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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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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at IFC.com

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

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

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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…