Soldier's Story: Tobias Lindholm's 'A War' examines complex battleground decisions

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In 2003, NATO took command of the international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan. As a founding member of NATO, Denmark sent troops to protect civilian Afghans. During their ten-year engagement in Afghanistan, the Danes lost more soldiers per capita than any other European army did. An Oscar contender for Best Foreign Language Film, Magnolia Pictures’ A War explores the painful complexity of combat, as a company commander is tried as a war criminal after his decision to protect his men in battle inadvertently results in the deaths of a civilian family. Judy Gelman Myers of the website Director Talk recently spoke to director Tobias Lindholm about his new feature.

Director Talk: During the Afghan engagement, Denmark lost more soldiers per capita than any other European army. What effect did that have on the national consciousness regarding the war in Afghanistan?

Tobias LindholmWe hadn’t fought a war since World War II. We fought for five hours, and then we gave up. That defined my generation more than anything else. We didn’t really know what we were getting into in Afghanistan, but when the dead soldiers started to come home and we started to see the footage of the civilian population down there, that totally changed the Danish approach. We became very judgmental toward the soldiers, which, in my mind, was a mistake; we needed to hold politicians and lawmakers accountable. That didn’t happen, and suddenly we understood the danger and what we had gotten ourselves into as a nation. That confused the political environment for a while; nobody wanted to have an opinion, because everybody was afraid of the result. So instead of it inviting a conversation and a debate about what was going on, everybody talked even less about it when the dead bodies started to come back. It was almost ten years by that time, and we had forgotten why we were there. We were, on a small scale, in a post-Vietnam phase, where we as a nation tried to figure out what we were doing.

DT: In A Waryou juxtapose the war in Afghanistan against the trial in Denmark. In A Hijackingyou juxtapose a hijacking by Somali pirates against the hostage negotiations, again in Denmark. In both films, you’re juxtaposing Danish interaction with a foreign agent against Denmark’s internal social logic. Is the similarity coincidental, or is this an area of personal interest for you?

TL: It’s definitely an area of personal interest. I like the complexity of human life. Being human in the Western world, in the industrialized world, is being both a professional citizen and a private person. I’m not sure we can separate those and just look at private life without mentioning the other aspects of life. We are part of a democracy, we live under our law that is equal for all—at least in our nations—and we have professions that define our lives. All these areas rub off on each other, and I like the idea of trying to describe human life as complex as it is. Often in European cinema we have a tendency to be obsessed with psychology and forget other aspects of life, while in American films there’s a tendency to be over-obsessed with profession. You have a police officer and the film is all about that. Real life is a mixture of it all, so that’s what I try to do.

DT: Speaking of realism: I’ve never been to war, but the battle scenes felt particularly realistic. How did you achieve that?

TL: I found it extremely hard to understand, because I hadn’t seen that much. I started to watch a lot o boot camp footage and documentaries, but it wasn’t until I saw the American documentary Restrepo that I totally understood what we needed to do. The fantastic thing about that film is that the photographer is out there, really in danger with the soldiers. This means that the camera can’t show you stuff that the soldiers can’t see, because the photographer would get shot. That’s the logic of it. In a lot of war films you’ll see the camera in crossfire between enemies; that’s already admitting to the audience that it’s not really dangerous, it’s just a film. I decided to just pretend that we were shooting a documentary and ask the cinematographer to be as aware and alert as if it had been a documentary.

It’s not that obvious, but we did a huge amount of work to make it sound real. Explosions are not that loud in real life—they always sound louder in films. In films, there’s more fire in the explosions than there are in real life. In real life it’s all dust and dirt thrown in the air. Instead of making references to other war films, we decided to make a reference to reality even though it didn’t feel as dramatic. I guess the good thing is that people feel it’s even more dramatic because it feels real.

DT: I read that you consulted with veterans who had been in Afghanistan and that you actually cast real soldiers in the war scenes.

TL: I knew I couldn’t pull off asking actors to become soldiers in three months of training. To make it possible for the actors to do that, I would have had to simplify the work of the soldiers. Instead, I used the actors as the dramatic engine and the carrier of emotion, and then surrounded them with professional soldiers who had served in Afghanistan and who knew this reality that we were portraying. In that way we could make sure that we got it right and didn’t make false choices. We didn’t simplify but maintained the complexity of the situation, because we knew what was going on and how to handle stuff.

DT: That’s brilliant.

TL: The same thing happened in the courtroom. The judge is a real judge. She retired two weeks before we started to shoot. She took control of that courtroom, and I didn’t need to direct that much. She did it pretty much for me.

DT: Like the real-life hostage negotiator you used in A Hijacking.

TL: Exactly. The gifts you get from these real people, the understanding they have of their own lives and their own jobs, is amazing. They share a lot, and they are proud professionals. I don’t ask them to be emotional. I don’t ask them to lie. I don’t ask them to act. I just ask them to react in a professional way, to see situations that they know. That makes them come off brilliant and authentic, if you ask me.

