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20 films that can change the way you think about war

This is a series of films that AOAV recommends are watched – not to glorify in conflict but to offer up an understanding of how the face of war has been depicted by film-makers over time. They show how armed violence, in the end, brings with it inevitable sorrow, pain, dissolution and destruction. When faced with the ever-present glorification of militarism and the pathways to national sabre-rattling, these films offer up a hard reminder that war is both predictable in its harm and, as such, perhaps avoidable. If only we remember.

  1. No Man’s Land: Bosnian War // Serbo-Croatian
    The Bosnian War both created and split identities. This film encapsulates that rift, with two soldiers from opposing sides of the conflict facing each other in the No Man’s Land that lies between their trenches. There they face how their own identities are intertwined.
  1. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind: Fantasy // Japanese
    A princess in a post-apocalyptic world struggles to rule a country under threat of a weapon of mass destruction. Though an unconventional genre for a war film, the story beautifully captures the struggle between the natural world and the effects of long war; the nuclear bombs unleashed on Japan in the Second World War forever the backdrop of this film.
  1. Silmido: Korean War // South Korea
    Partially dramatised because of the ambiguity of the actual events, this film details the story of Unit 684 deployed for the assassination of Kim Il-Sung. Silmido transcends both narrative and international boundaries in its critical portrayal of war and the inevitable losses that go with it.
  1. Paradise Now: Israel-Palestine // Palestine
    Two childhood friends are both recruited for a suicide mission in the modern Israel-Palestine conflict. The entire film is wrought with the suspense and grit expected from this plot-line, while at the same time navigating the complex moral and ethical arguments against such use of terror.
  1. Waar: Counter-terror // Pakistan
    Waar is a gripping thriller film with a powerful score. The dramatisation depicts Pakistan’s response to state-sponsored terror groups through the use of police forces specifically and highlights some of the complex realities in that decades long struggle.
  1. Letters from Iwo Jima: Asian Theatre, WWII // US
    Received well by both Japanese and American audiences, this film has been appreciated for its realism and its depiction of the ambiguous nature of war that exists on both sides of a conflict. It won the Cinema for Peace Award at the Berlin Film Festival.
  1. Beasts of No Nation: West-Africa // US
    Set in the dramatised world of an unnamed West African civil war, this film captures the modern issues of child soldiers in warfare. Due to powerful casting and a tight script, the story captures the intimacy of violence and the complex relationship that emerge when a child is thrust into a violent world.
  1. La noche de los lápices: Argentina // Argentina
    This film, based on the actual events known as the “Night of the pencils”, tells the story of seven students who, after protesting for lower bus fares for students in the city of La Plata, were abducted in September 1976, during Argentina’s last dictatorship (1976 – 1983), and subsequently disappeared. Only one student survived to tell what happened. Riddled with political intrigue as well as action, this classic film is infused with irony, contrast and contradiction.
  1. The Beast: Soviet-Afghan War // US
    Following a lost Soviet tank after its destruction of a Pashtun village, this story explores the differences (and overlaps) between two cultural codes of honour.
  1. Earth: India- Pakistan Partition // India
    Though technically within the genre of a period romance, this second movie in Deepa Mehta’s trilogy on the Partition captures the inter-religious tensions of the time. The film is meant to capture the many fault lines and fractures that lie underneath social and cultural relationships.
  1. La Nuit de la Verite: West Africa // Burkina Faso
    Filled with themes of both reconciliation and conflict, this film depicts the process of peacemaking between two warring ethnic groups. The tension is truly palpable as this film dances around the idea of genocide.
  1. 1917: European World War One // UK
    One of the most recent additions on this list (2019), this film could be appreciated for its cinematography alone. However, its race-against-the clock plot and tender depictions of human relationship also make it a strong depiction of the First World War, albeit without the blood and the carnage that defined that war.
  1.  El Cuarto de los Huesos: El Salvador // El Salvador
    Done in a documentary style, this film catalogues what happens after a bloody conflict. As forensic detectives try to reunite bodies with families, the audience is forced to consider DNA, belonging, and what happens when the dead cannot be claimed.
  1. Dr. Strangelove: Cold War//US
    Director Stanley Kubrick crafted a fantastical black comedy in this film based on the nuclear threats of the Cold War. Riddled with satire, the story deals with the absurdity of apocalypse. 
  1. Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia // US
    The rock and roll tunes of Phnom Penh provides a backdrop to the richness and the resilience of the Cambodian people as the communist regime the Khmer Rouge took control of the capital on 17 April 1975 . This documentary weaves history with modern interviews, revealing just how close we are to the past.
  1. The Blue Kite: Cultural Revolution // China
    Though not a war film in the strictest sense, this internationally acclaimed movie on the interactions of the Communist movement in China deals with the implications of cultural upheaval. The story wrestles with the conflicts of patriarchy, loyalty, and revolution – and addresses the violence that simmers beneath the surface.
  1. Jojo Rabbit: Germany WWII // US
    This black comedy gives a colourful, dark and satirical perspective to German life at the time of World War II. Directed and starring Taika Waititi, this sacrilegious story – one that received much criticism before it was even released – comes to a surprisingly poignant end.
  1. Between Wars: Australia // Australian
    The main character of this story not only deals with the emerging impact of shell-shock after WWII as a psychiatrist, but also indirectly engages in Australia’s fight against domestic fascism. An interesting depiction of the internal and external dimensions of warfare.
  1. Apocalypse Now: Vietnam // US
    No list of war movies would be complete without this epic psychological film that leans heavily on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The story chronicles the deterioration of the Vietnam War and captures how humanity is altered by war, slowly and gradually.
  1.  The Red and White: Russia // Hungary
    Another film that captures the confusion and disorganisation of two overlapping conflicts, the antiheroes of this story are a captured Hungarian WWI regiment that becomes part of the October Revolution. In the blur of loyalties, no central characters emerge, and each side is met with equal suspicion.