By Paul Risker.
What is a list of titles that comprises a filmmaker or actor’s filmography if it is not a series of footsteps on a journey? A War (2016) represents a continuation, of two sets of footprints side by side as writer/director Tobias Lindholm and actor Pilou Asbaek continue their exploration of warfare and conflict. However, this time rather than set in a prison (R: Hit First, Hit Hardest (2010)) or on a boat in the Indian Ocean (A Hijacking (2012)), the stage becomes Afghanistan, the family home and a courtroom. Together the two men have turned conflict into a claustrophobic stage upon which to explore the subject, and A War is the continuation.
Yet with their third collaboration they may have struck a masterful note in their manipulation of our moral sensibility. Lindholm and Asbaek have crafted a film with the potential to leave the spectator feeling lost within the confusing grey moral shades of the drama. “We all have these expectations, ideas and images of who we are as human beings and what kind of person we are. But the thing is we don’t really know until we have been in situations that have challenged us to the extreme,” explained Lindholm. “And that’s a reason for me to tell stories with people being in these situations and being confronted by the extreme because I do believe that is as close to an honest expression about human life as we can get. It’s where we honestly bear ourselves to the world, which is what has drawn me to these stories.” By telling this story Lindholm pushes us to an emotional and moral extreme. He reveals that while we may have an impression of how we would feel and react to a legal or moral scenario, there is a deeper emotional and morally impulsive reaction that the best narrative fiction can expose.
In conversation with Film International, Lindholm and Asbaek discussed the intentions behind their third collaboration, the way in which their director-actor relationship has evolved, their interest in conflict as a stage for their dramas, and the importance of the collaboration with the audience and the film as a means of communication.
A good place to begin would be on the subject of the idea for A War. The way in which ideas or stories take shape are divided between those writers who write through images, and those writers who perceive that stories are thought out through words. How does the process work for you? Does the idea emerge through images or expressions and words?
Tobias Lindholm (TL): I have never been amused by my own imagination. It bores me to sit down and make up stuff; it is just not interesting for me. I love all the movie makers and storytellers that work that way, but I just don’t find it amusing, funny or entertaining. So I am just really interested in the world around me, and you could say that I am always trying to find not a fiction that is larger than life, but a life that is larger than fiction. And in this case I guess it was the fact that what had defined my generation more than anything was Denmark going into Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11. I knew that I would love to find a story within that theme or subject area, but I couldn’t find my way in. And then suddenly I read an interview with this officer who was on his third term. He said that he wasn’t afraid of being killed by going to war, he was afraid of being prosecuted when he got back home, and I knew here was a story to start out with. So in some way it is a God feeling of what could be important. It was the same way with A Hijacking – feeling of this unbelievable story that I was so interested in that was going on in the Indian Ocean. Out of a natural interest I just started to study it and then suddenly I found an angle to write the script, and it felt the same with A War. I knew that I would love to find a story in there, but I just didn’t know what it was supposed to be. So naturally I just started to read a lot and look into aspects of the war in order to find this story. So I am just really trying to open my eyes and to be part of the world both as a citizen and as a private person, and to find my stories out there in the life of people.
A War represents the third feature film in your collaboration. How has the collaborative relationship changed from project to project, and has the process become more instinctive than it was on your first film R: Hit First, Hit Hardest?
Pilou Asbaek (PA): It’s a good question. It is like a love relationship and it was not love at first sight, I’ll tell you that. The first film we did together we were like cats and dogs. We were fighting constantly, but I knew he would have my back. There were two directors on the first film and he would be the personal director, while Michael Noer would be the visual director. You have this saying that there are no friends while working, and that was the thing with Tobias and I. We would argue one hundred percent of the time. But then because he was one of the writers of Borgen (2010-13), he immediately gave me the part of Kasper. Then he had an idea that he wanted to do more films as a writer/director and so he asked me if I wanted to do A Hijacking, and then he asked me if I wanted to do A War?
On A Hijacking we would communicate fifty percent of the time because now we had become friends. We hated each other to begin with and there was one specific moment while shooting our first film where I was being beaten up by some guards. They were kicking the living shit out of me, and we would finish shooting and I would go down and then he would ask me if I was okay? I completely broke down and I cried, and I cried, and I cried, and I cried. He asked: “Are you finished crying?” I said: “Yeah, I’m finished; I’m finished.” “Alright let’s go back and shoot!” So that was how we started our collaboration, and I knew then he would have my back. But he is a very demanding director and he wants one hundred percent. When we did A War we hardly communicated and while it was not an easy film, our collaboration was easy.
