An FP Conversation: What Qualifies as War Crimes in the 21st Century?

Foreign Policy spoke with Oscar-nominated filmmaker Tobias Lindholm about war crimes in the 21st century, and who is responsible for them.

VENICE, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 6: (EDITORS NOTE: Image has been digitally altered) Director Tobias Lindholm is photographed for Self Assignment on September 6, 2015 in Venice, Italy. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
VENICE, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 6: (EDITORS NOTE: Image has been digitally altered) Director Tobias Lindholm is photographed for Self Assignment on September 6, 2015 in Venice, Italy. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

Danish filmmaker Tobias Lindholm grew up with a father in the special forces, but the closest he himself has ever come to combat is on a film set. Still, his lack of wartime experience doesn’t shine through in his latest work, A War, one of five movies vying for a foreign film Oscar on Sunday. That’s in part because Lindholm recruited Danish military veterans to tell him stories from their deployments — and ultimately to play some of the soldiers featured in the film.

Alternating between Denmark and Afghanistan, the 115-minute movie follows Claus Pedersen, a Danish company commander under tremendous pressure to protect his troops in an Afghan province from the Taliban. After losing a young soldier to an IED, Pedersen tries to boost morale by accompanying the younger troops on routine missions, and must decide whether to prioritize safeguarding his men or the civilians caught in the crossfire.

When one of his decisions results in the deaths of 11 innocent Afghans, Pedersen is called back to Denmark, where he goes on trial for allegedly carrying out a war crime. Through Claus, Lindholm explores how deployment affects families back home and how much governments can expect from individual soldiers fighting abroad. Filmed in Turkey, Spain, Denmark, and Jordan, A War is a harrowing look at the human consequences of conflict in the 21st century — and who is responsible for them.

Foreign Policy spoke with Lindholm about his film ahead of Sunday’s awards ceremony. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

The film introduces Claus to the audience first as a loving father and a loyal soldier, and then later as a possible war criminal. What made you so intent on humanizing him?  

I realized watching the news that it was pretty easy to get very judgmental when seeing something about civilians being killed. You know, you’re sitting there thinking “Oh these soldiers, they’re animals.” And then you realize things are much more complicated. We definitely aimed to make the film as complicated as real life. There’s nothing good and nothing bad in real life — it’s just life. I would never defend the killing of 11 civilians, but I think in this case I could find the dilemma so hard that I could at least defend the actions he did as a human being.

There are a lot of moments in the film where the soldiers seem like they’re about to talk with one another about their feelings of homesickness, fear, or sadness. But they never quite do it. Why didn’t those conversations play out?

I think that I realized that if you start to talk about this stuff, you risk that it’s a bottomless ocean to jump into and the emotions will just never end. Once in awhile, if it’s not better it’s at least easier to not go into that room. You have to survive these wars and as a soldier you cannot allow yourself to be soft. You really cannot have conversations that will emotionally challenge you and make you break down. Those scenes were very human. I haven’t been to war but I’ve been on movie sets and film sets away from my wife and my kids and I know the frustration of not being able to connect with them on emotional levels on a broken phone line. That became an emotion for me to get inside the story and then you can of course add and multiply it — they’re at war and I’m on a film set.

Did you base the film entirely on anecdotes shared with you by Danish veterans, or did you already know the plot before you reached out to them?

I had the basic conflict of the film, the moral conflict, and this question of how can we simplify the war criminal. But I didn’t know what war was like. I needed to get in contact with soldiers and they connected all the dots in the end. Then we went to Turkey and we found a refugee camp with Afghan refugees so we cast them as well. The Afghan family featured in the film is a real Afghan refugee family. They had escaped the Taliban in real life and escaped the Danish soldiers as well, because they were another part of the terror in their lives. The most beautiful thing about being Oscar-nominated was to be able to call a refugee and tell them that the work and the honesty that they gave us actually resulted in something important.

Do you think that working on the film with you helped some of these veterans sift through their painful experiences in the battlefield?

Absolutely. It’s a hard conversation to have with your family when you come back home. How do you tell about experiences where you’re walking beside a guy laughing and having fun and suddenly he’s been hit with an IED and his body is all over the place, and you have to spend the next 24 hours picking up all his pieces to make sure they’re sent back to his family? In some ways, it wasn’t part of therapy because it was just making a film. But on a practical level it opened up the possibility of having these conversations. At times I was a little conflicted because I’m the director — I don’t care how people are feeling and it’s not my job to go and talk to them about it. So I didn’t really have these conversations with them until I invited them in to see rough cuts and some of them recognized in the characters their own lives and their relationships with their wives and their kids.

The movie raises a lot of questions about what Danish forces were doing in Afghanistan. How did Danish audiences react to it?

I think that everybody was pretty conflicted because it does exactly that: it makes you suddenly almost guilty of a war crime because you sympathize with this guy so much you’re almost ready to let him get away with it. That inner conflict really struck the self goodness of Scandinavians who like to think we are the happiest people on Earth. I don’t think that’s a realistic label. I was happy to see that our soldiers and relatives to soldiers recognized that the lives they’ve left have been portrayed fairly and honestly. It’s not a question of whether you’re for or against the war. The war has happened, and now it’s a question of looking at it and learning from it. We need to understand what we’re a part of. We, Denmark, are involved in the war in Syria right now, and we don’t talk enough about that.  I’m from Denmark and when I was growing up there was Russia, the U.S., and Scandinavia in the middle, and that was it. That world has changed and now our world is very complex and it’s become very hard to determine what’s right and what’s wrong.

You were working on this movie in the years leading up to the deadly American attack on a Médecins Sans Frontières medical facility in Kunduz, Afghanistan. Were you thinking about your characters when that story came out?

I never saw the connection to our core story necessarily, but the pain of it I could recognize. I mean the thing is that as democracies, we praise ourselves for being fair and open and defending free speech and all that and then we go out to fight these wars and for some reason we expect them to be civilized. It seems like we don’t realize what we’re getting into when we go to these wars. If you give young guys guns and you send them to war and you send airplanes in the sky with bombs, the chances of killing civilians that are caught in this war are high. Of course these terrible, terrible tragedies will happen. I find it strange that we are surprised afterward and then everyone feels like they need to wash their hands because that wasn’t the intended outcome. It’s a natural consequence of war, and that decision is not necessarily made by the soldiers — it’s also the lawmakers.

Photo Credit: Franco Origlia/Getty Images

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