This article analyses the way the Afghan war has been dealt with in Danish documentaries, fictional films and television programmes. The Afghan war is a landmark in Danish media and public debate. It was the first war in which Danish forces were in direct combat on foreign ground. This raised a new agenda where national and global dimensions of war interact on film. Susanne Bier’s Brothers (2004) was the first film to address this theme, followed by Christoffer Guldbrandsen’s political documentary The Secret War (2006). Janus Metz’s documentary film Armadillo (2010) and Tobias Lindholm’s very realistic fictional film The War (2015) both include the perspective of the soldier, the home front and the civilians. Two other documentaries, Eva Mulvad’s Enemies of Happiness (2006) and Nagieb Khaja’s My Afghanistan. Life in the Forbidden Zone (2012), on the other hand go deep into everyday life in Afghanistan. Together these films ask how we can deal with war and realities in a global world and how films can make us better understand global others.

Keywords: the Danish war film, political documentary, war documentary, Afghanistan, cosmopolitan ‘Others’


In all cases of war, journalism, film, and documentaries are important because media can take us directly into the battlefield and enable us a look behind the frontlines and into everyday life. In both documentaries and fiction films we can witness the lives of civilians and communities suffering because of the war. War films can show us the true face of combat, they can create a space for public debate, and on a deeper level they can also give us emotional identification with global others. They can make us realise that despite cultural and religious differences humans around the world have a lot in common (Bondebjerg 2014 and 2020). The Danish Afghanistan films try to do just that: on the one hand they follow Danish soldiers in combat, but they also try to tell the story of the Afghans and their everyday life, the story of a nation caught between an internal and an external war.

Films about wars in modern mediated societies are on the one hand part of a national narrative, what Benedict Anderson called imagined national communities (Anderson 1983). Media stories, journalism and fiction films all relate to and reflect the national culture they are imbedded in. However, as sociologists like Arjun Appadurai (1996), Ulrich Beck (2006) and Gerard Delanty (2009) have been arguing, globalisation is not just about dominance and very heavy social differences on a global level. We can also talk about forms of increased intercultural mediation (Bondebjerg et al. 2017a: 23ff) by means of images and narratives which at least potentially establish new links between national communities around the globe. New channels of mediated globalisation have been created, and the boundaries between national communities and the life of others in different communities may challenge our perception of self and other, us and them. Danish war documentaries in many cases seem to combine a critical look at the national war efforts with stories meant to break with a national mono-narrative. They take a critical look at the notion of us and them.

The films dealt with in this article are both fictional and documentary, but despite their generic diversity, they all raise one key question: what is the relationship between our lives as Danes in a fairly stable democracy and welfare state, and those out there with whom we are fighting a war? Will the war make a difference out there, and do we really understand those people and societies we fight against and for? Can films further a deeper understanding of global others who also arrive at our national doorstep as refugees and migrants? How can films best help us understand the realities of war and global inequalities, and thus perhaps realise that European democracies also depend on global politics? These are the central questions raised in the following, therefore the article deals with the concept of cosmopolitan narratives. These are narratives of documentary or fictional nature that deal with ‘us’ and ‘them’, with the relation between a national and a more global perspective on reality, in this case the Afghan war seen from a Danish and an Afghan perspective. The Danish films discussed here all deal with wider questions about how global understanding and cooperation can be improved.

The films analysed in the following represent the fundamental Danish narratives of the Afghan war, and despite thematic differences they all address corresponding issues. Susanne Bier’s film Brothers was the first fiction film to take up the subject of the Afghan war, and it shows what the war out there actually does to soldiers, and also how it affects the home front. This theme is also central to Janus Metz’ film Armadillo, which tells not only about soldiers at war and at home, but also about the combat zone and the Afghan home front, conveying a strong existential message. The same theme prevails in Tobias Lindholm’s film The War, which foregrounds the problem of war crimes. Unlike Bier’s film, The War is based on a military court narrative. In many ways the political and moral legality of the Afghan war is at stake in Lindholm’s film, the aspect also central to Christoffer Guldbrandsens very critical The Secret War, with its indictment of the Danish politicians and the military high command responsible for the country’s involvement in the war. This is also the case in the latest documentary from Nagieb Khaja, Bedraget i Helmand (Deceived in Helmand, 2023), which deals with corrupt Afghans that the Danish military worked with, well aware of their inclinations. This narrative of dealing with the locals in Afghanistan also includes an important dimension of how poor our understanding of the reality in Afghanistan is. Films like Nagieb Khaja’s My Afghanistan: Life in the Forbidden Zone and Eva Mulvad’s Enemies of Happiness are important counter-narratives to the other films analysed. They try to tell the story of ordinary Afghans, how they are affected by the war and also how they dream of and fight for a different Afghanistan.

Mapping Out the Context

Denmark became a member of NATO in 1949, but did not participate in any military combat operations as a NATO-member until Danish forces joined the war in Afghanistan led by the USA in the wake of the 9/11 2001 terrorist attacks. Danish soldiers had until then only taken part in UN peace keeping activities, for example during the civil war in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The war on Afghanistan was backed by UN resolution 1373, and as a consequence a large majority in the Danish parliament supported the war. However, the public opinion was more divided: those voting for the conservative-liberal bloc, then in power, were for the Danish military involvement, while those supporting the more left-oriented parties were against it. However, Denmark pursued its new policy of active military presence also by taking part in the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. The argument for the Iraq invasion was based on the now well-documented falsehoods by the US government about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. The Iraq war was not backed by the UN or NATO as a whole, therefore the Danish parliament’s decision was much more controversial, and public opinion was split. As the two wars continued for years, they eventually caused both a widespread public debate and ultimately a division in the Danish society.

In 2006, the Danish documentary film maker Christoffer Guldbrandsen, a specialist in critical, political documentaries, made the first critical documentary about Danish military operations in Afghanistan, Den hemmelige krig (The Secret War). The film was the first overtly political Afghan film made in Denmark in the sense that it directly questioned the aims of the war and highlighted the close bond between the Danish prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen and the American president George W. Bush. It also strongly attacked the military system for covering up an incident in which Danish soldiers handed over prisoners to the Americans, knowing they would violate the Geneva Convention. The main perspective in the film contrasts the official reason for the war – to install democracy and human rights in Afghanistan – and the violation of those same human rights, for instance when taking prisoners or in relation to ordinary Afghans. The film also questions Denmark’s new, more aggressive role in global politics. In a 2008 interview with the author of the present article, Guldbrandsen said that the film could be seen as a wake-up call and shock for the nation’s self-image: “The reaction against the film was not about the film’s form and aesthetics, it came because the film challenges our national mentality as a small, peaceloving nation” (Guldbransen 2008).

Guldbrandsen’s film raises questions about the political and military strategy behind the war against Afghanistan, the attitude to the civil population hit by the war, and the treatment of Afghan prisoners of war. Its authors faced serious problems during the production, having been denied access to most official documents about the war and in particular about war prisoners. When the Danish troops took prisoners, they handed them over to the Americans, although the journalists had already documented cases of the violation of the Geneva Convention in American prison facilities. The film was accused of promoting a partisan agenda and abusing journalistic and documentary standards, which was a reflection of a heated public debate on Danish media. However, already in 2006 (see Bondebjerg 2014 p. 98-99) an independent evaluation of the film concluded that it lived up to the high standards for productions of its kind.

Films and documentaries about war, including the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the civil war in Yugoslavia, have had significantly more presence across Danish film and television since 2000. This increased presence has widely influenced Danish public debate and politics. The agenda on war is closely linked to globalisation and the refugee crisis in the European Union. The war is linked to our national policy towards global others, those whom we face in war as well as in our everyday life in a multi-ethnic Denmark (Bondebjerg 2017). Wars can of course be necessary, but the question is if the war in Afghanistan was really worth the losses on both sides? Especially now, after all western forces have withdrawn, and we are looking at a country falling apart because of poverty and the authoritarian religious rule violating basic human rights, especially women’s. The question of ‘us’ and ‘them’ is more important now than before we went to war. We need more cosmopolitan and critical films that can contribute to a deeper global understanding.

Again, this debate and more cosmopolitan forms of dialogue on a broader, global scale are not just a Danish phenomenon, as exemplified by BBC Panorama’s two programmes in connection with the Afghan war and 9/11. In the Panorama debate programme Clash of Cultures (October 2001) the discussion involves the BBC and Al Jazeera, connecting audiences and experts in New York, Islamabad and London. Panorama continued with Koran and Country, focused on Muslims living in the UK in order to hear different voices in those communities on the war in Afghanistan. This clearly transnational and cosmopolitan form of dialogue is an analogous attempt to create cosmopolitan understanding, that we find in the Danish Afghanistan films.

Globalisation and the Loss of National Innocence

Christoffer Guldbrandsen’s classical investigative documentary about the Danish involvement in the war in Afghanistan was not in fact the first Danish film dealing with this subject. Susanne Bier’s feature film Brødre (Brothers, 2004, also made in a US version) was a major success in Danish cinemas, and subsequently on television and streaming services. It combines a storyline set in Afghanistan with a family drama in Denmark. Like her similar films Efter Bryllupet (After the Wedding, 2006) and her Oscar-winning Hævnen (In a Better World, 2010), it introduces a new kind of global drama in Danish film, clearly aiming to bridge the global and the local, making the two realities with their imaginaries reflect each other. Her films illustrate an increasingly connected world and global commonalities despite cultural and social differences. In an interview in the Danish newspaper Berlingske Tidende (Schelin 2004) Susanne Bier states that modern cinema has to deal more directly with global problems, because they affect our everyday life and social and political reality.

In Brothers, the strong, rational brother Michael (Ulrich Thomsen) chooses to enlist as a soldier in Afghanistan, leaving behind his wife Sarah (Connie Nielsen), children, and his quite problematic and foolish brother Jannik (Nikolaj Lie Kaas). Michael wants to serve his country in a faraway place for idealistic reasons. However, he is taken prisoner, tortured, and systematically broken as a human being. The scenes in Afghanistan demonstrate the darkest sides of warfare, challenging Michael’s human values. For example, he is forced to take part in the torture of a fellow prisoner, and he himself experiences mock executions. But worst of all, at gunpoint he is told to kill his Danish fellow prisoner, a friend from home, or else they will both be shot. He kills him, brutally, with an iron bar. Sometime later he is liberated by British soldiers, but he lies about what happened to his fellow prisoner both to the British and the Danish military. Perhaps worst of all, he lies to the widow, who is still hoping her husband is alive.

He has been imprisoned for so long that his family considers him dead, and when he comes home, completely broken both mentally and physically, the fact that his wife and little brother have fallen in love and moved in together makes him almost destroy his own family. In a very dramatic scene, he threatens his wife and children, smashes the kitchen furniture, and when finally confronted by the police, he ends up in a similar situation as that in Afghanistan. This time, however, his brother helps calm him down and he is jailed. In the last scene of the film, Michael’s wife forces him to tell the truth about his killing of the other Danish prisoner in Afghanistan. As Belinda Smaill (2019, p. 217) has noted in her analysis of Bier’s global trilogy as a “transnational form of cinema,” Bier connects familial power structures directly to social structures that have global, geopolitical dimensions and perspectives. The film demonstrates that what we do to global others can easily come back and haunt us at home.

Danes at War Close up: Armadillo and The War

Because until recently military issues were never particularly high on the national agenda, Danish film has not focused on war except for a large number of films dealing with the German occupation and the Danish resistance movement during the Second World War. The new phase of globalisation after 2000 gradually changed that, and the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and finally the Russian war against Ukraine clearly put war almost at the top of the political and public debate. War has become a big theme in feature films, documentaries and television series. As a consequence, the critical investigation of war in a national and global context, initiated by the work of Susanne Bier and Christoffer Guldbrandsen, has expanded significantly.

A clear indication of the prominence of war in Danish film is that the very popular television series Borgen in its second season had an episode called 89.000 Kids, fully dedicated to the Afghan war. The episode opens with the prime minister Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen) visiting Danish soldiers in Afghanistan. During her visit, the camp comes under attack and some soldiers get killed in a roadside bombing. This incident sparks a heated debate in the media and parliament. The prime minister is caught between the anti-war opposition, those in favour of a stronger military presence and the NGO’s advocating a bigger support for Afghan citizens – in this case the children saved by humanitarian organizations (hence the title of the episode). The episode also portrays the prime minister’s encounter with the father of one of the dead soldiers, who is very angry and in deep grief. All in all, it offers a condensed narrative of some of the most central themes of Danish films about the war in Afghanistan.

It is, however, Janus Metz’ documentary Armadillo (2010) and Tobias Lindholm’s feature film The War (2015) that each in its way bring the war stronger into the national sphere. Metz’s observational documentary follows a group of Danish soldiers at home, at war, and back home. Lindholm’s work is fictional but it conveys a strong documentary sensibility. Both films take us deep into the war and the conditions of combat with the enemy not always easy to identify, and we mostly see the war from the perspective of the soldiers. And both pay attention to the Afghan reality, which the soldiers find difficult to understand. In Armadillo there are scenes when the Danish soldiers meet the locals and try to communicate and cooperate with them. Both films show the brutality of war very directly. In The War there is an additional appealing theme that concerns the ethics of war and the difficulty of always doing the right thing in the complicated reality of combat where decisions must be made within seconds. This has to do with the courtroom subplot as the main character, battalion leader Claus Petersen (Pilou Asbæk), is accused of killing civilians during a very complicated action. Even though he is found not guilty, the trial leaves the viewer with an impression of insoluble wartime dilemmas: soldiers are expected to act in morally appropriate ways, but they often end up doing something evil. The film employs an almost clinical realism in its depiction of the blurred reality of war and the morally ambiguous aspects on both sides

Armadillo was the first Danish film to explore in detail the realities of the Afghan war. Metz had to fight with the military to approach the soldiers and the Afghan civilians as closely as possible. There is no authoritative voice in the film and no guidance as to what we see. On the contrary, the strength of the film comes from its insistence that we as viewers are confronted directly with the wartime reality as it unfolds in the director’s edited version of it. Armadillo was mostly shot on by a professional crew with professional cameras, but some of the most dramatic combat scenes were also filmed from the soldiers’ point of view using footage from helmet cameras. Metz also uses aerial shots from airplanes and night vision images. This mixture of filming techniques, from very close up, from a professional distance and from high altitude indicates the director’s intention of letting the audience see the war from many perspectives and get a fuller picture of modern war. In an interview with the author of this article in 2013, Metz said:

I felt it was important to make a film that provided a really detailed picture of the reality of war, and of its consequences for the soldiers, and for the civilians for whose sake we allegedly are involved in the fight in the first place. However, what I was really interested in was raising some big existential questions about our civilization and our way of being human in the context of contemporary global realities. (Metz interviewed by the author in Hjort et.al 2013, p. 257)


Metz also emphasizes that the aim of the film was to make something different from embedded war journalism. In his opinion, storytellers do a different job than journalists, and therefore his aim was to create a more character-driven narrative and to facilitate a more emotional form of identification. The idea was not to abandon the realism and factual precision of the documentary form, but to use the narrative and the characters in such a way as to enable a deeper understanding of war. The film from the start immerses itself in the psychology of a group of professional Danish soldiers who volunteered to go to one of the most dangerous places in Afghanistan, Helmand province. Of course they are committed to fighting because they feel they are doing the right thing and making a difference for their country. The film reminds us that what matters during wartime is community, solidarity and mutual care. What is striking at the end of the film is that, after having been through a tough time and witnessing the deaths of comrades, the majority of the soldiers plan to return to Afghanistan for another tour.

Armadillo focuses on two characters: Daniel, an action man drawn to what Metz calls the “dangerous and dark side of the war”; and Mads, a more timid and reluctant type of soldier, who seems to be there out of duty, but does not conceal his scepticism about the military and the whole mission (Metz 2014 p. 259). The film does of course also give us a bigger picture of how military actions are planned as well as insights into specific situations, such as debriefings after heavy  combat. A close look at two different types of soldiers and personalities, however, allows the film to establish an emotional and psychological space of war, combining universal and subjective dimensions of war. Still, the character-driven narrative conveys a larger political – national and global – message:


It’s also a mental journey, on a national level, through our self-conceptions as a democratic nation. Why is it that we’re now teaming up with the strong and powerful? Why are we building military bases in remote parts of the world in order to protect ourselves and to intervene in a quite different culture? The film is also about what this kind of active militarism does to our self-understandings as Danes, and, in a more extended sense, to the relationship between the West and other parts of the world. It’s a film about the landscapes of globalization as these are reflected in the landscape of war. It’s a film about what might be problematic about our new militant “humanitarianism”, about the idea of a tough kind of tit for tat in a global game (Metz interviewed by author in Hjort et.al 2014 p. 258)


By shifting between different social spaces (the home front, combat zones, camp routines and ordinary Afghan life), Armadillo marks out national, global and local dimensions of war, which define the relation between us and the global others – the peoples we fight with and at the same time claim to help. The combat scenes in Armadillo are excessively brutal and realistic against the backdrop of Danish war films, but their effect is counterbalanced by portrayals of the soldiers’ everyday functioning in the camp and their interactions with the Afghans. The film establishes a kind of mediated cultural encounter between ordinary Afghans caught in the war and the viewers of the film, be they Danish or from some other country. We directly experience being with people from a culture very different from ours, but also in some ways similar to us: they have families and they try to live normal lives.

Very direct and realistic combat scenes are also characteristic of Lindholm’s The War. The film opens with a scene that shows a group of Danish soldiers on reconnaissance, when a roadside bomb explodes killing one of them. We see this from two concomitant perspectives: the soldiers’ direct perspective and the commanding officer’s perspective in the camp – through sound and electronic visual contact. During the debriefing that follows the soldiers express their frustration as they doubt the strategy behind their mission. Following that, the battalion leader tries to calm them down: “Do any of you doubt why we are here? We are here to secure the Afghan population a safer and better life and make it possible for them to rebuild their country.” He adds that right now the foreign armies are finally getting the civilians on their side. This turns out to be an illusion, and the Danish soldiers plunge into a war that cannot be won. At the same time their families experience various kinds of crisis. Claus’ son Julius develops violent tendencies towards other children as a consequence of the trauma of the missing father, and this means that Claus’ wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) has her own war to fight.