Across your collaboration you are seemingly using conflict as a stage in order to explore the subject. Yet the means of exploration is interesting because of the change of spatial settings between a prison, a boat, a military compound or even a domestic setting. Your collaboration is yielding an intriguing exploration within contemporary film.
TL: The thing is for lack of a better word you could say I look at people who are living the lives that we are in Western Europe – living in a privileged place in the world. And we all have these expectations, ideas and images of who we are as human beings and what kind of person we are. But the thing is we don’t really know until we have been in situations that have challenged us to the extreme. And that’s a reason for me to tell stories with people being in these situations and being confronted by the extreme because I do believe that is as close to an honest expression about human life as we can get. It is here that we actually show what we are made of and that’s where we are vulnerable. It’s where we honestly bear ourselves to the world, which is what has drawn me to these stories.
At the same time I am fascinated with the traditional American way of looking at characters, in which you present your characters in professions instead of psychologically. It is always a sheriff, a president, a bank robber or whatever. But it is always a profession first and then you get to know them as people, whereas in Europe we have a tendency in which it is always the psychology that you get to know first, and then maybe he has a job. Maybe he is a police officer investigating a murder, but the real thing that we are interested in is the psychology. And that for me gets in my head a little too much, instead of being something that I can look at. So looking at professions is something that really interests me now and if we know it is about a police officer then we know that he’s capable of violence because it is part of his training. So I don’t need to present that again during the story because we just know it’s there. And there are a lot of gifts within that because that’s how we read each other and the world. We see each other and we say: “Hello my name is…” and you will say to somebody: “What do you do?” And then the person you meet says: “I am a soldier” or “I am a chef” and in that way you get to understand who he is in this world. I do believe that is an interesting way of looking at characters, to try to look at them like people we meet in the ordinary world. Why are we interested in the strangers we meet? We are interested in what they do and that’s what we ask, which is why you can say that the main character in R is a prisoner. Of course he maybe has a grandmother, but we don’t say that much about his personal life and so he’s a prisoner. And in A Hijacking it’s a CEO, a sailor and pirates, and that’s what they do. They are human beings as well, but the most necessary part to understand is that they are CEOs, sailors and pirates. And the same thing again in A War. The most important thing to say about Pilou is that he is a soldier and the only really important thing to know about his wife is that she’s a mother, which is why we don’t give her a job. She might have a job, but we don’t tell that part of the story – she’s just a mother. In that way we are defining human life in terms of profession you could say, and I do believe that is a really great window to look into, to understand other people, other human beings.
PA: Oh, thank you so much, and that is what is interesting. First of all none of us like acting and whenever a writer/director says we have to use our imagination then I get goosebumps… I get the chills. Real life is so fucked up; reality is so weird and reality would surprise either imagination or fiction. And that’s what I love about Tobias, and that’s why I think he should write for the theatre as well because R was set in a prison, A Hijacking was set on a boat and in an office, and now with A War we are in Afghanistan, at home and in a courtroom. For him the dynamic of a scene is between the characters and that’s what we are trying to investigate, and of course that’s why these super dramatic settings are surrounding the super dramatic. And yet it is the everyday life that you recognise – taking your kids to the kindergarten and the kid doesn’t want to go in, and so you see yourself. You see a man with a little bit of power, you see a patrol leader trying to say to his young soldier: I can’t send you back home because if you go back home I don’t have control over you, and then I can’t help you. But I can help you down here because I am not only your leader, I am also your friend. Tobias knows people; he’s a people person, and that’s the reason why big Hollywood actors want to work with him now because he can push the boundaries of acting, which he hates as I just said.
To pick up on your point about Tobias being a “people person” there is a scene early in A War when you are talking with your son on the phone, yet it is one of your fellow soldiers who is able to connect with him by sharing a joke.
PA: Oh that’s such a good scene… It’s brilliant!
