In this award-winning doc, journalists Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington present a gripping, no-holds-barred look at the soldier experience in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley.
Outpost Restrepo, Korengal Valley
In making Restrepo, which won the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, war journalists Sebastian Junger (writer) and Tim Hetherington (photographer) spent 14 months covering a single platoon of the U.S. Army through an entire deployment to Afghanistan. The military mission? To advance the U.S. position in one of the most dangerous patches of land in the world: the Korengal Valley.
As the soldiers found their way in this unspeakably dangerous landscape, the cameras were there to record their progress, their friendships, their fears and hopes, and overall, their day-to-day experience on the tip of the spear in the middle of a much-contested war. Once they had fought their way forward enough to stake a new claim, the soldiers built a strategic outpost on a rocky ridge. The fighting had been deadly, and they named their new home after their fallen comrade, a medic named Private First Class Juan Restrepo, who was killed in action just two months after arriving in country.
Junger and Hetherington were new to filmmaking, but they knew what they wanted to give viewers: an unobstructed view of the life of a soldier, told with a journalistic objectivity. That meant no narration, no interviews with families back home, no political considerations of the war debate raging at home — Restrepo is solely the point-of-view of the soldier on the ground. To do so, they lived at Restrepo, which meant eating the same MREs, facing a soldier’s fears, dodging the same bullets, sustaining similar injuries, and renouncing the comforts of home.
The two filmmakers sat down with us this week to talk about their hopes for Restrepo, their intentions, their reasoning, and their own commitment to the project.
Sebastian Junger, Tim Hetherington
Tribeca: How did the film come about? You are journalists, so how did you decide to make a film?
Sebastian Junger: I’d been with Battle Company, 173rd Airborne in Zabul Province in 2005. I’d never been with the US military before — all my reporting, going back to 1996, in Afghanistan, had been with the civilian population.
After it was clear the war was not going to wind down quickly, I wanted to understand what it was like to be a soldier in combat. I decided to follow one platoon for an entire deployment in Afghanistan. I wanted to follow Battle Company, and I hooked up with Tim, and we started out in the fall of 2007 following 2nd Platoon of Battle Company at this remote outpost called Restrepo, named after the platoon medic. Our goal was not to evaluate the war, morally or politically. Our goal was to simply create an immersive experience for the viewers on what it’s like to be a soldier in combat.
I had a vague idea of making a documentary, [but] it didn’t become a reality until Tim came on board — he knew what he was doing, I didn’t.
Tribeca: Film as a medium was new for you. How is it different from a book or an article?
Junger: Film provides the illusion of being there. You are in a dark room, surrounded by sound, surrounded by visual images. It’s as close to a dream as technology can provide. We just felt it was the ultimate way of making viewers feel the experience of combat. You can understand it in a more intellectual way with writing, perhaps, or photography, but this is immersive.
Hetherington: Neither of us trained in film school, but we were both interested in narrative. I am a visual storyteller, he’s a narrative storyteller, a writer… It may accord to the classic rules of documentary filmmaking, but we hope it’s a very experiential cinematic journey.
Tribeca: Documentarians often claim journalistic objectivity, but quite often that’s not what we see on screen. Restrepo feels truly authentic. What do you want people to take away from the film?
Junger: Soldiers understand themselves to be fighting for us, the American public. They know the American public includes people who don’t want them there. They get that, [but] they don’t really care; it’s not an important distinction for them. What I’m hoping is that when people enter the cinema, they will drop their political viewpoints, their ideological baggage, and they will experience the film as soldiers experience the war, as an emotional thing.
There are no Republicans out at Restrepo, there are no Democrats, there are no gay guys, no ugly guys, no poor guys or popular guys from high school. There’s nothing except American soldiers who are either good at being soldiers, and they’re out there, or they’re bad at being soldiers, and they get kicked off the hill. That’s all there is at Restrepo. What I’m hoping is that the moviegoing public can experience the film with the same level of purity that the soldiers actually, in a weird way, deal with combat.
Hetherington: From a different angle, the military has a rather prickly relationship with journalists. And consequently, the public doesn’t really know a lot about the military or military families. When we started making Restrepo… I realized how separate [the story] was from the mainstream dialogue about the war that was going on. In some ways, because journalists have come with their opinions, it’s enhanced this divisive nature… so military soldiers and their families are not part of the discussions of what’s going on in the wars.
I hope if people leave their opinions about the war — Republican, Democrat — to one side and go see the film, then the soldiers’ [perspective] can be brought into the discussion at a time when the country really needs a unified discussion on Afghanistan.
Sebastian Junger is a bestselling author [The Perfect Storm] whose companion book is called War, and it’s in bookstores now. Tim Hetherington will publish a book of photographs, called Infidel, in October, for which Junger wrote the forward.
Read the entire interview at TribecaFilm.com.