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VISIONS DU RÉEL 2021 Competition

Review: Bellum – The Daemon of War

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- David Herdies and Georg Götmark's documentary is a triptych of stories exploring the meaning of war today

Review: Bellum – The Daemon of War

David Herdies and Georg Götmark's new documentary Bellum – The Daemon of War [+see also:
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interview: David Herdies and Georg Göt…
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was presented in the main competition of this year's Visions du Réel. The film opens with Robert Oppenheimer’s quoting of Hindu scripture following the first nuclear test bombings, accompanied by an ethereal score. Through Oppenheimer's words and the striking archive footage, we soon realise that the core theme of the documentary is to explore war – and in particular, three people's coping mechanisms – through three different lenses. The first is the telescopic sight of the assault rifles used by bored former military contractors living in a remote Texan village in the middle of the Mojave Desert. The second is that of a telescope, used by a Swedish engineer developing AI technology for the defence industry. The third is the viewfinder of a war reporter's photo-camera documenting Afghanistan's devastation.

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Here, David Herdies and Georg Götmark adopt an eminently observational approach with minimum interaction. The three lenses (and storylines) represent metaphors for three radical standpoints. The assault rifle's telescopic sight dehumanises war and reduces men to mere targets. The telescope, meanwhile, embodies the engineer's ambivalent scientific curiosity, driven by his thirst for knowledge (a very humane, admirable push) but contributing to fund and promote the making of intelligent death machines. Said dichotomy is also highlighted by the observation of the subject himself, a man who can go straight to business during his work routine, but at the same time is a caring husband and father of two children. Lastly, the camera's viewfinder attempts to empathise and better understand the human impact of war, but isn’t exempt from other dilemmas. The first time the woman photographer appears on screen, for example, we see her talking to a group of People's Peace Movement men and asking them to wear their blue scarves. Next, she gathers them in an outdoor location and asks to park a car with headlights turned on a few meters away from the group to get a better picture. Viewers may wonder how fair it is to stage a photograph in order to convey a certain meaning while documenting war, for example.

The documentary constantly alternates between the three storylines, but ultimately the first two (and especially the one following the American contractors) gain more significance. The post-war traumas take centre stage and offer the viewers some memorable sequences set in a village where the bar is the only recreational opportunity, or curious additions, such as the scene depicting the Swedish scientist dancing alone in a sort of server room while listening to electronic music through his headphones.

Ultimately, viewers will be invited to reflect upon some important questions. What is war today? What type of inner conflicts are the subjects of this documentary fighting? Will they ever get rid of their “war inside?” Of course, Herdies and Götmark are not able to find precise answers; however, their choice to focus on these three “lenses” of war is clever and well thought-through. Even though the narrative structure is not perfectly balanced, Bellum – The Daemon of War provides good food for thought, and does so in an engaging, sincere manner. It would be interesting to start a similar “tripartite” investigation later in time – perhaps in 2040 – when, according to many analysts, AI will automate most of the workforce, and presumably the defense industry as well. The future pervasiveness of technology could make a similar investigation timely – and much-needed – again.

Bellum – The Daemon of War was produced by Sweden’s Momento Film in co-production with pubcaster SVT, Film i Väst and Denmark’s Made In Copenhagen. German sales outfit Deckert Distribution is in charge of its world sales.

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