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.

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The Wood Wide Web: the world of trees underneath the surface

Mycorrhizal networks, better known as the Wood Wide Web, have allowed scientists to understand the social networks formed by trees underground.

In 1854, Henry David Thoreau published Walden, an extensive rumination on his two years, two months and two days spent in a cabin in the woodlands near Walden Pond. It was situated on a plot of land owned by his friend, mentor and noted transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Thoreau’s escape from the city was a self-imposed experiment - one which sought to find peace and harmony through a minimalistic, simple way of living amongst nature. Voicing his reasons for embarking on the rural getaway, Thoreau said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.”

Walden cemented Thoreau’s reputation as a key figure in naturalism; his reflections have since been studied, his practices meticulously replicated. But in the knowledge that Thoreau’s excursion into the woods was a means to better understand how to integrate into society, curious minds are left to wonder what essays and aphorisms Thoreau would have produced had he known what the botanists of today know of nature’s very own societal networks.

As scientists have now discovered, what lies beneath the ground Thoreau walked upon, and indeed beneath the ground anyone walks upon when near trees, is perhaps the most storied history and study of collaborative society in something which is now known as the mycorrhizal network or the “Wood Wide Web”.

Coined by the journal Nature, the term Wood Wide Web has come to describe the complex mass of interactions between trees and their microbial counterparts underneath the soil. Spend enough time among trees and you may get a sense that they have been around for centuries, standing tall and sturdy, self-sufficient and independent. But anchoring trees and forestry everywhere, and therefore enjoining them into an almost singular superoganism, is a very intimate relationship between their roots and microbes called mycorrhizal fungi.

Understanding the relationship between the roots of trees and mycorrhizal fungi has completely shifted the way we think about the world underneath them. Once thought to be harmful, mycorrhizal fungi are now known to have a bond of mutualism with the roots – a symbiotic connection from which both parties benefit.

Despite the discovery being a recent one, the link between the two goes as far back as 450 million years. A pinch of soil can hold up to seven miles worth of coiled, tubular, thread-like fungi. The fungi release tubes called hyphae which infiltrate the soil and roots in a non-invasive way, creating a tie between tree and fungus at a cellular level. It is this bond which is called mycorrhiza. As a result, plants 20m away from each other can be connected in the same way as plants connected 200 metres away; a hyphal network forms which brings the organisms into connection.

At the heart of the mutualistic relationship is an exchange; the fungi have minerals which the tree needs, and the trees have carbon (which is essentially food) which the fungi need. The trees receive nitrogen for things such as lignin – a component which keep the trees upright, and various other minerals such as phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, copper and more. In return, fungi get the sugars they need from the trees’ ongoing photosynthesis to energise their activities and build their bodies. The connection runs so deep that 20-80% of a tree’s sugar can be transferred to the fungi, while the transfer of nitrogen to trees is such that without the swap, trees would be toy-sized.

It’s a bond that has resulted in some remarkable phenomena. Suzanne Simard, an ecologist at the University of British Columbia, has researched into these back and forth exchanges and has found that rather than competing against one another as often assumed, there is a sort of teamwork between the trees facilitated by the mycorrhizal fungi.

In one particular example, Simard looked at a Douglas fir tree planted next to a birch tree. Upon taking the birch tree out, there was a completely unexpected result: the fir tree – instead of prospering from the reduced competition for sunlight – began to decay and die. The trees were connected underground via the mycorrhizal system, transferring carbon, nitrogen and water to one another, communicating underground, talking to each other. As Simard says in her TED talk, “it might remind you of a sort of intelligence.”

It has been documented that trees share food not just with trees of the same species, but with trees of all kinds of species, forming a social network which some have come to describe as a socialist system. Growth rates are positively affected while seedlings face greater chances of survival. There is in fact a group of plants – the mycoheterotrophic plants of which there are around 400 species – which wouldn’t survive without the mycorrhizal network. These plants are unable to photosynthesise and are therefore heavily dependent on other plants for carbon and minerals.

Over the years, Thoreau has had his fair share of critics who deemed his trip to the woods nothing more than an exercise in self-indulgence and narcissism. Perhaps if Thoreau had the chance to head back to Walden Pond with the knowledge of the Wood Wide Web at hand, he would fully understand that no one man is an island, as no one tree is a forest.