Gilbey on Film: Agfhan story

Armadillo highlights the problems documentary makers have in conveying the truth about war.

Fictional films set in Iraq or Afghanistan have had a notoriously unfavourable commercial reception. Fortunately that hasn't deterred documentary makers from exploring the same territory, the budgets being so much smaller, the box-office expectations modest to negligible.

There's another reason why documentary is better suited to the subject: its immediacy, not just in visual terms, but in its capacity to reach the screen more quickly without the obstacle course of studio schedules and test screenings to negotiate. It would be foolhardy for any filmmaker to aim for a definitive portrait of an ongoing conflict, but the documentary form doesn't make the same promises of completion or containment that fiction does; we accept it more readily as a snapshot grabbed on the hoof.

The riveting new documentary Armadillo is an instructive example of a film which tries to have it both ways -- to evoke the unpredictability, anxiety and essential shapelessness of its subjects' lives but also to fashion the material into a rounded narrative more typical of a scripted project. Armadillo is named after a military base in Helmand Province that is home to 170 Danish and British soldiers. The director Janus Metz secured extraordinary access to the Danes on the base, and begins his film with a brace of scenes promising two different kinds of behind-the-scenes candour.

In one, a downbeat dinner-table conversation between Mads, a soldier about to leave for Helmand, and his family, who can't quite come to terms with what he's doing, establishes the film's intimate emotional texture. The second, showing Mads and his fellow recruits mauling a stripper during a raucous party the night before they leave, hints that the coverage will be no-holds-barred, no punches pulled. A deeply unsettling scene late in the movie, when soldiers strip Taliban casualties of their weapons in the aftermath of a ferocious battle and drag their bodies around while likening them to dead animals, confirms this for all time.

There has already been controversy surrounding the troops' behaviour in the film, particularly their shooting of injured Taliban fighters, which led to an inquiry in Denmark. But from a cinematic point of view, the picture is rather caught in a cleft stick. It wants the pell-mell, sand-in-the-eyes authenticity of reportage, which it achieves with its terrifying battlefield sequences, but it seeks also to frame that material within the reassuring arc of fiction cinema. The problem is that the latter can only compromise realism. Audiences are so alert to the significance of apparently trifling elisions and distortions in documentary that the tiniest hint of fraudulence or manipulation will unravel a lot of hard work.

I'm not casting any aspersions on Metz's motives, which I'm sure were beyond reproach. He has said:

The mission was to bring the war on Afghanistan back into people's living rooms and make them engaged. There was a feeling that nobody was really caring that there was a war in Afghanistan.

What better way to do that than to give documentary footage the viewer-friendly shape and rhythm of a movie? If only one form didn't risk cancelling out the other. I guess Metz made his job easier by following one group of men during one tour of duty. There's a narrative right there: some will make it home, others won't; even those that do will have experience etched into them. And as one of the soldiers who is about to leave when Mads and friends arrive tells the newcomers: "You won't be bored. You'll see action." That's Metz's promise to us too.

I just wish the film wasn't so tidy; it throws up so many questions that the neat structure seems inherently to disavow. It's giving nothing away about the body of the film to say that the final shot is a close-up of a soldier standing in the shower, his head bowed toward us as the water streams down his face. We are clearly meant to infer from this shot that he is damaged, seeking solace, cleansing himself, washing off the sins of combat. But he might equally be thinking: "Golly, this shower is refreshing. I do like a nice shower. Showers are so much better than baths."

I see that shot, stolen from a moment even more private than a family pow-wow or a macho shindig, and I think instantly of the director on the other side of the camera, negotiating with the subject to film him during his ablutions. Armadillo is a strong and disturbing piece of work. A small moment like this, though, can be enormously telling. Introduce an aesthetic contrivance into a documentary that purports to be gritty and you've given the audience licence to doubt.

"Armadillo" is released on Friday

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

John Darnielle's Universal Harvester contains as much tenderness as horror

The Mountain Goats musician's novel has some structural problems, but is not without interest and insight.

It is the late 1990s in the small city of Nevada, Iowa, and Jeremy is getting complaints about the tapes that people are renting from the Video Hut. Weird images are appearing partway through films: the sunny romcom She’s All That cuts suddenly to a shot of darkness and the sound of someone breathing behind the camera; the Peter Bogdanovich thriller Targets is interrupted by amateur footage of a woman tied to a chair inside a barn, with a hood over her head and a rope around her neck. These menacing images cause confusion. Are they a manufacturing error? A prank? Or something more disturbing?

Jeremy, whose mother died in a car accident six years earlier, is in his directionless early twenties and expert at derailing his dad when he asks what he plans to do with his life. A customer, Stephanie, gradually persuades him to help investigate the scenes they have witnessed on the tapes. It seems a dangerous task; at best, the sequences are deeply strange, but the worst of them – bodies moving under a tarp, a woman fleeing down a dark country road ahead of the camera’s bobbing light – suggest kidnap and torture.

When Jeremy’s boss, Sarah Jane, watches one of the videos, she recognises the property where these mysterious scenes are being filmed. She embarks on her own investigation, one that involves her in a situation as sad as it is strange, and that transforms the novel from a horror story into something less easily classifiable. There are several changes of pace and tone throughout the book, some of which are less successful than others. The most serious problem – the one that hampers the reader’s ability to become immersed in Darnielle’s often highly atmospheric writing – has to do with framing. Just who is telling this story?

The novel is mostly written in the third person, but occasionally a first-person narrator interrupts to add their take on events. The first few times this happens, it’s thrilling: it adds a further mystery to be solved, and in one instance delivers a huge and enlivening revelation.

But Darnielle uses this trick too often and in apparently contradictory ways. Some parts of the book only make sense if we assume an omniscient narrator; others suggest that someone intimately involved with what is going on is controlling the narrative; while other asides suggest a narrator far removed in time from the events described, as if the story being told has passed into local legend. “There is a variation on this story so pervasive that it’s sometimes thought of not as a variation but as the central thread,” the narrator tells us, uncertainly. I cannot find a way to make these three modes of telling the story work logically together. I’m not saying they don’t, but the answer isn’t discernible on the page.

The pity of Universal Harvester’s structural problems is that they distract from some interesting and insightful writing – the kind that might be expected from Darnielle, the songwriter for one of the most intelligent indie rock bands of the past 20 years, the Mountain Goats. The book’s second and best section is a lengthy flashback about a woman who goes missing in the mid-1970s after becoming involved with a fringe Christian group. In the eeriest scene, her husband listens to her singing at the sink, “but the song continued at the same pace and tempo, and he realised she’d been praying – chanting”. He doesn’t recognise the prayer, “and he didn’t want to follow it out to where it went”.

That line reinforces the sense, skilfully kept always in our minds, of the threatening isolation of the vast fields of Iowa, where “a farmhouse has no neighbours, not real ones, and if you try looking for them, it shrinks… Walk twenty paces from its door and you’re waist-high in corn or knee-high in bean fields, already forgetting the feel of being behind a door, safely shielded from the sky.”

But there proves to be as much tenderness as horror in Darnielle’s novel, which ultimately has more in common with the small-town loneliness and desire for connection described in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio than it does with rural horror such as Stephen King’s “Children of the Corn”.

One of the things that Jeremy treasures about his sleepy town where the days “roll on like hills too low to give names to” – one of the things that the events of the novel put under threat – is “knowing where you were: this seemed like a big part of the point of living in Nevada, possibly of being alive at all”. 

Universal Harvester
John Darnielle
Scribe, 224pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder