Restrepo's Tim Hetherington
The premise of Restrepo is so beautifully simple that it's surprising a movie like it wasn't made sooner. The new documentary, directed and produced by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, takes the viewer on a deployment with a platoon of U.S. soldiers stationed at a remote Afghanistan outpost. The camera follows them as they fly in over beautiful green fields and forbidding mountains. It stays with them for a year, and it's there as the survivors pack their bags to go home. Apart from interviews with the soldiers post-deployment, the movie doesn't stray from the valley where they are stationed. No family members or politicians or generals or Afghanis are interviewed and no narrator breaks in to chronicle what happens. Instead, the movie shows the war from within, as one group of soldiers experience it.
In 2007, Junger and Hetherington embedded with the 173rd Airborne Brigade's Battle Company. The Company was stationed in the violent Korengal Valley, known as the "Valley of Death" in military circles. (Nearly 50 men have lost their lives there to date.) In the movie, the directors follow the 15-man Second Platoon as it constructs and occupies a precarious outpost named "Restrepo" in honor of a medic killed in action. The documentary has no plot other than that provided by daily life at Restrepo, but it is riveting from beginning to end.
Sometimes the soldiers are attending to mundane duties: burning their own feces or cleaning their weapons. Sometimes they are screwing around: wrestling, playing guitar, drawing. (In one goofy scene, they dance to a cover of Samantha Fox's "Touch Me [I Want Your Body].") Sometimes the soldiers go on patrols in villages where they don't know their enemy from their friend. And several times a day, the pop-pop-pop of gunfire will sound and suddenly they're in a firefight.
The interviews, conducted in Italy after the deployment, introduce the young, funny, brave, vulnerable men of the platoon. (The interviews are a relief. You find yourself thinking, This guy made it.) One, a fresh-faced specialist named Misha Pemble-Belkin, describes his hippie upbringing and how he wasn't allowed to have toy guns. Another specialist named Miguel Cortez talks with nervous laughter about the many kinds of sleeping pills he's tried since the deployment ended, to no avail. Sgt. Aron Hijar struggles not to break down as he recounts losing a friend.
Restrepo is gut-wrenching and unforgettable. Every American should see it. City Paper recently spoke with co-director Tim Hetherington by phone.
City Paper: This project began as a Vanity Fair assignment, right?
Tim Hetherington: Sebastian formed the idea, but then Vanity Fair liked it so we went out to Afghanistan to do an assignment for them. Sebastian had the idea to make a documentary, but he had no idea how. I got out there, and I'm a photographer and a filmmaker. I knew how to make a documentary. And by the end of the first trip we both looked at each other and we said, We should make a film.
CP: Why did you choose the platoon you did?
TH: Sebastian met Battle Company in 2005 in southern Afghanistan and he was very impressed by the guys. He said to himself, If they go back to Afghanistan, I want to follow them. We got to the Korengal Valley and we asked the commander, "Who's taking the brunt of the fighting?" And he pointed down the valley and said, "Second Platoon, down there."
CP: You seem to have had near total access. How did that happen?
TH: The American army has a much talked about embed system, whereby reporters are physically placed with units. I have friends who follow units of soldiers, who go on reporting tours of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the longest they'll be with a U.S. unit is three weeks, and then they'll never see those guys again. The film came out of a total of 10 months filming. We both did five one-month trips, sometimes together but often apart. We took the tools that are given to you in the embed system, and we basically mined them further than people have mined them before. When we turned up in the Korengal, the soldiers kept their distance. But we kept on going back. We were living with them in this crazy little outpost. We were eating what they ate, sleeping where they slept. We went on every patrol and into every combat situation. So after a while they kind of thought, Well, they're OK. In the end we just spent a huge amount of time, so we became emotionally embedded with the guys, which is where the intimacy of the film comes.
CP: You both have done a lot of war reporting. How did this compare in terms of your personal experience?
TH: Well, you know every war is different. The Korengal when we arrived there was pretty amazing because at the time the world's and U.S. attention was focused on Iraq, and yet it was obvious when we arrived that the war in Afghanistan had slipped out of control. By the end of October 2007, a fifth of all combat happening in the country was happening in the Korengal Valley. Seventy percent of American bombs dropped in all Afghanistan were being dropped in the Korengal Valley. The stats were just staggering. I spent a long time in West Africa, covering war. It's a very different kind of war. This is much more mechanized on the U.S. side.
CP: You must have known when you started filming that some of the people you caught on camera would likely be dead by the time you finished filming. What was that like for you?
TH: It's not something you dwell on the whole time. Anybody out there can be killed at any moment. A lot of these guys are young, 18, 19 . . . It was very upsetting to see these young guys the first time they see their friend killed in front of them. You see that they understand that they're going to carry this baggage with them for the rest of their lives. I'm significantly older than some of them, and I've seen some pretty upsetting things because of my reporting, but I've never had a friend killed in front of me. It's tragic to witness those things happening, to see people spiritually hurt.
CP: How did the soldiers in the platoon react to the film?
TH: They really liked it, I think because it honestly represents their experience in war. It's not a gloss or a varnish of what happens to them. You see them in the good times and the bad times. Their wives really love it as well. For them this keyhole into their loved ones' experiences in Afghanistan has been quite therapeutic, I think.
CP: Do you feel any differently about the war in Afghanistan after this experience?
TH: I'm a reporter. I'm not really there to say what's good or what's bad. I went in there ignorant, thinking we'd walk around the mountains drinking cups of tea with elders and occasionally get shot at. Nothing prepared me for the amount of combat we saw there. Did it change the way I perceive the war as being waged? Yeah. I think what you see in the film is what counterinsurgency on the cheap looks like. If you want to do this properly, then you need to put more resources into it. In 2007, most of the resources were in Iraq. That dynamic is now being adjusted. I don't know what effect that will have. . . . The U.S. turned its attention to Iraq and left 16,000 soldiers in Afghanistan. I mean there's 40,000 cops in New York City. What do you expect would happen?
CP: What's the main thing you hope people take away from seeing the film?
TH: This is a volunteer army, not a draft army. The tentacles of society were much more deeply enmeshed in the war in Vietnam. Everybody around the country had somebody they knew who had been drafted. The country was much more concerned with the war, because it was deeply connected to it. I think nowadays there is a deep disconnect between civil society and what's happening in Afghanistan. . . . There's no austerity measures because we're fighting a war. There's nothing like that. So in some ways, the war is a really far-off concern, and that has very troubling ramifications. The experience of the soldier should be seen, digested, understood, and in some ways honored as a starting point for a discussion about the war. Understanding that experience is really important, whatever side of the line you're on.
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