RESTREPO – Documentary Film of US Soldiers in Afghanistan

Restrepo is a 94-minute documentary film directed and produced by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington who produces a documentary with no interviews of generals or politicians or ideological dialogue, but instead reveals on camera, moving and still, the day-to-day life as a soldier among members of an American platoon assigned to a post named after PFC Juan Restrepo, an American medic killed in action and also the name of the film – Restrepo; presented by National Geographic Entertainment, an Outpost Films production.
Tim Hetherington, an experienced war photographer used 150 hours of video footage to make the 90-minute documentary that puts the viewers with the soldiers in combat action, patrolling, rests periods, meal times, and dealing with  boredom at the isolated outpost in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan.

Sebastian Junger, born on January 17th, 1962 is an American author, journalist, and documentary filmmaker. He wrote the best-selling international book The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea, recounting the story of a storm in October of 1991. But it is his experience as a photojournalist and his collection of experiences in dangerous regions of the world as well as dangerous occupations that leads to his collaboration with Tim Hetherington on the Restrepo in 2009. The film was premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and received an award presented by actor David Hyde Pierce[I]

From May 2007 to July 2008, Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade was stationed in the remote Korengal Valley of eastern Afghanistan, which is considered one of the most dangerous posts of the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. This is the platoon’s story, not media hype and misinformation but an opportunity for Americans to see a documentary that puts them on the front line of action.
Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger made ten trips to spend time with the platoon in Korengal Valley on assignment for Vanity Fair Magazine and ABC News that began June of 2007. Each of those ten trips was a helicopter flight to the main firebase in the valley then a two-hour walk to Outpost Restrepo.
Hetherington and Junger did everything with the soldiers, except use weapons during a firefight and lived with no running water or communication other than a military radio. They slept, ate, in heat and cold, fighting flies and boredom. They even went on patrol with them.
Living, laughing and crying with the men on a mountain ridge at 10,000 feet above sea level, men were killed and wounded during filming; but the close relationship and respect Junger and Hetherington had gained with the platoon, they were able to record more than would be allowed by other journalists.
At the end of the tour of duty, Hetherington and Junger went to the unit base at VicenzaItaly where they conducted interviews of the soldiers who were able to talk about it now they were away from the combat zone.
Sebastian Junger also wrote a book, recently published, about the time spent with platoon entitled WAR.
The film was edited by Michael Levine and associate editor Maya Mumma at Goldcrest Post. It took ten months to edit and John Battsek and Nick Quested joined as executive producers.
Publishers Weekly in a review called the book WAR: Riveting … an unforgettable portrait of men under fire.
Interview with Sebastian and Tim
Did you receive any training/guidelines prior to arriving at the assignment?
SebastianThey knew Tim and I had been in plenty of wars before this, so they didn’t really offer any advice. Once or twice during combat I was advised where good cover was.
How was camera operation handled?
TimWe each had a camera and filmed more or less of our own volition. If I was busy taking still, Sebastian would make sure to cover the camerawork. There were scenes where we were both shooting, and we would divide up in a crude manner – I’d take the wides, he’d take the tights, or I’d shoot the Afghans while he shot the Americans.
Were there limits of access? What kind of status/relationship did you have with the troops?
TimNo limits at all on access; none. There was a stated agreement that we would not shoot wounded American soldiers – or would get their okay later – and I think there was an understanding that we would be very sensitive about filming the dead. The army asks to review a rough cut later for security and privacy concerns, but they had no issues. … No one had allowed a platoon for an entire duration of their deployment, so we became incredibly close to many of the soldiers. They came from a variety of backgrounds and had joined the army for a myriad of competing reasons. Some said that they were seeking a rite of passage and new experiences. Many didn’t think they had many options open to them and saw the army as the best opportunity on offer. They came from all over the U.S. – many from Texas and California, others from faraway places like Guam.
SebastianIt became clear to the soldiers that we were not doing a political story and that we were comfortable in that environment – and that we were willing to take the same risks they were and endure the same discomforts. Tim broke his leg in combat; I ripped my Achilles tendon. Then I got blown up, but none of those things kept us from going back out there.
Did you notice any change in attitude or personalities in the soldiers and what effect did it have on you?
SebastianBoth of us have been war reporters for some time now, so this was not our first experience being shot at. … Things appear very simple in a war zone as the clutter of daily living recedes with the larger equation of being killed or staying alive. Mix this with being drip fed adrenalin, and inevitably it’s going to make coming back incredibly difficult. I think this is something that the soldiers experienced, and to a lesser extent we also.
The film isn’t a political statement and shows real life combat. What other principles did you apply?
SebastianWe were not interested in the political dimensions of the war, only the experience of the soldiers, so we limited ourselves to the things soldiers had access to. We did not ask any generals why they were in the Korengal, for example, because soldiers don’t have that opportunity, either. Our guiding principle was that we would only have people in the movie who were fighting in the Korengal. It was that principle that excluded Tim and me from the movie as well … and prevented us from using an outside narrator.
TimIt was a conscious choice. We are journalists, and as such, we are not supposed to lead people to a certain opinion. That is called “advocacy”, and it certainly has its special place in the media world, but as journalists, it’s not something we wanted to engage in.
National Geographic Channel will premiere RESTREPO on the network Fall 2010.
I give this film 4 stars. Great documentary.
Interviewed in Documentary
Captain Dan Kearney
1st Sergeant Lamonte Caldwell
Staff Sergeant Kevin Rice
Specialist Kyle Steiner
Sergeant Aron Hijar
Staff Sergeant Joshua McDonough
Specialist Miguel Cortez
Specialist Sterling Jones
In April of 2010, US Forces withdrew from the Korengal Valley outposts leaving the local tribesmen to deal with the situation there. Critics say this was a blunder, but the military commanders there stated it was a success considering how many hard-core Taliban and insurgents were removed from the area. Unfortunately, despite commanders holding meetings with the elders of the area, the American forces were not looked upon as liberators, but instead conquerors. In its long history, Afghanistan has never been fully conquered and those that tried didn’t stay long enough to hold what they had gained. Between the rugged landscape and the fierce determination of tribal fighters who are famous for their determination, it is the reason why war lords continue to hinder unity within the nation and disenchant any who would interfere.
Still photos courtesy of National Geographic.
Further Reading
Into the Valley of Death by Sebastian Junger; photos by Tim HetheringtonVanity Fair, January 2008.
Return to the Valley of Death by Sebastian Junger; photos by Tim HetheringtonVanity Fair, October 2008.

[I] Sundance Honors Restrepo; New York Times, Jan. 31, 2010.