The film includes several scenes with the soldiers talking to the locals, usually implying how difficult it is for them to suppress the feeling of tension, suspicion and fear. The soldiers seldom confront the enemy, but they are repeatedly reminded about the invisible enemy, especially when roadside bombs explode. An interpreter tells the soldiers that the Talibs come at night and terrorise the people. During an operation aimed at securing a local village, things go wrong and a shooting breaks out. Claus orders the bombing of a compound in which he believes the Talibs are hiding, and he later discovers that the victims are civilians, including children. He has to face the military court for a possible violation of the laws of war. The courtroom sequence raises important questions about the ethics of war. The facts presented during the proceedings seem to confirm Claus’s guilt, but he is declared innocent, largely thanks to the support of his fellow soldiers who understand the complexity of combat situations. The principal and general ethics of war clashes with the brutal realities of war. The dilemma of wanting to do good but instead doing wrong is emphasized in both Armadillo and The War, and this is how they confront the audience with a human drama that reflects the tensions around the imaginaries of ‘them’ and ‘us.’


The Afghan War and the Emergence of a New National Memory Culture

Films like Armadillo and The War are quite new in the context of Danish film culture insofar as they feature Danish soldiers active in combat, and not as members of peacekeeping forces. The Danish participation in wars abroad divided the society, but it also created a new kind of memory culture. During the war in Afghanistan 37 Danish soldiers were killed and 24 were wounded, and on top of that many soldiers were diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) on their return. These deaths and injuries, the scale of which was new for Denmark, were instrumental to the development of a new national memory culture celebrating Danish soldiers. DR, the oldest public service television channel, in September 2010 broadcast a week of programmes dedicated to debates about the war, and as part of this, two documentaries were shown about soldiers who had paid with their lives or had been wounded: De faldne (The Fallen, dir. Poul Erik Heilbuth) and De sårede (The Wounded, dir. Louise Kjeldsen and Louise Jappe). The intention behind these documentaries was not to question the war, but to honour the soldiers and their families. This is stated in DR’s announcement:

In Iraq and Afghanistan young Danish soldiers lost their lives. Here we portray some of them through stories told by those closest to them. With the theme week DR joins the national event […] to express our compassion and sympathy for soldiers and their families […] our recognition of the effort done by our soldiers in one of the world’s conflict area […] [W]e have chosen the week leading up to our national flag day to tell stories about people who have been affected by the war. (DR presentation of theme week Denmark at war, 2010, my translation, https://www.dr.dk/presse/danmark-i-krig).


The second Danish channel involved, TV2, was even more ambitious. From January to May 2010 they broadcast six rather different documentaries in coproduction with The Danish Film Institute and private film companies. The most successful of these films was Armadillo. The six productions were not simple patriotic tributes to the soldiers. They showed very different aspects of the war, including a film portraying the minister of defence, Søren Gade (War minister, dir. Kasper Torsting), who actually admitted that had he known about the war then what he knew today, he would not have recommended the Danish participation. While the films are diverse, their television announcement does strike a human-oriented and patriotic note:

Denmark is at war. Hundreds of Danish soldiers, professionally trained and armed for battle, kill and get killed. But this is not just about guns and ammunition. This is also about human beings and emotions, it is about a war reaching far into the lives of Danish families. The directors have been given the assignment to make engaging and moving films about Denmark’s participation in the war in Afghanistan. The film must be a human, character-driven story and give a new perspective on this war, normally only dealt with by journalists. (TV2 presentation of the series Our war (2010, my translation, https://tv.tv2.dk/articlenew.php/id-27454259:vores-krig-56-krigsminister.html)

The films focused on those deployed to war and the families left behind, on father-son relations and on the wives or the parents. What these films underline is that as a result of the active Danish participation in Afghanistan and Iraq, war has become a major issue in politics, in public debates, in the media, and in families all over Denmark. However, one thing is to see the war from a soldier’s perspective or from a national point of view, but what about those others that the fight was in many ways all about? The striving to give the viewers an insight into the reality of the people in the warzone establishes a mediated global dialogue between us and them.


Us and Them: Cosmopolitan Others, War, Everyday Life and Culture

One of the problems with the western invasion of Afghanistan (and later Iraq) is the lack of knowledge of these societies and cultures. As the Norwegian journalist and writer Åsne Seirstad has pointed out in her three documentary novels about Afghanistan Boghandleren i Kabul (The Bookseller of Kabul, 2002), To Søstre (Two Sisters, 2016) and Afghanerne (The Afghans, 2023), the war was a clash between western democracies and an ancient clan society rooted in Islam. In the course of its history Afghanistan was invaded by France and Russia before the US-led invasion, and each time the invaders failed. As Seierstad demonstrates in her latest book, trying to win the hearts and minds of the Afghans like the American troops did, trying to help liberate women, to build schools, roads, and businesses was clearly not enough. Democracy could not have been imposed by means of an invasion and without a proper understanding of cultural factors. The circulation of narratives and images strengthens global understanding. Even if film and other media narratives alone cannot change the world in any fundamental ways, news reporting, fiction films and documentaries help to build bridges between societies and cultures. Such cosmopolitan narratives can at least create a broader picture of those involved in or affected by war.

