Midway through a battle in the searing Danish documentary Armadillo, the camera suddenly becomes shaky, then virtually still, as if moving underwater. Bullets and debris flash across the screen to a symphony of chaos—explosions, gunfire, screams. The world slows to a crawl. It's an odd time for artful editing. People are dying. But this isn't embellishment. Cameraman Lars Skree has taken a bullet, and we're watching the world through the eyes of a wounded man.
Documenting fear requires fearlessness. The recent deaths of documentarian Tim Hetherington and photographer Chris Hondros in Libya are grim reminders of the dangers journalists and filmmakers face in their attempts to show us the human sides of horror half a world away. Hetherington's death looms large when pondering Armadillo, and not only because the film serves as a sister piece to the late documentarian's brilliant Afghan doc Restrepo. Filmmakers Janus Metz Pedersen and Skree capture, in starkly intimate detail, six months in the lives of young Danish soldiers: the boredom of waiting for something to happen and, when it does, the terror of a world where friends and humanity are among the casualties.
Yet Armadillo doesn't immediately register as a documentary. Pedersen captures the men—boys, really—in conversations among themselves, forgoing on-camera interviews in favor of Hollywood-style shot/reverse shot editing. Early scenes of the men enjoying rowdy send-off parties are shot like Guy Ritchie films, with rapid-cut editing and the requisite heavy-metal soundtrack. That's where Armadillo breaks from Restrepo's fly-on-the-wall style. It's filmed like an action flick, so we feel just as disconnected as the soldiers, whose boredom manifests in chest-thumping bloodlust and manufactured bravado. We watch one grunt gleefully laying waste to baddies in Call of Duty and see the same thirst when he looks down his scope—only to watch that gung-ho expression dissolve into that of a frightened child as reality sets in.
Pederson and Skree's intimacy with the soldiers—now their protectors—allows them to capture war in all its horror. On the battlefield, good men are turned into feral beasts. Strong men crumble. All along, the camera lingers, eventually capturing a potential war crime and its subsequent investigation by military police. Armadillo ranks among film's most harrowing and personalized accounts of war. Pedersen and Skree (who survived his ordeal) have created a portrait of lost innocence in an era of mechanized war. It's filmmaking at its most mesmerizing and fearless. As such, it's absolutely terrifying.
93 SEE IT: Armadillo opens Friday at the Hollywood Theatre.