Restrepo is one of the best combat documentaries I have seen, and also one of the best films about U.S. involvement in Afghanistan (I would add Alex Gibney's Taxi to the Darkside as well). What allowed Sebastian Junger (A Perfect Storm) and Tim Hetherington to make such a riveting film was the amount of time each spent with Battle Company in the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan. Each spent five months with the unit, going on missions and living with the soldiers at the forward outpost Restrepo, which they named after a fellow soldier killed in action, PFC Juan Restrepo (who is on film in the opening scene, footage taken by another company member in Italy before deployment). Junger was in a Humvee that was almost destroyed by a bomb planted in the road. It was detonated prematurely, going off under the engine block. A few feet further back and it would likely have killed or critically injured men in the Humvee. The scene comes early in the film, and it sets up what the deployment was like for Battle Company: 14 months in one of the war's deadliest combat zones; in which their unit was often attacked four or five times a day by Taliban fighters.
Junger had met some members of Battle Company while embedded with it in 2005, doing an article for Vanity Fair. He decided to return to Afghanistan with the unit in 2008 (which by then had mostly different personnel). He had no advance notice they would be deployed to Korengal. When they got there, Capt. Dan Kearney decided to push back against the heavy fire from the Taliban by creating a forward outpost on a ridge. The soldiers literally dug into a rocky mountainside ridge to build what came to be known as Outpost Restrepo. Soldiers lived there for one and two-month stretches (and Junger and Hetherington stayed with them). Over time, the soldiers accepted the two journalists as if they were company members and opened up to the cameras, offering revealing interviews about what war is like on the frontlines. There also are follow up interviews in Italy after the tour of duty.
In an interview with Gambit, Junger talked about what they were able to get on film and what was left out. More after the jump.
Junger and Hetherington captured plenty of firefights, both from Outpost Restrepo and on missions conducted in the valley. They filmed meetings and outreach to Afghan villagers, some of whose homes were the targets of U.S. fire. They also captured soldiers blowing off steam and whiling away the time when not on duty, stuck in a tremendously isolated, far away corner of the war. At Restrepo, the soldiers had no running water, no electricity and no cooked meals. The outpost was highly exposed to enemy fire, and it was 800 meters from the Korengal outpost, meaning it could easily be cut off.
From my interview with Junger:
What weren't you able to get on film?
"It's hard to capture boredom on film. It's hard to communicate how agonizing that is ... [it's hard to capture Restrepo in terms of] the dirtiness, the nastiness. It's hard to get the exhaustion. ... There were moments of tremendous grief and sadness, and those were private matters, so we didn't film them."
The filmmakers weren't able to film on night missions, and Junger said they went on night operations often. The filming was done as an officially embedded project. The U.S. Army asked to see a rough cut of the film, but it requested no changes from what Junger provided.
How do soldiers keep from getting too disconnected from their families or the rest of the country?
"Their emotional bond to the country and their families gets frayed."
Soldiers were able to call family when stationed at the Korengal outpost, and many did before embarking on major operations, knowing it might be a final call. One soldier in the film describes wanting to tell his mother about the death of Juan Restrepo but chose not to because he was calling her on her birthday.
Junger also described how difficult it is for soldiers to adjust when coming home:
"The natural order of things doesn't make sense. No one's giving them orders. In a war zone, they learn to be reactive, aggressive - lot's of skills that are counterproductive in normal life."
In the film, it's clear they don't know when they can trust Afghan locals. How sympathetic to the Taliban were the locals?
"The Taliban is like a street gang. No one wants a street gang after them."
Some of the cooperation with the Taliban is about money - in an extremely impoverished, underdeveloped region. Some is about fear.
How is the Korengal versus Kabul?
"Kabul is a cosmopolitan city. Some areas of Afghanistan are the Third World. It's like the Bible."
The film does not have a political agenda. It takes no position on the war. I asked Junger what sense he had of the people of Afghanistan enduring three decades of conflict. Here's a summary of his answer:
In the 1980s, the Soviets killed 1 million people. In civil war and feuding during the 1990s, 400,000 civilians died. Since the U.S. and NATO have been in the country in the past decade, 16,000 people have been killed. He is concerned that if NATO pulls out, civil war will return and nation will return to the violence of the 1990s. (He seemed to say that as a prediction of events, not as an argument to maintain a military presence. I didn't ask him what his position on the war is.)
For more on his account of the experience, Junger has published the book War, covering his time with Battle Company and the war in Afghanistan.