Theories about us and them in a more global perspective have been on the agenda for many years, however national media often tend to assume only a global perspective when a crisis knocks on the door in connection with terrorism, war or refugees. Reporting on the everyday life of global others is scarce. Referring to Benedict Anderson’s idea of nations as imagined communities (Anderson 1983), Arjun Appadurai (1996, p. 22) has argued for the need for a stronger, transnational public sphere and a transnational, cosmopolitan dialogue across borders and between regions: “The transformation of everyday subjectivities through mediation and the work of mediation is not only a cultural fact […] the diasporic public spheres […] are no longer small, marginal or exceptional. They are part of the cultural dynamics of urban life in most countries and continents.” Although the global media system and the circulation of stories and images is no doubt increasing, we are likely to watch and listen to our own stories and to interact within our immediate environments. Such bonds are stronger than contacts between distant cultures. But this makes it even more important and urgent to connect to cultures and communities of others. Cultural and historical differences are obvious, but humans of all backgrounds share basic experiences. There is always some form of unity behind diversity, and portraying everyday life in a warzone helps us understand this.

In many ways this is what the Danish-Afghan journalist Nagieb Khaja aims to achieve in his reporting from global zones and in his documentary film Mit Afghanistan – livet i den forbudte zone (My Afghanistan: Life in the Forbidden Zone, 2012). Analogous themes can be found in Eva Mulvad’s documentary Vores lykkes fjender (Enemies of Happiness, 2006). In both these films we get behind the headlines of war and learn about the everyday life of ordinary Afghans. They are not the only films offering another perspective on the Afghan reality. In 2006 Andreas Dalsgaard made a documentary, Afghan Muscles, about the Afghan male fascination with bodybuilding, a film which not only gives us a very different picture of men in Kabul, but also connects it with a more general perception of this sport. Kabul is also the focus of Simone Aaaberg Kærn’s documentary Smiling In a War Zone (2005), a film in which she takes a number of risks to meet with a girl in Kabul, who is fascinated with flying. The director manages to fly there and give her flying lessons, a story of another side of female life in Afghanistan. One last example is Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s animated documentary Flugt (Escape, 2021), following the story of gay Amin from Kabul, his happy childhood in Kabul in the 1980s and his dangerous escape from the war-ridden Kabul to Denmark.

What is common to these documentaries is that they deal with notions of ‘us’ and ‘them’ by undermining or qualifying the very distinction and pointing to the relation between something universal across human and cultural and historical differences. They all bring us closer to everyday life of ordinary Afghans, they go beyond religious and cultural differences that inevitably exist, looking for a common human ground. They challenge the very notion of us and them and at the same time criticize cultures or political regimes that deny universal human rights, individual freedom and norms of democracy. In dealing with different societies in a global framework, we need to avoid essentialising cultural differences. As Seyla Benhabib (2002, p. 4) points out, a distant look at other cultures and societies “risks essentializing culture as the property of an ethnic group or race; it risks reifying cultures as separate entities by overemphasizing their boundedness and distinctness; it risks overemphasising the internal homogeneity of cultures in terms that legitimize repressive demands for communal conformity.” There is a diversity behind every official, ideological vision of a society and culture, such as the Taliban version Afghanistan. Authoritarian, religious societies have their own complex human realities. We should not essentialise global differences to a degree that prevents us from seeing individuals behind an overall picture of a seemingly homogenous ethnic group.

The Danish documentaries mentioned above all use an observational and ethnographic approach with the aim of depicting Afghan everyday life and thus challenging the prevailing images of Afghanistan known from western media. They use a more collaborative and interactive approach, which involves the participation of local people. Eva Mulvad tellingly comments on her film Enemies of Happiness:

How does the story we choose to tell affect our society, our world? The great ‘mono-narrative’ has to be broadened. The world hungers for more dimensions, more voices so that we can create our own opinions, our own sense of awareness about what is really happening in the world – especially when it comes to Islam. This film was made to tell another story from one of the world’s most talked-about regions: Afghanistan. The stories we hear are always full of bombs, torture and terrorists, stories full of apprehension that create distance: between ‘us’ and ‘them.’  The world is not just about villains who lurk outside awaiting us. The world is more than that – full of ordinary people who fight everyday battles for their and others’ right to live, dream and be happy. Muslims are not a monolithic villainous entity just like we in the West are not. We can understand each other. There are many who profit from making us think that we cannot. But we must not believe them. They want us see the world and one another with apprehension, and apprehension creates distance. (From original press release 2006, quote dated September 2005, https://www.dr.dk/presse/vores-lykkes-fjender-dokumentar-fra-et-andet-afghanistan, my translation)


