Entertainment & Arts

No heroes for Denmark's A War movie

A War Image copyright Optimum
Image caption Game of Thrones and Borgen actor Pilou Asbaek plays Danish army commander Claus Michael Pedersen who faces charges of unlawful killing in Afghanistan

In the heat of battle in Helmand province, Afghanistan, an army commander with an exemplary military record has to choose to save the life of one of his men, or a group of local civilians. He chooses his soldier. On his return home, he faces charges for unlawful killing. This is the scenario at the heart of A War, this year's Danish Academy Awards entry.

A War is made by Tobias Lindholm, who co-wrote the political TV series Borgen, and who also made acclaimed Danish film A Hi-Jacking. Lindholm cites Michael Cimino's 1978 Vietnam war movie The Deer Hunter as his biggest influence for this project.

But Game of Thrones and Borgen actor Pilou Asbaek, who plays commander Claus Michael Pedersen, believes A War "heralds a new type of war film - one where there are no heroes".

Denmark, working with the USA and UK, deployed troops in Afghanistan from 2001 until 2013. The director says he wants "to provoke a conversation - not a debate - about how the Danes, both positively and negatively, contributed to the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our war involvement has defined my generation".

Criminal charges against troops deployed in both Afghanistan and Iraq are not uncommon - this week the Iraq Historic Allegation team, set up by the UK Ministry of Defence, said that British soldiers could face prosecution for their actions, including murder charges, in as many as 150 cases.

Image copyright Optimum
Image caption Only three professional actors were employed for the war scenes with all the other men being Danish soldiers or Afghan refugees

In 2013, Royal Marine Alexander Blackman received a life sentence for the murder of an Afghan fighter.

But Lindholm says his film was not inspired by any one real life military case, rather "the obsession of our world with right and wrong".

"Reality is far more complex. Is it wrong to let your buddy die on the ground when you could save him? Yes. Is it wrong to let a group of defenceless civilians die instead? Yes. Faced with that choice, who can say what is the right thing to do?

"We want everything to be simple - and now we want to get to the heart of a situation in less than 140 characters on Twitter, in a Facebook update, in a politician's soundbite on the evening news.

"We want punishment for mistakes, and this obsession with simplicity is hiding the true complexity of human life. So there are no heroes in my film - just humans."

Only three professional actors, including Asbaek, were employed for the war scenes, which were shot in Turkey. Instead Lindholm employed Danish troops who had served in Afghanistan, as well as Afghan refugees.

Image copyright Optimum
Image caption A War also shows the accused soldier's wife and children at home in Denmark

"I use actors for acting, but no one can march and hold a gun as well as a soldier who has done it thousands of times before," says Lindholm.

"Even in the court scenes, I employed a real-life judge, who knew how to control a courtroom."

Unusually, A War also shows Pedersen's wife at home in Denmark, played by Swedish actress Tuva Novotny. Struggling to bring up her three children at home alone, Novotny says that for the first time "a woman left at home has her point of view told".

"When you have to keep your family together, when your kids only get to speak to their father down a crackly phone line, what does that do to you? So you may have no experience of war, but you might understand how that feels."

"My wife cried when she saw that part of the film," continues Asbaek. "Because she understands all too well about being on her own while I am away. Quite a few of the military couples to whom we showed the film were in tears, as they had an insight of what each other's lives were really like for the first time."

Image copyright Optimum
Image caption A War has won critical praise across Scandinavia

Lindholm adds that, to him, the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq are "unique in that no one was quite sure what the mission was".

"It's not to protect our borders or to save our own families, but we asked young people to fly over to the other side of the world, to do what? Build democracy? Win hearts and minds? A lot of the soldiers I spoke to really didn't know. Yet all of them told me that after 10 years of tours of duty, they had all changed immeasurably as human beings."

As Denmark's Oscar entry, and with wide critical praise across Scandinavia, Asbaek hopes A War will help the public understand the consequences of any decision to go to war.

"There is a part in the film where an Afghan man says to my character, 'it's all right for you - your children are not in danger as they sleep at night'. But as human beings, we are all living with the consequences of these political decisions and perhaps it's time that we all - Britain and the US as well as Denmark - sit and figure out what we did."

A War is on release in the UK.

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