Bellum – The Daemon of War (2021) Visions du Reel 2021

April 19th, 2021
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir.: David Herdies, Georg Götmark; Documentary with Bill Lyon, Fredrik Bruhn, Paula Bonstein, Aisha Lyon, Sweed, Karolina Bruhn; narrated by Johannes Anyuru; Sweden/ Denmark 2021, 87 min.

War is in the DNA of humans, always has been. The Romans were masters of conquering countries on more than one continent. Their motto was “War pays for itself, so soldiers do not need to be paid, there is always plenty to plunder”. Statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 – 43 BC) was an early warmonger, ending his speeches in front of the Senate for years with the call for war: “Anyhow, I am of the opinion, that we should destroy Cartago”. After a few years, his peers got the message and the African city, capital of a kingdom, was indeed conquered.

This essay film from Swedish director duo David Herdies and Georg Götmark traces the history of war, present and future: veteran war photographer Paula Bronstein delivering some cruel images from Kabul.

But amidst the doom and gloom AI scientist Fredrick Bruhn has a surprisingly upbeat theory about the end of armed conflict, and US veterans Sweed and Bill Lyon are the living examples of survivors of the recent outings of the US war machine.

Not that far from Los Alamos in New Mexico, where Robert Oppenheimer and his team developed the first nuclear bomb in the State of Nevada (his prophetical warnings open the feature) is the location of the US Army’s Drone Operations and Training Base – AFB. Demonstrators with placards protest outside the gates, while veterans Sweed and co, cheer on every car leaving or entering the compound, making fun of the demonstrators. “I bet she borrowed the baby”, comments Sweed on a mother carrying her child.

Later we listen to Sweed and his friend Bill Lyon talking about their active service experience that destroyed people rather than buildings. In training, the drones attacked the simulated town of Kandahar, creating the atmosphere of an arcade game. The images are not just circles any more, but human forms, the intention is to blur the lines between the lines between practice and real actions. But for the veterans, the question is just survival: “When your compound has been hit, you are either dead, or you go back to sleep. For most people this is crazy, but I loved it. It was boring when you get home.”

Meanwhile Bronstein shows the photos of the Kabul victims she asks a boy to give her a smile. He refuses. Paula explains” I want to put some beauty into my photos, some life. To make the victims human. Meanwhile AI developer Fredrik Bruhn is hopeful about the future: “We are twenty years away from the point, when a computer can build the next generations of AI himself, he will replicate human brains, but goes much further than the 500 billion synapses of our brains. I do not see that we can have a world without war, as long as humans are in control. But robots do not have our DNA inheritance, they do not need to act like us. In the end the question will be about human existence, or the survival of digital humanity.

Bellum is perhaps too complex for its limited running time. But it certainly shows the existential question flagging up the need to write humankind out of the script. The documentary is dedicated to Bill Lyon, who, like Sweed, passed away. AS

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