It is such an important scene because it raises this idea of familial disconnection – the disconnect between people who love one another. The world of war for him is not one his family shares a knowledge of, just as the domestic world his wife occupies while he’s at war is not one he shares. It is one that sees her isolated to some extent and it presents the powerful idea that while we are defined by these interpersonal relationships, we are equally isolated by the worlds we occupy that create an interpersonal disconnect.
PA: Yeah, you are absolutely right. But it is weird because you want to communicate with your kid. You want to say: “It’s going to be fine; daddy’s going to come home.” Why do my friends talk better with my father than I talk to my father? You know what Si mean? Why do my friends connect better with my kid than I connect with my kid? I have invested so much emotion that it is not… It’s complicated and you said it so beautifully… You are absolutely right.
In my review of White God (2015) I wrote how “emotional connection is one forged out of familiarity” that influences the formation of the protagonist. A War equally delves into this idea of an emotional connection through our close proximity to Pilou’s character, in which we form an “emotionally impulsive, blind or naïve protagonist versus antagonist perspective.” As we root for him and want to see him come through his ordeal, his survival overshadows justice for the murdered civilians. From your perspective as writer/director I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this idea of the formation of a protagonist.
TL: I totally agree and I look at this way. When we sit down and write characters I think there is a tendency to over tell, and thereby you kill your characters because they are not alive. I am always thinking of it like this: we as human beings are around other human beings all of the time, and we are all very well trained in entering a room and understanding what’s going on in that room without even asking. It’s what we have done all our lives. When we are kids and we go into a room, we understand that there’s an argument between our mother and our father. We are trained to understand the world around us that way, and I don’t see any reason to ask the audience to leave that talent outside of the theatre. Why not have them bring it in and connect with the film on a human level, instead of trying to stuff things down their throat? I remember in film school we had this language professor who had a great example of this. If I am going to tell you a story in which I say: “Yesterday, I walked down the street and I saw a cow and I crossed a bridge”, you have already imagined a street that you know, a cow that you know and a bridge that you once crossed. If I started to say: “Yesterday I walked down this street and there were all these yellow houses and green leaves all over the place, and people were on bicycles. Then I saw this cow and it had brown spots on the back”, I have already left my own street, my own cow and my own bridge. I have started to force myself to understand your cow, your bridge and your road. Therefore I am not any longer part of the story; I am a spectator. I have not invested my own bridge, my own cow or my own memory in this. I am just trying to understand your version of it and that creates a distance between the audience and the story that we are told. It is the same way as it is with characters. If we tell too much; if we don’t allow or invite the audience to connect on a human level with the characters, then we will distance the audience from the characters. And that of course is a problem in any storytelling.
When I interviewed Carol Morley she explained: “You take it 90% of the way and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves, their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it.” As filmmakers by crafting something that the audience can merge with therein creates an effective piece of art, yet the more I speak with filmmakers the more I realise just how complex the creative process is. Do you perceive the audience as being the ones who complete the film and do you perceive there to be a transfer of ownership?
TL: T;his is the main challenge of being a screenwriter because you try to either make or take some chaos, put it into a certain order so as to present it a certain way. And at the same time the struggle is that we can never make sure that we understand the world in exactly the same way as the next person we meet. It comes down to the point where it’s a practical thing, where for example we have agreed upon what colour blue is, but none of us can ever be sure that we are talking about the same vision. We can agree that that thing we are pointing at is blue, but what you are seeing I can not be sure of, and I can never put myself in there. This is the struggle of wanting to control an emotional journey for the audience because at the same time we have to be humble enough to understand that we cannot in any way really make sure that the material will materialise into that story. We can just hope and do our best, and try to go as much with our gut feeling as possible. And I think that’s extremely beautiful because it means that there will be as many versions of A War as there are people watching it. Especially with a film like this, when you are actually making a point of trying not to make a point, but instead to just go on a journey, it will allow everybody to see it their way.
What happened in Denmark was that the politicians from the far right thinking that I had made a film that spoke to their point of view invited me for lunch, and the politicians from the far left thinking that I had made a film that spoke to their point of view also invited me to lunch. It just shows us how differently you can look at the world, even though it’s a controlled chaos that we can present to people. And that is the beauty of making art. You are putting an expression out there and then it has to live on for itself. You can only do so much to control it unless you work in a very schematic way, where you are reproducing films that have already been done. What we can see out of the very commercial films from all over the world: Denmark, Hollywood, England or wherever, are films that are almost the same, and they offer nothing. The beauty is these films that standout, live on to have their own life and will hopefully invite debate at least for what’s going on.
