One of the key films at The Melbourne International Film Festival is A War, which tracks Denmark’s involvement in the Afghanistan War. The film follows Commander Claus Michael Pedersen (Pilou Asbaek) and his men, who are stationed in an Afghan province, and also hones in on Pedersen’s wife (Tuva Novotny), who holds their family together back at home. Gritty and authentic, A War is a hyper-realistic depiction of conflict and conscience, and was nominated for Best Foreign Film at The Academy Awards. A regular collaborator with Thomas Vinterberg (he co-wrote the director’s acclaimed drama, The Hunt, as well as his current feature, The Commune), A War’s Danish director, Tobias Lindholm, also helmed the acclaimed whiteknuckle ocean-bound thriller, A Hijacking, and is a regular writer on the popular Danish TV series, Borgen. No stranger to in-your-face film and TV, Lindholm takes it to the next level with A War.
You used both real soldiers and actors on the film? “I use actors to tell the story emotionally. So actors are extremely good at doing the same thing over and over again, and constantly trying to find a way to express a feeling that will translate to the audience, and communicate that emotion. Actors are not good soldiers. They need to learn to maybe move like real soldiers, so I thought, ‘Why not just use real soldiers for that?’ They know how to do that. And the great thing about soldiers is that they show up on time, and they do as they’re told, which is very different from actors. The soldiers helped our actors to stand, move, walk, talk, and be soldiers. “
But you also had soldiers acting… “The only one who’s really acting is Christian Pedersen. I just discovered that he was a natural. He was so funny when we did the casting and preparation. He was so entertaining, and he played all kinds of jokes. He had the natural talent. That role was supposed to go to an actor, but Christian was so good that I thought I might as well use him. He was the only soldier who really did some acting, other than being a soldier.”
Would you say that a good actor should be a good soldier? “You could say that, but I couldn’t afford to put them into five years of training and war experience. The thing with these guys is that they have been in Afghanistan, all of them, and they knew everything. They could also help me understand the logic of how they move, and how they talk. That was an extra gift to me and the film, and that helped us with the realism. It would have been impossible to do it as precisely without it, using just my research.”
Your actors are certainly great at being soldiers… “Definitely. Pilou did a great job of being a soldier. But the practical effort of being a soldier, the craftsmanship of how you carry a gun, and how you walk and talk on the radio, is very complex, and it would have been too hard to make a film this complex with actors. I would have needed to simplify stuff to make sure that it looked right, and but then it wouldn’t have been fair to the reality that we tried to portray. I needed real soldiers. Luckily, I had met a group of guys that spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan, who wanted to participate and tell their stories.”
You juxtapose the soldiers’ home lives, and the warzone. Why did you choose this way of telling the story? “To put in all of the new answers in the conversation about the war in Afghanistan. Right now, it’s kidnapped this discussion, where you are either pro the war or against the war. And the thing is that it has already happened. It really doesn’t make any sense. It makes sense to start to have a conversation about the world we’re in, about what happens, and about how complex it is. And by then, hopefully we become a better version of ourselves, and that conversation for me right now in Europe is broken. We have a way of trying to simplify all of the things, and it’s always the way in discussions where you are trying to convince somebody of what you think, instead of actually listening. That conversation is not about winning an argument, but actually about learning something that you didn’t know before. It’s broken, and I would love for this film to be an initiation, to bring it back on track.”
Is this based on any specific real life case? “It’s based on a lot of cases. German, English, American, Danish…it’s basically the logic of what happens, and then I’ve taken bits and pieces and put this together. I didn’t want to place it in a certain time of the war, to protect the people whose lives we are portraying. I didn’t want people whose lives had been traumatised by this to sit there and be afraid that it was their lives that we were portraying.”
Pilou Asbaek said that – and I don’t know if he was joking or not – that you two should go to Hollywood. Have you made any plans for more international films? “I made a rule that I only want to direct what I write, so I don’t know. If somebody from Hollywood wants me to write my own story and do this with Pilou, and I’m in full control of the final cut, I would go. But what we do best is what we do, and I think that Pilou is going to have a tremendous, great career. He’s a great actor, and now he’s in Game Of Thrones. A little part of me wishes for them to kill him really fast so he comes back home, but chances are they won’t, and then I have to wait three or four years to work with him again. At the same time, I can do stuff with Thomas Vinterberg. I can write with anybody. And then make these films, and remain in control of them.”
You create a very dramatic illusion…it feels like reality. “I made this basic concept called ‘Reality Rules’, where I never make a choice without confronting it with reality, which means that the screenplay is changing all the time. I am not amused by my own imagination. I don’t like it! I like reality, and I like to understand and to do things exactly as they could in real life, and that means not making too much up. I could not imagine doing a war plot that wasn’t plausible. I couldn’t compromise that. That would be unfair to the soldiers that have lived these lives.”
A War plays at The Melbourne International Film Festival on August 4 and August 14. To buy tickets to A War, head to the official website.