The film’s opening scene takes place in 2003 and shows a tumultuous parliamentary gathering, where Malalai Joya, the film’s main character, attacks the agenda of the war lords and the suppression of women’s rights and is expelled from parliament. The film documents her fight to return to the parliament, her campaigning and other activities in the Farah province, where she is based. At the start of the film, when Joya once again changes house because of threats, a radio voice tells us this is the first election in 35 years and the first ever when women can vote, and that Joya has survived four murder attempts. The film offers no authoritative, generalising comments or explanations, it only features Joya telling about her own life and scenes in which she is talking to other people. The film follows her very closely, registering a range of situations and emotions, but the camera also retains a certain distance, and on one occasion when the heroine is overcome with fear and fatigue, the camera moves away, showing her from far and behind.

The style and aesthetic form of the film significantly contributes to this ethnographic inside image of life in a remote Afghan province. Unlike many of the already mentioned films, this one is not about a military war, but about a political war, a war of mentalities. Its cinematographer, Zillah Bowes, captures the colours of Afghan nature, provincial life, people, architecture and so on, in breathtaking shots. With original Afghan music underscoring the pictures, the visual side of the film creates a sort of utopian dimension of hope beneath the desperate fight democracy and equality.

But more important than this visual presentation of the country typically associated with images of violence, destruction and human suffering is the portrayal of strong and charismatic people with their often incredible stories. One old woman walks a very long way just to pay tribute to Joya and her fight for women’s rights, and her own emotional tale about her own struggles in life puts the whole situation in a historical perspective. In another memorable scene, a very young girl, already married to an older man, comes to Joya to complain because she has been threatened and treated very badly. We get a broader picture of difficulties and humiliations that Afghan women face in a reality dominated by patriarchal clans. Thanks to its form the film allows those women to speak their own voice and to share their thoughts and feelings.

As an observational documentary, the film unfolds chronologically focusing on Joya’s election campaign. Although it foregrounds rather unspectacular aspects of Afghan everyday life, it also has an aura of a political thriller, an intense and dangerous human drama. But just as the film starts in Kabul in 2003 when Joya is expelled from the national assembly, it also ends with scenes of a new parliamentary gathering in Kabul with Joya as the first ever elected woman in Afghan history. Despite the human drama and danger, despite the politically motivated threats against her, the film portrays a triumph of personal courage. The combination of Afghan everyday life in Afghanistan with the portrait of an exceptional woman contrasts with the dominant journalistic images of the Afghan war in Danish and western media in general. We encounter the Afghans on a more personal basis, we can identify with their longing for a better life, we can compare their reality to ours. The film is a contemporary classic in Denmark/Scandinavia, but it has been shown in many other places, contributing considerably to a broader global understanding across cultures.

Nagieb Khaja’s My Afghanistan: Life in the Forbidden Zone (2012), in which ordinary Afghans film their own lives during wartime is different in form and genre, but it similarly gives voice to ordinary Afghans. This is possible because Khaja has Afghan roots and speaks the native language, not to mention his Afghan connections as a long-time war reporter. For the purposes of the film, the local Afghans were given mobile phones and asked to film their lives, and the footage was then edited by Khaja, hence the unique result. In his own presentation of the film Nagieb Khaja writes:

I am passionate about Afghanistan because my family background is Afghan and I have now been following the negative developments in the country for many years with concern. I have tried to cover the war as a journalist for the last seven years at a great personal cost without losing courage. I am now even more determined to provide a more sophisticated portrayal of the war that has lasted for almost a decade. My conviction, based on experience, is that the reality of the Afghans, particularly in villages, has been ignored by the generally superficial foreign press, which has only focused on life in larger Afghan towns, home only to a small part of the population. The alternative have been embedded tours on which the military presence often terrifies the locals and makes it impossible for them to share their true views with filmmakers and the press. (Khaja 2013, my translation)


The film follows the director and his photographer to their contact person in Afghanistan. At the airport Khaja looks at books about Afghanistan, and he remarks that they are all stories about soldiers, not about civilians trying to live their ordinary lives under very difficult circumstances, caught between the Afghan government and army, the foreign invaders, and Taliban. We watch the Afghan landscape from above as the film crew lands in Lashkar Gah in the war-ridden Helmand province. At their base, the media centre of Lashkar Gah, they meet with and give instructions to those civilians who have agreed to participate in the film. “Film with your heart, don’t try to film the things you think we want you to film, and try to stay out of danger” – is the message from Khaja. Recruiting women is especially difficult. Nargis, a 48-year woman and widow with children and grandchildren, eventually gets into trouble and must stop filming. The same happens to the 15-year-old, well-educated Ferestha. Neither their families nor the people around can accept women filming. In particular other women react quite violently to this, a sign of the repression Afghan women experience in all areas of life. It is therefore males who dominate the film, though some footage from the women is included, and so are Khaja’s interviews with them and their relatives, explicitly dealing with the problem of women speaking up in public.

