Journalist and filmmaker Sebastian Junger says that he wanted to make you feel like you are actually there in a remote combat outpost in Afghanistan in Restrepo. He and his partner Tim Hetherington, succeeded. After the documentary’s powerful 90 minutes, people in the packed AFI theater in Silver Spring, Md., on Friday June 28 were in shock and awe and tears.
Restrepo will remain embedded in my heart and mind for the rest of my life.
The film chronicles the daily lives, and sometimes deaths, of a small platoon of American soldiers tasked with pushing against Taliban control of the Korangal Valley. The soldiers, all men, are very young — 19 years old, many of them, pimply some of them, and proud to be serving their country in fighting “the enemy.” Also, over time, bored, thrilled, scared and sad.
Occasionally, the film provides footage of local villagers. They appear to be mostly scared by what is happening in their valley as they experience the counter-pressures of the Americans and the Taliban. But sometimes proud and dignified as male elders attempt to gain compensation for a cow who died as a result of entanglement with wire fencing surrounding the outpost.
The film brilliantly and effectively interweaves footage from the combat zone with tight-shot interviews with eight soldiers conducted in Italy four months after they had left Afghanistan. So one minute you are in the outpost Restrepo, named after a fallen comrade, with all the noise and smoke from artillery and helicopters. The next minute you are up close and personal listening as a young soldier quietly talks about what it was like to be in the combat zone and what it is like to be dealing with not being there. One says that he doesn’t want to go to sleep because of the nightmares. He has tried five different kinds of sleeping pills, but none works to allow him a peaceful night’s sleep.
Each of the eight men gets very close to tears.
An excellent panel discussion following the film was skillfully moderated by Lara Logan, chief foreign correspondent with CBS News, and included Sebastian Junger as well as one of the film participants, Major Dan Kearney, who made it possible for the film team to work with his combat team.
In the discussion, Sebastian Junger commented that the interviews really “make” the film. What you don’t see, he pointed out, is that the person interviewing the soldiers — Junger — is also fighting back the tears. Junger noted that soldiers cannot show emotion, especially in a combat zone. Instead, when death happens, especially the death of your buddy, you mourn for a minute or two and then get back out there and kill the enemy who took his life.
Once they leave combat, the men have to try to process all that they have been through in the previous 15 months. Many do not succeed in readjusting to civilian life. Junger hopes that the film will help with the re-integration process by promoting understanding of the challenges they face. He said that many of the men will end up going back into combat, leaving behind their wives who feel rejected. They go back, he thinks, because for many 19-year-old men in the United States civilian life does not offer a satisfying role, identity or sense of belonging. The combat zone does that in spades. Many soldiers, he says, become addicted to the male bonding, the brotherhood that is forged in the daily routine of a harsh life and possible death. It is an intoxicating form of solidarity, stronger than friendship, that trumps all differences and disagreements and provides an emotional security that overrides concerns about physical security.
Combat, says Junger, is a small, closed, male world. His film offers a peek through a keyhole into that world. Restrepo is an ethnographic film of the highest order. (Junger has a B.A. in cultural anthropology and it shows). Although Junger wasn’t with the troop for the entire 15 months — he visited five times — he and his camera were not obviously intrusive. But they must have created an extra layer of life and death?
In the question and answer period, no one asked Junger how he is dealing with re-entry to the civilian world. It can’t be easy for him, either. I believe I saw tears in his eyes at several points during the panel discussion.
Update: Tim Hetherington tragically was killed April 20th, 2011 while on assignment in Libia.