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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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Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.

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Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:

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The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.

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They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!

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Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.

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Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.