Art can allow us to understand both ourselves and our world. It occurs to me that the war film has evolved from more of an interest in the spectacle of violence or the romanticism of war to become preoccupied with the human drama, and the affect on the psychology of the characters.
PA: I can tell you one thing, I just had an interview with a veteran British soldier who stepped on an IED and had his leg blown off. I have never been interviewed or I have never met a guy who has to be a critic and interview me who was so affected. He felt that he had seen his life; he felt that this film was his film, which he needed to go back to his wife to say: I am sorry that I put you through hell for ten years with you not knowing what was going to happen. And that is as you said, the development of the cinema is the development of war films. We are not glorifying war. We are not saying it is either good or bad. We are just saying that it is complicated and you as an audience need to understand that – how you can make the right decision in the spare of the moment, but it will have consequences for you not only in Afghanistan, but back home with your family. And that’s just what we wanted with this film. We just wanted to explain to people that these soldiers are fathers, sons, brothers, uncles and wives… There are women at war, and you need to understand this. We wanted to show something inhumane in the humane world or you could say the opposite, a humane thing in an inhumane world.
Foreign language drama is finding a way to have its voice heard on the international stage and it’s important for us to understand that it is not just American and British troops deployed in Afghanistan. What is unfolding is international and A War by offering the perspective of Danish storytellers is important.
PA: We have a tendency in the world that we live in to think that we are all small islands and now more than ever we need to stand together to handle this. Do you understand what I mean? I am thinking about the Syria crisis and how every single country is closing their own borders, and going back to a state before 1918. We are going back in time my friend and we need to open up and to take care of these issues and these problems together. We cannot do this by ourselves and we are actually doing the exact opposite. We are not opening up, and I am not saying opening up the borders, I am saying that we need to open up and work together.
A filmmaker recently remarked to me: “You are evolving and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.” Would you agree that you perceive a change from project to project?
TL: Well, I think there are two levels of the answer to that question. On a personal level every time I go out on a crusade it humbles me. It humbles me to see and to meet those in the world that I meet, in this case refugees that escaped the exact area that we were filming about. To meet Taliban warriors and to suddenly understand their reality. To meet Danish soldiers that served out there and to suddenly understand their reality humbles me in a way that has made me far less political than I was before. I doubt more and more what’s right and wrong, and it confuses me because I have three small kids that I would love to bring up knowing what’s right or wrong, or to be able to tell them. But I am just not sure any more. It’s all a God feeling and it’s all down to that point where I believe that you could understand any personal life if you just sat down and spoke with the person. And that confuses me a lot. So you can say that following A War I am much more humble, and a lot more confused about the world. Every fiber in my body screams against war, but then meeting these guys and suddenly seeing the world from their point of view, it is not that it makes me a fan of war, but just the fact that I am starting to understand bits and pieces of it is confusing to me.
On a professional level I am fortunate enough to have been working with the same people again and again across these three films. In that way I’ve been able to detect what skills we have improved since the first one we did together, and in that way I do believe that I am much more aware of how the production of a film works. The first one I had never been on a film set before and so I didn’t know what it was – I had no idea how the camera worked. A Hijacking educated me a lot and I do believe that A War was the first one where I was in control just a little when we started to shoot. So I guess I am learning on a professional level from every film, and adding something new to the recipe of the film.
Luckily the world is now opening up. Pilou and I started out doing art together. I was straight out of film school and he came out of acting school. We did the prison film together and that was the beginning. Now Pilou is a part of Game of Thrones (2011- ) and that journey for me is a joy too watch. And at the same time the world has opened up to me. So in a way you can say that we are both probably leaving Denmark for a while at the same time, which is of course a great joy and is proof for us that we have grown together as artists during the last eight years.
A War is released theatrically in the UK on January 8 2016 courtesy of STUDIOCANAL.
Paul Risker is an independent scholar and film critic who contributes regularly to Film International. He is an editor for Mise-en-scène: The Journal of Film and Visual Narration, which will launch in Fall 2016.