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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At best, The Confession Tapes makes you feel unease. At worst, despair

Netflix billed the show as a true-crime binge-watch – but its narrative arc is the opposite of cathartic.

Would you confess to a crime you hadn’t committed? For some days now, I’ve been asking myself this question. Furious and punchy, my gut tells me immediately that I wouldn’t, not in a million years. But then comes a quieter, less certain voice. Isn’t guilt, for some of us, a near-permanent state? Apt to apologise even when I’m not in the wrong, I cannot believe I’m the only woman alive who tortures herself in the small hours by thinking she has unknowingly done something very bad indeed.

All this was provoked by The Confession Tapes, billed on social media as “our” next Netflix true-crime binge-watch. In this instance, however, the breathless excitement is misplaced: binge-watching would seem to me to amount to a form of self-harm. Yes, it’s compulsive. Stoked by bloody police photographs, the atmosphere can be suspenseful to a queasy-making degree. But like Making a Murderer and The Keepers before it, its prime concern is not with crimes committed so much as with the American justice system, for which reason its narrative arc is the opposite of cathartic.

At best, it will leave you feeling uneasy. At worst, you may find yourself sinking down into something akin to despair.

Director Kelly Loudenberg tells six stories over the course of seven episodes. Each involves a brutal murder (or murders) for which a perpetrator (or perpetrators) has (have) since been safely (unsafely) convicted. All are linked by one factor: the conviction was secured primarily thanks to a confession extracted by the police under extreme circumstances. Lawyers were not present; mind games were played; interviewees were exhausted, unstable, traumatised. In one instance, the authorities took what’s known as the “Mr Big” approach: undercover officers, playing their roles with all the gusto of a local am-dram society, pretended to be gangsters whose criminal networks could save the accused from death row if only they (the accused) would provide them with all the facts.

Why did juries believe these confessions, unaccompanied as they were by forensic evidence? Here, we go back to where we began. “No,” they told themselves. “I would not admit to a crime I had not committed.” Either such citizens have no softer inner voice – or, more likely, the idea of listening to it is simply too terrifying.

Predictably, the majority of the accused are poor and ill-educated, and perhaps this is one reason why the case of Sebastian Burns and Atif Rafay, two articulate middle-class boys from Canada, stood out for me (the pair were found guilty of the 1994 murder in Bellevue, Washington, of Atif’s parents and sister; at the time, they were 19). Or perhaps it is just that I still can’t understand why an American court considered “Mr Big” evidence admissible when the technique is illegal in the US? (The “gangsters” who encouraged Burns and Rafay to indulge in the most pathetic teenage braggadocio I’ve ever witnessed belonged to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.)

The saddest part of this tale: hearing Burns’ father, David, describe his prison visits. (Burns, serving a life sentence without possibility of parole, has exhausted all his appeals.) The strangest part: the way James Jude Konat, like all the prosecutors in this series, was so happy to perform for the camera, more game-show host than lawyer.

It feels obscene to move on, but move on I must. W1A (18 September, 10pm) is enjoying a bewilderingly long life (this is series three). Is the joke still funny? I think it’s wearing thin, though this may be born of my own recent encounter with the BBC’s bizarre machinery (humiliating, in a word).

Siobhan Sharpe (Jessica Hynes) and her team of media morons have been bought by a Dutch company, Fun, where good ideas are celebrated with silent discos. One idea is a YouTube-style platform, BBC Me. Meanwhile, Ian Fletcher (Hugh Bonneville) is helming – nice BBC word – a group that will deliver the corporation’s “More of Less Initiative”, and a cross-dressing footballer has successfully plonked his bum on the Match of the Day sofa. Business as usual, in other words. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left