels like such a big film, with such a small crew.

I know the film initially started life as a miniseries for television, and you were brought in to direct one of the episodes. At that point, why were you interested in working on the project?

What attracted me first of all was the chance to ask the type of questions that a good war movie asks. For me it was all about finding out what it means to be a young person in a war zone. What does it do to your mind? Secondly, in almost all of my work I’ve been very preoccupied with Denmark’s part in global society. What does it mean to be a small nation on the big scene? And the fact that were at war in Afghanistan was certainly part of that and very problematic.

So after the television series became a film, I’m sure you began to envision what you wanted the finished product to look like. How did that vision compare with the actual film?

I’ve read through my early writings about “Armadillo” and they’re very informed by a perspective that wants the soldier to be a good person. I thought we were all going to get traumatized by the experience of war together. But by being with the soldiers I realized that the army is a culture of masculinity where the darker aspects of war — the desire to kill or, in military terms “do your job” — plays a very important part in informing how that culture is established and reproduced.

In many scenes, particularly the ones involving combat, the camera seems like it’s everywhere at once. How big was your crew?

The crew’s only two people: me and the cinematographer. During all of the battle situations I’m using a camera as well, plus we’re using helmet cameras on some of the soldiers. So in some instances we’re using up to six cameras at the same time which obviously allows a large amount of cross-cutting.

Before shooting the film we’d done a lot of research on how soldiers operate and where to position ourselves within the platoon so we could capture the lines of communication that allows us to understand what’s going on. That’s the main secret behind the experience of the camera being sort of omnipresent.

When the soldiers have cameras on their helmets, do they have the ability to control when it’s on and off?

They have the switch to turn it on and off in their pocket. They could turn it on and off as they like.

If they were doing something they didn’t want you to see, they could turn it off?

Yes.

So in scenes like the incident in the ditch, they didn’t turn it off? Maybe they didn’t think of it — they were a little distracted at the time.



They were probably a little busy, yeah. But that’s also after three months of shooting in Afghanistan. They were deployed in February and that incident [at the ditch] happened in June. Our presence in the camp had become quite normalized. By that time, they were filming as much as they could with the helmet cameras and sharing that material with each other. I think they loved the fact that we equipped four of them with helmet cameras because it allowed them to get some great “tourist shots” of themselves in the war zone.

When you’re filming during a firefight, is there any protocol for where you can and can’t go? Is there a soldier assigned to protect you or anything like that?

Not at all. If that had been the case, I don’t think we could have done the film. All of our preparation was to find out if it was possible to do this type of filming without getting in the way and without the soldiers feeling that we were like chains around their ankles. And once that was clear, and once the soldiers saw that we were able to take care of ourselves and do the right thing on the battlefield, it was pretty easy to film combat situations.

I’ve read about the reaction the film garnered nationally in Denmark. What was the reaction of the actual subjects?

I always show my films to the people in the film before their release. And with “Armadillo,” I did the same thing. [laughs] I wish it had been one of those films where you didn’t have to because it was a very, very tough and emotional and difficult situation. The film severely challenges their self-perception and it obviously puts an incident out in the open that calls into question whether they committed war crimes. So their immediate reaction was: “You’re a traitor! We thought you were one of us. How do you expect us to live with this film? We might be sent to jail. People are going to be spitting on us in the street.” That was very difficult to handle.

I happen to think that the film is quite nuanced. I don’t think that the film really passes judgment on the soldiers. It represents the ambiguity of those real events. With time the soldiers realized they weren’t getting persecuted because of this incident. There’s no official document that says what they did in the film is an incident of war crimes even though it might have been. So a lot of them have calmed down. I’m in contact with most of them today and they’ve changed their perception about the film. I’m sad to say it hasn’t changed their perception of going to war though. They’re still keen to go back to Afghanistan; some of them are in Afghanistan now.

Is the army in Denmark entirely volunteer?

There’s a draft, then after four months people can sign up for a mission that’s voluntary. If you do sign up, you do another eight months of training, followed by a six months deployment. And then you can enroll for a contract with the army. So everyone that’s in Afghanistan has volunteered to be there.

After the incident in the ditch, we see the soldiers rationalizing what they did. They say something to the effect of “Outsiders won’t understand. You have to be here to understand.” And at that moment I realized that was the whole point of your film: to give outsiders a taste of what it is like to be there so that we can determine whether their actions were justified or not the same way a soldier would. Was that in your mind as you were cutting the film?

Definitely. And I don’t think it’s a one-sided, either/or answer. Being on the “inside” entails a gradual brutalization of the mind so that by the end, all you can see is the inside. And then it becomes an us and them thing. “We” — the soldiers — “know what it mean to be in war. We’re the only ones who can legitimately talk about this, talk about right and wrong in these kinds of situations.” But they’ve sailed up the river; they’ve lost themselves to the savagery of the place.

Obviously you’re not shooting a gun, you’re not fighting, but as you’re filming, you’re getting shot at just as much as if you did have a gun. Did you ever have an urge to defend yourself?

I didn’t feel compelled at any point to grab a gun. I was always thinking, “Fuck, when is this going to stop? I want to go home!”

[laughs]

Actually that’s not true. There was certainly an element of adrenaline and excitement. I know my cinematographer [Lars Skree] once said that during a very intense firefight, he wished he’d had a gun.

There’s an element of this that’s frightening. But there is something very seductive in it, too. The intensity of the situation is extremely seductive. Being 15 years older than most of the soldiers, I might have better tools to handle those types of emotions. But I think if I had been 20 in Afghanistan — and when I was 20 I was doing all kinds of a crazy stuff — I don’t think I would have thought twice about what they did. [Pause] Or maybe I would have. Maybe I would have had a better capacity to resist the urge to stop asking questions and shut myself down emotionally, which is a big part soldiers do when they go to war. “Stop asking questions. Shut your mouth. Do your job.”

“Armadillo” opens Friday in New York City.

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

via GIPHY

Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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