Thursday, January 14, 2016

PSIFF 2016—A WAR (2015): Q&A With Tobias Lindholm

[Warning: This write-up contains spoilers.]

Danish filmmaker Tobias Lindholm is a contemporary master of suspense, both in his screenplays, which include The Hunt (Jagten, 2012)—brought to the screen by Thomas Vinterberg and starring Mads Mikkelson in a Hitchcockian scenario of a man wrongly accused of a crime—and in his own narrative features such as A Highjacking (Kapringen), also from 2012, which addressed tense negotiations with Somali pirates. Pilou Asbæk and Søren Malling, two of the actors featured in A Highjacking, have returned for Lindholm's follow-up military drama A War (Krigen, 2015), Denmark's official submission currently nominated for the Foreign Language Academy Award®. It screened in the Awards Buzz sidebar at the 2016 Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF) with director Lindholm in attendance.

As synopsized by PSIFF: "The stakes are higher than ever in this tense and suspenseful drama as a well-liked Danish company commander is forced to choose between his responsibility for his troops, the Afghan locals, his family back in Denmark and the written and unwritten rules of war. While Commander Claus Michael Pedersen [Asbæk] and his men are stationed in an Afghan province, Claus's wife Maria [Tuva Novotny] is trying to hold everyday life together back in Denmark. Meanwhile, during a routine mission, the soldiers are caught in heavy crossfire. In order to save his men, Claus makes a decision that has grave consequences."

As aggregated by David Hudson at Fandor's Keyframe Daily, reviews from the film's premiere at the 2015 Venice Film Festival have been uniformly supportive, including Guy Lodge's write-up for Variety—"A rigorous, engrossing anatomy of a suspected war crime: In its nerve-shattering first half, it conveys the on-the-ground maelstrom of combat as vividly as any film on the subject. A War doesn't seek to break new ground in the ongoing cinematic investigation of the Afghanistan conflict; rather, it scrutinizes the ground on which it stands with consummate sensitivity and detail."—and Boyd van Hoeij for The Hollywood Reporter—"Almost as much time is spent with Pedersen's wife back home…. [W]hat interests Lindholm is what it means for a family when a vital component of it is absent for months on end; by contrasting Afghanistan and Denmark, a clearer picture emerges of what Claus does but also what he's missing and isn’t able to do, which is just as telling."

Lindholm reveals his skill for suspense by bifurcating the tension. The film's first half is on the ground in Afghanistan in harrowing crossfire with the Taliban, and in its second half in a rigorously modulated court hearing where Claus' field decisions come under fire from military prosecutors. It's hard to say which is more jangling on the nerves.

In his introduction to his PSIFF audience, Lindholm stated: "When I started to do this project, I knew that I needed real soldiers, not actors, to do the battle scenes, basically because I have never been a soldier and don't have the expertise so how would I be able to direct actors to move naturally as soldiers? It would be impossible."

That strategy proved invaluable in the film's re-enactment of the pivotal battle sequence where Pedersen gives the order to bomb a compound without first confirming enemy presence; a desperate effort to save the lives of his own men. As a result, eleven civilians are killed, including eight children. My question to Lindholm was one of craft. "How do you choreograph an action sequence like that?" I asked. "Do you use storyboards?" Having already confided that—not having been to war himself—he relied on soldier informants, I wanted to know about the nature of that reliance. Did he improvise scenes with them in order to construct such a complicated action sequence?

Lindholm repliled: "That's the great thing about soldiers; they know what to do. The actors just had to follow them. I would place huge loudspeakers just outside the wall and they would never know when the explosions would come, so they were reacting to the reality around them, as they do when they rehearse. Pilou just followed them. I remember we challenged Butcher, who is on the ground with the radio. I was doing all the radio communication live so I would have a soldier beside me at the monitor and he would ask questions and tend the orders and do stuff on the radio live with them. We kept pouring gasoline on the fire, saying, 'Call and tell him this, tell him that, let's see how he reacts. Push him!' Pilou got frustrated in the situation because he could feel that Butcher was frustrated and that spread among them.

"We actually didn't do any choreography. We just went out there and played it out. I knew where I had put the explosions. I knew when I wanted to push the button so that it would sound like bullets over their heads. They just reacted. That's the great thing about soldiers. They didn't know it, but they were great actors because they could reproduce the situation again and again and again. They've done that. That's their job: to be able to cope with chaos and do the same thing, the same drill, again and again and again. That's moviemaking! I relied on them and hoped to capture something that could feel real."

Lindholm qualified that he hunted out Danish veterans who had spent years of their lives in Afghanistan. He promised them that he would be honest with them all the way; that he wouldn't lie; that he wouldn't change anything to make them look morally bad or good; but, would portray them as honestly as he could. "Now the honesty thing, I've kept," he added in his introduction, "but, after the film, you can tell me if they look good or not."