In the film there are several episodes evoking war events, for instance in the footage provided by 19-year-old Shukrulla, who lives with his family in Saidabad. The village is the centre of heavy fighting between the Talibs and the Afghan and American soldiers. We repeatedly witness heavy combat near Shrukulla’s house and we see his family hiding inside. On top of that, Shrukulla’s school and football stadium have been bombed and now he has to walk a long way to another school. At the end of the film, we realise how many of those portrayed in it lost their houses and land when the Afghan authorities took over in the fight against Taliban. This is seen through the eyes of 40-year-old Abdul Muhammed, whose wife is buried on his land and 48-years-old Haji Sahib, who work at a medical centre. Perhaps the footage made by 20-years-old Juma Gul stands out: he creates a sort of a journalistic programme and interviews very different people, including three members of Taliban. At the end of the film, he says that he has been too daring, and that he will now try to leave Afghanistan.

Khaja is present in his film not only through his editing, but primarily through visual, narrative and rhetorical interventions, as when he talks about the situation of women. Other examples include his interview with a family of a child wounded during an American air strike. On another occasion he talks with Afghan soldiers about his film and himself, and in the background we witness a very important meeting of the US military, ISAF, the Afghan military and the province governor. This situation reminds us about larger political and historical issues at stake. The film demonstrates, analogically to Mulvad’s film, that Afghan people have a culture, history and everyday life that differs from ours, but there do exist global commonalities around shared human experiences and hopes for the future.


Conclusion: War and Our Global Reality

Narratives of war, whether fictional or documentary, are always important for public debate, and even more important in a global world, where nations are often involved in wars far away, in countries that seem very different from developed western countries. What the Danish observational war documentaries and feature films show us about war and humans in general is the absence of deeper knowledge of other cultures and societies. Armadillo and The War both have strong qualities as stories told from the soldiers’ perspective, but also including the perspective of Afghan civilians. Susanne Bier’s global trilogy, including Brothers, on the other hand frames the war through a more binary perspective around ‘us’ and ‘them,’ stressing far-reaching effects of war.

Susanne Bier’s films, like the films dealing directly with the Afghan civilian experience, show that we are not that different. Humans are basically all alike, but cultures vary. People of different cultural backgrounds often have similar dreams, emotions, relations with others – and they create similar narratives, even if they tell them in different ways. Mulvad’s Enemies of Happiness tells a story of Afghan women fighting for liberation and democracy. We can easily identify with the idea behind and the human aspect of her project. The same applies to Nagieb Khaja’s My Afghanistan, which focuses on ordinary Afghan life, on the people who simply want to go on with their life and are tired of wars.

Globalisation is by no means an easy process, it is filled with cultural, economic, social conflicts, with war and terror. This is why global stories are so important for diminishing the distance between them and us, for our ability to better understand others. In a recent interview Nagieb Khaja points out the western military’s limited understanding of the Afghan reality:

We are like elephants in a glass shop. After all these years, we still do not know what we are dealing with, misunderstanding occurs because of differences in language, the special dynamics of Afghan society, class differences, ethnic and clan differences. We think we just have to fight Taliban, but we have been involved in a war with many different agendas that we did not understand. (Khaja 2013 a, my translation).

The outcome of the Afghan war shows the challenges and dilemmas of globalisation: weapons cannot do the trick, at least not alone. There is a much slower and deeper fight to win, the fight for minds and cultures, for democracy and equality. It can only be won with words and images, and with that kind of understanding of others which comes from respect and engagement.

This article deals with the politics of war in Denmark through filmic representations of the realities of war and the globalisation of our societies and media culture. Denmark assumed a new, more active role in wars and conflicts abroad after 9/11. Afghanistan marked the beginning, and Iraq, Libya and finally Ukraine followed. With respect to media, the result was a more globalised reporting in news and journalism, and also a stronger move towards cosmopolitan narratives of war and global culture in general. The distinction between the national ‘us’ an the global ‘them’ has influenced such narratives and this has changed our media culture, not just in Denmark but in Europe as a whole. It is no coincidence that in 2007 the EU formulated A European Agenda for Culture in Globalizing World and that national broadcasters like the Danish DR and the British BBC have engaged in global media project on Why Democracy (2007) and Why Poverty (2012), in which they address global audiences through films with a multiple global voice, also using new digital, transnational platforms (see Bondebjerg 2014: 251f). In a world full of local and international conflicts it is of vital importance to try and speak across cultural and ideological divides – as the Danish films on Afghanistan try to do.



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