Band of Brothers: The Making of 'Restrepo'
By Michael Rose
Editor’s Note: Restrepo, an Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary Feature, will be screening Saturday, February 26, at 8:30 p.m., as part of DocuDay LA at the Writers Guild of America Theater in Beverly Hills, and at 12:05 p.m. at DocuDays NY at The Paley Center for Media in Manhattan.
Who wouldn't want to spend the better part of 15 months at a hot, dusty, flea-bitten outpost, precariously perched on a mountain ledge overlooking a tree-lined valley that provides cover for people who shoot at you daily? Oh, and there's no electricity, no Internet, no TV, no running water, no bathroom, no heat, no privacy and no one from the opposite sex. No comforts at all. Not even a chair. Just unremitting boredom broken up by whizzing bullets that ping the dust long before the sound makes it to you.
Not the stuff of romance that typically fills the lines at Army recruiting offices, but this alluring scenario was too good for a pair of seasoned war correspondents to pass up. Author/journalist Sebastian Junger and photographer/journalist Tim Hetherington convinced Vanity Fair, ABC News and the US Army that it would be a splendid idea to send the team to the Korengal Valley--"The deadliest place on earth."
"I wanted to be with the best unit in the worst place," says Junger, who has reported from Afghanistan on and off since 1996 and from numerous other war zones. As Captain Kearney says in the film that resulted from their experience, "The road ends at the Korengal outpost and where the road ends, the Taliban begins."
Hetherington covered the civil war in Liberia, the wars in Chad, Nigeria and Sudan and the post-conflict zones of West Africa. He saw this assignment as "kind of a distillation of our war experiences over the ten years we've been doing this. This is what we've done; we know what to expect."
Their experience embedded with one platoon that's been tasked with securing a hilltop combat outpost as part of the Army's counter-insurgency offensive on the Afghan/Pakistan border is the subject of their riveting new documentary, Restrepo, winner of the Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.
This 94-minute film takes the audience inside the none-too-glamorous life of the foot soldiers in a dangerous yet beautiful setting. "It was an anti-paradise," Junger explains. "Everything young men enjoy wasn't up there, and everything they didn't like was."
Junger and Hetherington toted small HD cameras with them because they had a deal with ABC to supply footage, but they also wanted to make a film. Hetherington became a still photographer or "image maker," as he prefers to be called, when he wasn't accepted in NYU's film school. He'd shot one documentary, Liberia: An Uncivil War, and several short, nonfiction TV projects, but he had never tackled a "long form narrative" film before. Nor had Junger, who is a print journalist first and foremost. But they divvied up the camera chores to insure they got enough coverage.
"We basically did everything together, put it in a pot, shook it up and it came out," says Hetherington. Asked about his neophyte cinematographer partner, Hetherington issued a warning: "If he gets any better I'll push him off a cliff." Hetherington and Jungher earned an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award for broadcast journalism for "The Other War: Afghanistan," which the filmmakers produced for ABC News Nightline in 2008. The production team remains in the background while providing us with a window into this "anti-paradise." We're front-and-center with the soldiers from 2nd Platoon from the moment they helicopter into the Valley. We stay with them during their 15-month tour as they get shot at, build their remote outpost, suffer the deaths of comrades, witness the human cost of counterattacks on villagers, wile away the boredom strumming guitars, engage in horse play and, finally, pack their rucksacks to hike back to the helicopters waiting to take them home. Most embedded reporters stay with an outfit for two to three weeks, which is what Mark Boal did for a Rolling Stone assignment that inspired his feature film writing debut, The Hurt Locker. Junger and Hetherington took the deep-dive approach in an attempt to create a more "nuanced" view of what life is like in combat.
