SXSW Film Festival ’11 | Day Three

Armadillo is much more polished and at times resembles a scripted feature more than a documentary.

 

People trying to make sense out of America’s engagement in Afghanistan would do well to watch Armadillo, a documentary by Janus Metz, which captures the experience of a group of Danish soldiers at a base by that name in Southern Afghanistan where 170 Danish and British soldiers are stationed. He starts with a prelude of the soldiers preparing to leave home, then follows them through a six-month tour of duty through to the happy reunion with family and friends back home.

 
Compared to Restrepo which followed American troops stationed in Afghanistan, Armadillo is much more polished and at times resembles a scripted feature more than a documentary, not only in the high quality of the sound and images—much work must have been done in post-production—but also in the way that the film’s events fall into patterns typical of war movies. This could certainly be achieved by editing, but still the effect is disconcerting and undercuts what Stephen Colbert might call the “truthiness” value of the doc as you wonder if some of what you were watching has been staged. Be that as it may, the lives of the Danish soldiers seem to be similar to those of the Americans: They’re eager for action (one young man likens it to playing soccer: some things you can learn in practice, but you learn much faster in a game) and spend their free time watching pornography, calling home, and lifting weights. There are some conferences with Afghan elders (one of whom quite logically rebuffs suggestions that he should cooperate with the Danes, pointing out that they will go home in a few months and then the Taliban will come and kill anyone who cooperated) and negotiations over reparations for trampled fields and slaughtered livestock.
One difference, and I don’t know if this is an expression of national character or a choice by the film’s editors, is that in Armadillo there are few discussions of abstract concepts like justice or freedom—the focus is much more on day-to-day work. The most dangerous action comes near the end when a night patrol is ambushed, and in the aftermath you get to see what a human being looks like when blown up by a grenade. Armadillo has been controversial in Denmark, in part because one of the soldiers told his parents that the patrol deliberately killed wounded Afghanis. The point is not so much whether or not that particular incident took place and whether or not it could be justified in the heat of battle, but that the revelation forced the Danish public to recognize that their soldiers serving in Afghanistan are not peacekeepers building schools, but are engaged in a war whose conduct requires both risking their lives and killing the enemy.
I couldn’t come to SXSW and not see the documentary about SXSW, now could I? Outside Industry: The Story of SXSW, directed by Alan Berg, is just what it says on the tin: a documentary about the history of the festival. This film should be required viewing for aspiring documentarians because it manages to convey a lot of information using traditional documentary ingredients (talking heads, archival materials) while also capturing the spirit of its subject. Most importantly, it’s a lot of fun to watch.
SXSW began in 1987 as a modest effort to showcase local musicians who felt frozen out of the New York scene. It proved to be a runaway success (for a variety of reasons, including the vibrant music scene in Austin and a prevailing countercultural attitude—remember Slackers?), and the film and interactive components were added in 1994. Now it’s huge (approximately 11,000 attendees) and a major player in all three industries. With success comes criticism, of course: As one organizer points out, when you turn down 8,000 bands a year, some people are going to be upset. SXSW reflects the tensions which have been present since its birth. It’s about the music business, so both commercial as well as artistic concerns must be given their due, but it would be impossible to please everyone when it comes to the precise balance of two elements within the festival. Anyone who has tried to run a large event like this will sympathize with the conflicts SXSW has had to deal with over the years, and Outside Industry offers a great introduction to the festival, as well. | Sarah Boslaugh

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