Grad Research: War Documentaries and [Un]realism

Last April, in preparation for a summer job doing research for a film, I watched several documentary films that I had neglected seeing for too long (I blame my perpetually-growing Netflix queue).

Two of the many films that grabbed me among the several I watched were remarkably similar in content, at least at first glance: Restrepo and Armadillo are two recent documentaries that follow troops in Afghanistan as they negotiate hostile territory. The former highlights American soldiers; the latter, British and Danish.


Similar subject matter aside, though, the two films present war in starkly different ways. Here, I write about how they treat formal realism, authenticity, and communicating an experience that, ultimately, cannot be communicated:

‘Armadillo,’ though, does not traffic in the same  kind of emotional candor or proximity as ‘Restrepo.’ We see no interviews with any soldiers; the soldiers do not break the fourth wall to engage in a candid dialogue with the filmmakers (and, by proxy, the audience). Though we catch glimpses of their lives beyond the adrenaline fog of the battlefield – in Denmark, with their families – we never see them surmount the pressures of those surroundings. Whatever emotions they express are completely mediated by place and the expectations that those places confer upon soldiers, and the places that we are invited to weigh heavily. They choke expression.

We’re distanced from the narrative aesthetically, too. Where ‘Restrepo’ was gritty and raw in its representation of life in the Korengal Valley, ‘Armadillo’ offers a slicker vision. The camera shots are steadier, no dirt obscures the lenses, noises and speech sound as if they were retouched and enhanced in post-production (and perhaps they were). It looks, sounds, and feels like a scripted movie.

This isn’t to suggest that ‘Restrepo’ is more realistic or authentic, and thus better, than ‘Armadillo.’ The two accomplish different goals, both valuable and germane in considering the modern experience of war and its fallout…

Read the full post exploring Restrepo and Armadillo, including clips from both films, here.