The platoon was assigned to set up one of a string of Combat Outposts (COPs) that have been affectionately referred to by some as "bullet sponges" that would draw fire from the Taliban and allow American forces to use their overwhelming superior firepower to eliminate them one by one. Embedding in the "sponge" allowed the crew to capture plenty of chilling "bang-bang" scenes, sometimes occurring four or five times a day. The filmmakers are right there as the platoon takes fire, and in the ensuing chaos we see the soldiers scramble to locate the enemy and return fire. We stay in the mix as they leave their Spartan confines to venture out on patrol. Without the rock-filled plastic battlements to protect them, they are exposed from every angle. And when the inevitable attacks come, Junger and Hetherington capture every potentially heart-stopping moment. You'll have to forgive the occasionally shaky camera work during these scenes. This is not an MTV-like conscious effect to pump up the intensity of the moment, but an honest record of the experience.
But it's the little human moments that occur during downtime that began to excite Hetherington about the unique possibilities of the film they were making. "I understand my work is about building links to an audience," he observes. "How do I connect them to a conflict in Liberia or Afghanistan? Moral outrage is not enough. Pictures of dead West Africans are not enough. Witnessing is important, but to move an audience we have to connect in a way that shows them their sons and their brothers" as complete human beings with a range of emotions.
The soldiers' candid dialogue in the field, and the 40 hours of interviews shot after they'd returned to their home base in Italy, bring us into the story with their own words. We hear 25-year-old Corporal Pemble-Belkin tell us his hippie mother wouldn't let him play with toy guns, not even a squirt gun, as we see his face light up while he energetically sways a tripod-mounted 50-caliber machine gun back and forth, up and down. But he also says that he doesn't want to worry her, so in his most recent letter home he didn't include news about the deaths in the platoon or their upcoming dangerous mission.
On that mission down the hill and into the villages, the platoon stops to question a young man, who tells the translator, "If we let you know about the Taliban, we will get killed."
Notes Junger, "A lot of Afghans feel caught between two realities." They remember the "bloodbath" of the '90s after the Soviets pulled out. They also remember greeting the Americans as liberators after they toppled the Taliban but saw them get distracted by the war in Iraq and not carry out the hoped-for reforms in Afghanistan.
"Afghans are conflicted," and fear that if NATO pulls out it will be like the '90s again, Junger continues. We're left to wonder how the villagers felt when the US Army pulled out of the Korengal Valley in April of this year.
While telling the story of the soldiers, the filmmakers also wanted to convey "the nuanced sense of Afghans caught in-between," says Hetherington. They allow this to unfold without any reference to the policy decisions that sent the soldiers to this dangerous post, or the arguments surrounding this seemingly endless war. "I wasn't interested in writing about the politics or the geopolitics of the situation," Junger maintains. "I went in as a blank slate."
Instead, the filmmakers focused on the soldiers' lives in a way reminiscent of John Huston's 1945 documentary classic, The Battle of San Pietro, which was initially censored because of his realistic portrayal of an Army campaign.
The end result of Junger and Hetherington's approach is a film about all wars--a film that transcends Outpost Restrepo as it puts you in the boots of these soldiers who spent every day, for 15 months, trying not to do anything to get one of their brothers killed as they counted the days remaining before they could go home. I resolved that there are other ways to learn about the context, but this is the only way I've discovered, outside of a 15-month hitch, to learn what it's like on the ground.
Restrepo, which the platoon named their outpost in honor of fallen comrade PFC Juan Restrepo, opens June 25 in New York and Los Angeles, through National Geographic Entertainment, and will roll out nationally through the month of July. The film airs on National Geographic Channel in the fall.
Michael Rose is a writer and documentary filmmaker.
For more information on this subject:
Sebastian Junger's book WAR, about his time in the Korengal Valley was released in May 2010.
Tim Hetherington's book Infidel, about this experience in the Kornegal will be published in October 2010 by Chris Boot Ltd.
Into the Valley of Death
By Sebastian Junger
Photos by Tim Hetherington
Return to the Valley of Death
By Sebastian Junger
Photos by Tim Hetherington
Institute for the Study of War Report: "Kunar and Nuristan: Rethinking U.S. Counterinsurgency Operation"
Overview of Combat Operations in Kunar Province by 173d Airborne Brigade
Tactical Leader: "Lessons Learned in Afghanistan"
Military Review, July/August 2009
Colonel William B. Ostlund, U.S. Army