Which becomes the film's spectatorial conundrum. "It's frankly difficult to imagine a more generic setup for a contemporary war movie," writes Tommaso Tocci at The Film Stage, "but if there's one director that can make the how more compelling than the what, it is Lindholm." As a film, yes, A War is competently constructed. Its subject matter, however, remains morally problematic for rallying behind a brothers-in-arms mentality that effectively skirts (and justifies?) the war crime of civilian casualties. Yet, as honest as Lindholm endeavored to be with the soldiers who appeared in his film, he is no less transparent with his audience.

When asked how he developed the script—whether he started from a basic premise and then followed up with interviews to confirm his premise or whether his interviews inspired the script from the get-go—Lindholm answered amusingly that he started with wondering about his mother, who he loves very much, but who is a classic Scandinavian Socialist. She raised him with the belief that rich people were rich because they've stolen money from poor people and—although he's not sure if that's the truth—it was part of the questioning cultural zeitgeist in Denmark in the 1960s. She also raised him with the idea that war was evil and that soldiers, by extension, were evil; an idea he wanted to confront. In gist, he wanted to create a story that would make his mother cheer for a war criminal. He figured if he could pull that off, then he would have negotiated the central challenge of the film.

In order to achieve that, his starting point was to introduce Lasse, a broken-down young soldier wanting to return home after watching his best friend die from an IED explosion. His commanding officer Pedersen can't allow that, of course, but—when Lasse gets shot—the audience begins to understand why Pedersen struggles to save him, his reasoning, and why his actions feel necessary. "It's a bit technical," Lindholm explained, "but I'm always looking for a middle point and a fake ending. If we know the beginning, the middle point, and the fake ending, then the whole story's there." In this case, the beginning is Lasse's breakdown after witnessing his friend's death. The middle point is Pederson ordering the bombing. The fake ending, of course, is his admittance of the crime. With those points to write through, Lindholm felt confident in his narrative and could then conduct interviews to secure requisite information, including the logic of the military worldview.

Thus, A War is based on a combination of true events and not one person's nightmarish account, which Lindholm would have considered parasitic. He knew he wanted to make a film about this war; the first war that Denmark has fought since the Second World War (which lasted all of four-five hours). This war has in many ways defined Lindholm's generation; but, at first, he couldn't find his way in. "We've often seen a lot of war films," Lindholm offered, "where you follow the dehumanization of as young man from the minute he goes to war and then you see how he'll fall apart as a human being in that process. I felt that story had been told already. Then I read an interview with a Danish officer going back on his third tour to Afghanistan where he said, 'I'm not afraid of getting killed down there; I'm afraid of being prosecuted when I get back home because the rules of engagement and doing my job are in conflict.' That, right there, was when I knew I had a story and where I wanted to go." He started talking to everyone who had been involved in trials—the prosecutors, the defense lawyers, everybody who knew about them—to try to find a case situation or legal conflict that would be so precise that everyone could understand Andersen's essential conflict: not only why he did what he did, but recognizing at the same time that it was a war crime.

At this juncture, Lindholm's filmic enterprise borders on Dostoyevsky in its examination of the definition of crime itself and how apparent crimes are often predicated on equally criminal forces operating behind the scenes, avoiding culpability by redirecting punishment. Suddenly the question becomes what was the "mission" of Denmark's presence in Afghanistan?

"Originally we went in to hunt down bad guys," Lindholm synopsized. Following 9/11, together with the U.S. and the U.K., special troops went in to Afghanistan right away on the clear logic—neither good nor bad, but logical—to try to kill the bad guys. This clear purpose morphed into abstraction as it soon became clear that Danish forces were not there to fight; they were there to walk around in an area and, once in a while, step on an IED or get shot. The fact that they were there became the mission, even if they also became walking targets for the Taliban.

Conceding that the military may have had good reasons for this "mission", it nonetheless became difficult to reconcile their logic with the hazard of walking out the gates of the military compound, fully aware of the danger of IEDs and snipers. Danish military were encouraged to enter Afghan villages and befriend villagers, even if they knew it wasn’t helping the villagers and that—once they left—the Taliban returned. That being said, villagers never escaped the taint of collaborating with the Taliban. That informed the scene where the Afghan family is turned away from the military compound. Lindholm had originally included an explanation in the script, but found the scene too obvious in the editing room. If you apply military logic, of course the soldiers could not let the Afghan family into their compound. What if they were Taliban? If they were let in, they would see how everything looks, how everything works. It's not a refugee camp. The political reason that the soldiers are there is to keep the Afghan locals in the villages and protect them against Taliban. If they started inviting them into their camp, they wouldn’t be doing their job. They were under orders to keep the Afghans in their own villages. Besides, even if they made an exception, where would it stop? What would be allowed for the next family? And the next?