DT: How was it working with the soldiers?

TL: They do what they’re told. They show up on time. It’s not the same with actors, so in that way it’s brilliant. Even if I only had two on a call sheet for the day, the whole platoon would show up and help us carry the lights. They came in and worked very, very hard to do the film with us. And it was a pleasure. It was a pleasure to feel how honest they were, to each other and to me about life in Afghanistan, and in that way I built up a very close friendship with them all. They’re all going to fly out to L.A. and celebrate the Oscars with us.

DT: I imagine making the film was important for them.

TL: It turned out to be. I never ask questions when I start to work with people like this. I just wait for them to start telling. If I start to ask, it’s because I know what I’m looking for, and I don’t. So I would not ask too many questions, I would just listen, and suddenly all the stuff that you didn’t know you want to know becomes extremely interesting. It was small stuff, like the phone calls home to your wife with a broken phone line, and how do you manage to maintain an emotional connection to your family when you’re in the desert and they’re far, far away at home, scared, and afraid for your life? That whole complexity came from conversations with the soldiers. But not only the soldiers and the judge; the Afghans in this film are refugees from Helmand Province, so they all knew the reality as well and added the Afghan reality to this film. The Afghan family who we get to know really well escaped the war in Helmand on the back of a donkey. They would help me make sure that the village looked correct. I’m not amused by my own imagination. I love to get it right and understand the world around me, and these professionals and these real people help me do that.

DT: One of your inspirations, actually, is the documentarian Jorgen Leth, who is famous for his anthropological studies of people. How has he affected your filmmaking?

TL: Just watching his film I learned that you can get a lot of story told without being judgmental and without going into melodrama, but just by looking at people. I think that’s fascinating. He taught me a very simple thing, which is that we are all trained throughout our lives to walk into rooms that we haven’t been in before, meet people that we haven’t met before, and still understand them, connect with them on a human level. What we often see in cinema is that we’re forgetting the audience has this talent. We’re almost asking them to leave that talent outside the theatre and come in blank, like a page, and then we fill in all the blanks with all this kind of information that I’m not sure we need. I learned from Jorgen Leth that the cynical, honest and nonjudgmental camera will be able to capture humanity and therefore, without being sentimental, will help you through situations you didn’t know of before.

DT: You wrote the screenplay for The Hunt, in addition to writing and directing A Hijacking and A WarIn all three of these films, there’s a sort of hero character who becomes isolated from the group. Can you talk about that dynamic in your films?

TL: When I was nineteen years old, I sold what I had, bought a train ticket, and traveled around Europe alone for a year. I remember being alone, and I remember being confronted with who I was. When you’re around other people, you pretend to be somebody, to fit in. Then, when you’re isolated and you’re suddenly all by yourself, you become the honest you in some way. I always found that it’s interesting to look at who we are when we’re part of the group and who we are when we’re left outside.

I don’t think there’s anything more challenging to human life than isolation. Basically, that’s what I’m looking for in these dramas, to challenge our heroes as much as possible. Everybody knows that you can feel all right when you have your friends at your house and everything is great, then everybody leaves and suddenly you’re caught in that emptiness where it’s just you and all your thoughts. That can be a very scary place to be. I talked to a psychiatrist the other day about his work, and he said something really interesting: “I’ve started to keep my phone open for my clients after five o’clock in the afternoon, because it’s not until the darkness arrives and people start to get isolated that the demons come.” I think there’s a very, very human truth to that, and that’s one of the things I’m looking for.

I view Scandinavians as a group of penguins. When it’s really, really cold, we get together and stand and turn our backs to the cold, looking in the same direction and trying to help each other keep warm. But if, by mistake or coincidence, you get pushed out of that circle and you’re left out in the cold, nobody sees it because everybody has their eyes turned away. And then you freeze to death. And that’s very brutal, of course, but nevertheless it’s a very precise way of talking about Scandinavians.

DT: That’s an amazing analogy. Your philosophy in filmmaking, I think, seems to be best described as better too little than too much. How would you say that applies to this film?

TL: There are so many scenes that you would like to see about a wife being afraid of her husband dying, so many melodramatic scenes that could come in there, but they would remove the movie from reality. We never talk about what we feel. We always talk about other stuff, and through that we understand how each other feels. We don’t wait for a plot to begin. We live our lives and then stuff happens, and it’s not until years later that we even look back and say, “Wow, there was a connection between that choice and that choice.” We just do stuff, and the connection is created later. I feel that that’s a simple, simple way of understanding life; it’s a great way to try to understand storytelling as well. Often we don’t need that many setups and that many recalls and structural scenes that will make sure the audience understands what’s going on. People are very good at living, so they can watch a film for two hours—understanding a movie is not as hard as living, anyway, and that’s why I don’t need all that information in the stuff that I do.

DT: You wrote and directed A Hijacking before doing the same with A War. On A Hijacking,did you ever find yourself as director looking at the script and saying, I’ve got to get rid of this scene or change this line of dialogue? If so, did that experience change the way you wrote the screenplay for A War?

TL: When I write a screenplay for me as the director, I allow myself to be a little lazy and sloppy, because I know I can fix it when we’re on set. When I write for Thomas Vinterberg, for example, my greatest job is to make sure the screenplay is fully proofed and that everybody who reads it understands what the vision is. When it’s for me, I’m there to explain it anyway, so I can be a little looser about it. I always try to create situations that feel so natural that the actors really don’t need the lines I’ve written because it’s logical what they’re going to say and how they’re going to respond.

We try not to bring too many copies of the screenplay to the set. I rather want us to have a conversation about the scenes. I know what the scene is going to be about anyway, so we have people try it on, and then we have the screenplay as a secure place to go back to if it doesn’t work. So basically there’s a lot of guys who’ve never read the screenplay, and you’d be surprised how many of them actually say lines that I’ve written without ever reading them.

DT: So you don’t distribute the script in advance?

TL: Not to everybody, and not all scenes. Some of the scenes you don’t need to know, because you don’t know what’s going to happen in real life, so if you know because you’ve read the story already, you’re not going to be surprised. And I need people’s surprise.

SPOILER ALERT!!!!!

I never gave the actors the last five pages of the script, which means they didn’t know whether Pedersen was going to jail or not. The first take we did in the courtroom, I actually sent him to jail for six years. Everybody went mad and started to cry; they were angry with me because I did this dark tragedy, and they didn’t understand it. Then I said let’s do it again, and I ended up changing it for the second take, so now the judge came out and she let him go. Everybody was extremely relieved, and I do believe that the authentic relief we see in that scene comes from that.

END OF SPOILER ALERT!!!!!!

DT: Let me ask you about the testimony given at the trial by the different members of the platoon. Almost none of them came to the aid of their commander. Was there a sort of racial/ethnic divide in their testimony? I don’t know if I was picking up on something that wasn’t there…

TL: If you picked it up, then it was there, but it was not my intention. This can sound pretty naïve, but I just took the actors and the guys I thought were best for the part. I really didn’t think about ethnicity. It’s not part of my toolbox. I don’t want to control that. It’s part of life. I have Muslim friends, I have friends from everywhere in the world. They populate my world, and therefore they populate my films. It’s not a conscious choice of ethnicity and race, it’s all about who I found was good for the part.

DT: In the press notes, you’re quoted as saying, “I was never in a war, so I thought I’d start with something my sweet leftist mother taught me: ‘War is evil, and so people at war are evil, too.’ I wanted to challenge that inference.” Why did you want to challenge that inference, and how did that perspective influence the making of the film?

TL: I wanted to challenge it because I believe that the world is extremely complex, and it’s extremely easy to sit on my couch at home and be judgmental when I watch the news and look at soldiers who have killed civilians and say, Well, they are evil and violent. I thought: Let me challenge that. I want to challenge stuff to become smarter and understand the world even better. I was brought up in the ’80s in Denmark, where the world was blue and red: In the Cold War you were either a capitalist or a communist. That world disappeared in ’89 when the Wall went down and the world changed.

I’m not a big celebrator of fixed ideas. I think that as soon as you think you know the truth, you can always find its antithesis. That’s a beautiful thing, and that’s part of evolution. And therefore I was a little provoked.

I love my mother. She’s great. And she’s a product of her time, as I am a product of my time. She brought me up believing that rich people stole their money from poor people. Maybe that’s partly true, but I realized it wasn’t the full truth. And I thought to myself, if I want to prove the complexity of war, I have to tell a story where I can get my mother to sympathize with a war criminal. If I can do that, then I’m getting close to the complexity of it all. That became a goal for me—to make sure that I could make a story where everybody could identify with a guy who ended up being a war criminal. I think the prosecutor at the trial is right when she says, “We cannot accept this” [i.e., his decision to save his comrades at the expense of the lives of Afghan civilians].

Even if we can understand it, we can’t accept it. But then again, having an emotional connection to his children and his wife, I’m not sure that I would want to send him to jail. To be able to admit that—if we can admit the complexity of our own emotions and the world around us like that, then I think that we have opened up to have a really important conversation instead of just standing in each corner and screaming: I am for or against the war.

Click here for the trailer and theatre listings near you. The author thanks Susan Norget and Keaton Kail of Susan Norget Film Promotion for arranging this interview. This article is published here courtesy of Director Talk: http://earthwize.org/wordpress/directortalk. Copyright © Director Talk 2016.