Real soldiers were used in filming that scene, including the female translator who had served in Afghanistan a couple of times. The family were from the Helmand Province. They escaped the war, lived in a refugee camp and knew all too well the situation of the family in the film. On the day of shooting, they became extremely emotional. Lindholm seeks to create scenarios that play out as if real, inflected by a documentary impulse, albeit controlled. In this case, he gave the scene a long time to shoot. He respected that the Afghan family had never acted before. For them, as well as the female translator, the scene became real. Her frustration in having to send them back to their village was tangible for her, energized by accumulated experiences from her two deployments.

Lindholm recalled when Danish military proposed as their rationale what they called "the ink drop principle" where you'd take a pen and make arbitrary “drops” on a map: “Let's pick a place here for a liberation base and just have 100-150 guys living there and patrolling the area." But not really fighting an enemy, not really doing too much. Within the idea of befriending the locals, “not doing too much” meant the rules of engagement became increasingly complicated and difficult. Soldiers had to have really good reasons to shoot, which meant that—in the case of the film’s sniper scene with the guy on the motorbike—it's pretty clear to everybody what's going on; but, a soldier has to be absolutely certain that someone’s a bad guy before he can shoot him. Maybe such safeguards are the right thing to do?

“I'm not the judge of that,” Lindholm insisted, adding, “I can only imagine how frustrating it must be to walk out that gate every day not exactly knowing why you're there. The reason that you're there will become to protect your friends.” That's what Andersen does all the way through, and why Lindholm accepts that Butcher lies in court to protect his commander. “That's what he's trained to do.” Lindholm achieves his task of garnering support for Andersen, and asks (without answering) the underlying question: was it the right thing to do to cover up a war crime in order to protect a friend?

The sad truth is that in just the past few months the Helmand Province has fallen back into Taliban hands, which has caused much public discussion in Denmark: “Why has this happened? Why were we even there? Do we have to go back in to try to clean it up? What's happening?” This public uncertainty characterizes the situation in Denmark at this time, and is envisioned in A War’s final scene where Andersen is shown sitting on his back deck smoking a cigarette. After what he has experienced, can he ever truly return to civilian life? Though Denmark’s soldiers have been called home, the Danish now have the difficult task of reflecting on why Denmark was in Afghanistan in the first place and what actually happened? These questions are challenging Denmark’s democracy in much the same way that opposition has articulated itself in the U.S.

“We are in what you would call a small-scale post-Vietnam phase in Denmark right now,” Lindholm explained. “We're trying to figure out what kind of people we are and how our democracy can continue with this happening at the same time? That was the reason for me to make this film in the first place.” The final image of Andersen reflecting on his deck suggests questions that won’t be answered for a long time. His doubts and regrets will probably haunt him for the rest of his life.

Perhaps not so surprisingly, most of the questions following Lindholm’s PSIFF screening had to do with Andersen’s military trial. How could a civilian trial judge military misconduct? Does the verdict in a civil trial have to be unanimous?

One of the problems of being a young warfaring nation, Lindholm responded, is trying to figure out how to deal with war crimes. Admittedly shocked that a civilian court would oversee such a process, Lindholm learned that the prosecutor is from the military hired by the military to work in these courts. The rest are civilians who have no to little idea what military engagement entails. What happened in Denmark, Lindholm explained, and what is happening right now, is that the politicians who sent these young people to war need to wash their hands as they say, "Yes, we went out to war but we would never accept war crimes." The whole idea for Lindholm is a strange thought that you would create something as chaotic as war and then think that you could sit back in Denmark and make laws about it as if you understood what armed conflict really is? At the same time, as a democracy, they need these trials because, of course, it wouldn't be possible to let military do their jobs without there being some sort of control, some rules of engagement; but, the idea of civilians being able to cope, understand and judge military misbehavior is absurd and a huge problem in a democracy like Denmark.

The verdict in a civil trial does not have to be unanimous. It can be two to one. It frustrated Lindholm to discover that within Denmark’s system the panel hearing such cases is composed of two civilians and one judge, but the judge’s opinion doesn’t count any more than the other two. The defendant can, of course, appeal and have the case go into the system; but, ordinarily, they try to keep it simple. A fun story is that the judge in Lindholm’s film is a real judge. She went on pension just a week before he started to shoot. “And I can tell you,” he grinned, “she didn't take direction from anybody. That was her courtroom. I took direction from her.”

No comments: