Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, Restrepo
Originally posted online on June 23, 2010. Restrepo is nominated for Best Documentary.
Most documentary filmmakers attempt to see the world through the lens of the subjects they’re shooting, but few put their lives on the line to do so. That perhaps is what most separates first-time directors Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington from a few of their colleagues who didn’t take home the Grand Jury Prize for U.S. Documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Their award-winning Restrepo is the result of a near yearlong embedment with the Second Platoon, Battle Company in eastern Afghanistan’s deadly Korengal Valley, during which they survived like soldiers wielding cameras in lieu of guns. While the two don’t lack name recognition — writer Junger is the bestselling author of The Perfect Storm, and along with prizewinning photojournalist Hetherington, is a longtime contributor to Vanity Fair — they’ve used their critical prestige to shine a light on the identities of the little known. Like “Doc” Restrepo, a platoon medic killed in action but not forgotten at the outpost that bears his name.
Filmmaker: So how did you two meet and what prompted you to want to collaborate on a film?
Tim Hetherington: Sebastian had an idea that he wanted to follow a platoon of soldiers for a year.
Sebastian Junger: Yeah, I’d been going to Afghanistan since 1996 and always covered the story from the perspective of the civilian population, for obvious reasons. When it became clear that the U.S. was going to be engaged in a long and complicated war I was embedded with a battle company. I was so impressed by those guys. I had never been with a professional army before. I’d never been with the U.S. military. I thought that if they go back I wanted to follow one platoon back to Afghanistan. Not Iraq. I was not interested in Iraq. But I wanted to follow one platoon of 35 men for an entire deployment [in order] to write a book, make a documentary. I would pay for it by turning in articles to Vanity Fair and footage to ABC’s Nightline. The book part I knew how to do, but the documentary part I definitely did not. Fortunately, I hooked up with Tim. With his help we were able to shoot enough footage to begin editing together a documentary starting in the early winter of 2009.
Filmmaker: So the two of you hadn’t worked together before? He just approached you with this project.
Hetherington: Well, we’re both contributors to Vanity Fair. I worked for them in West Africa so I was asked, “Why don’t you go to Afghanistan with Sebastian?” That was the first time we met. We met in the airport, actually, on the way there.
Filmmaker: So this was a professional connection.
Junger: He was assigned to do the still photos. Vanity Fair did not know about the documentary idea. But when he came onboard I talked about it with him and he was as excited about it as I was.
Filmmaker: The title of your film keeps sticking in my mind. You could have called it the more explanatory “Camp Restrepo,” which is the name of the base that the soldiers built. But instead you chose simply “Restrepo,” the last name of the fallen medic the camp is named for. I think this is a stronger choice since it highlights the personal cost of war rather than our abstract memorializing of it. Did you consciously think in these terms during the filmmaking process?
Hetherington: We didn’t talk about it at the time of the filming but at one point we just turned to each other — we must have both had it in the back of our heads that “Restrepo” is what we wanted to call it. It’s interesting because dealing with it now in the business, there’s a lot of people that wanted to break it down to something much more tangible like “Camp Restrepo” or “Outpost Afghanistan.” We’ve always been adamant that we just wanted “Restrepo.” And I think it’s that abstract nature that people are very afraid of — that in the TV listings it’s, like, if we have “Restrepo” it’s going to be lost on the audience. We kind of understood that it was a metaphor. There’s a larger significance in having a name like that. Restrepo is the name of the medic who died — it’s nice that you pointed that out. It is the name of the outpost they found. But it’s also a metaphor for every soldier and the sense of loss that every soldier goes through. It’s interesting because you have Vietnam vets who come see the film and then say, “Wow. Thank you,” because that’s their experience of war as well. And you have people who fought in Iraq where it’s a very different kind of setting. But they also feel that. The nature of men in combat doesn’t change throughout the ages. You could drop these guys out of Restrepo and it would be the same experience if they were fighting the Second World War, if you’re fighting in Vietnam. It’s the same kind of experience.
Junger: We also felt that the material should stand on its own merits. Like in my book War there’s no [subhead]. The book’s called War by Sebastian Junger and that’s it. With the material in the film we didn’t want to provide a broad context for what you’re looking at. We felt that we should be able to construct a film where the material itself was so compelling you didn’t need a broad context. So in terms of calling it “Restrepo” it was in keeping with that. If we have to explain what “Restrepo” is we’re already stepping back and acting like filmmakers, being a little condescending, like, “O.K., it’s an outpost in Afghanistan” — as if that’s going to peak your interest. Ironically, I think if we had called it that it actually would have repelled people. I think one of the things that’s compelling about this project is that it didn’t attempt to explain itself. It just gave itself to you in raw form starting with the name of the film.
Filmmaker: That kind of segues into my next question. I know that it was crucial for you to portray this battle raging in the Korengal Valley directly through the eyes of the men on the front lines. In a way it’s a purposely tunnel vision approach, which makes it the exact opposite of most war docs that broaden the perspective to include political and personal contexts. Was there anything you feel you may have lost by choosing this tactic?
Junger: Not given our goals. Our goals were to reproduce the experience of combat. Had we broadened it to the larger political debate we would have lost the experience of the soldiers.
Filmmaker: Although you did kind of broaden it with the interviews you later conducted off the battlefield.
Junger: That wasn’t a broadening. That was just their diving deeper into their experience. It was a deepening. Those interviews were not about the political context of war or a moral evaluation of the war. It was really about them understanding the feelings they had out there, and understanding them on a more profound level. So it really wasn’t a broadening of it in my mind.
Filmmaker: O.K. Tim, you felt the same way? You never thought, “Wow, I wish we would have done this”?
Hetherington: I think people who want a kind of broader context of the war might feel there’s something kind of wrong with the film. There’s no spoon-feeding. One of the jobs of the film is that it focuses you on the idea of Afghanistan. It’s not like there’s a deficit of information about Afghanistan in the media. It’s just that we’re not focused on it in a way in which we’re really understanding the experience of the people who are fighting the war. One of the reasons I think is because the stuff that’s been put out there has been extremely divisive. When we started making the film what really hit me was this parallel universe between the real soldiers and their families and how they appeared. I mean, the media and the military have a pretty prickly relationship — and justifiably so. But that has meant that a lot of soldiers and their families are really not part of the discussion about the war. With the film we wanted people to be able to put aside their politics and to have an inclusive discussion with the soldiers by really understanding their experience.
Filmmaker: So the other thing that I wondered about was, what goes through your mind as you’re shooting actual shooting? It seems like it would be near impossible to focus on such cinematic necessities as camera angles and storyline, and yet you seem to have captured the images you needed to craft a coherent picture from the troop’s scattered reality. Is thinking in these terms merely an automatic trained response after so many years of war journalism? Or did you just shoot in the here and now and hire a topnotch editor later?
Hetherington: Well, there’s always two levels of editing. I mean, I come from a still photographic background. You’re always directing the camera. So there’s a level of editing in the field and obviously in the editing room, and we were fortunate enough to have a fantastic editor. I mean, Michael (Levine) would find things in places I hadn’t even thought of. He definitely brought the editing to a higher level. But, of course, even when you’re in combat, you know, I am focusing on stuff like, “the smoke coming out of that cigarette is really evocative.” You do have to think like that. Because if I wasn’t thinking like that and I didn’t have the camera I’d probably be too scared to do my job.
Filmmaker: It’s kind of like your armor.
Hetherington: Yeah, it is like your armor. And for soldiers, bullets and war, it’s all pretty abstract in some ways. I mean, like with bullets, you can’t see them. And with soldiers shooting back they kind of get into the mechanics of their training. In the same way we’re also trained as filmmakers. Through habit we become trained. I remember, you always say that the one time you were separated from the camera was the most terrifying.
Junger: Yeah, all that camerawork was a refuge from the experience of fear. Just like with the guys having a weapon is a refuge from fear. Like they have something to do.
Hetherington: They couldn’t understand how we couldn’t be armed, for example. They were like, “How can you do this and not have a gun?” Because they didn’t have the experience of having a camera.
Junger: I think if we could have given them a camera and if they understood that to be their job they would have been quite O.K. with that.
Filmmaker: It’s like a psychological mind trick.
Junger: Yup. You know, I was blown up in that Humvee and I was shooting video the whole time. And that was the one thing that kept me very calm. Had I not had a camera I would have sat there worrying about what was gonna happen and really freaked myself out.
Filmmaker: But as a writer were you thinking in terms of story — or even images?
Junger: We weren’t sure what the story was gonna be because we didn’t know what the outcome was gonna be. We didn’t know who was gonna get killed, who wasn’t, we just had no idea. We could have been shooting a story and Restrepo could have been overrun.
Hetherington: I think that documentaries are just like that. They’re reporting. That’s what makes them such a tricky thing to do.
Filmmaker: Yes, but sometimes during the process something clicks and you’re like, “Oh, this is where the story is going so let me follow that.”
Hetherington: Well, one of the things I think we knew after awhile was we had such a profound and intimate experience with the soldiers that the bond, at least for me, became more interesting than the actual fighting. People like to think that the war machine is about bombs and guns and helicopters since that is the way the media portrays the war machine. But there’s also these interpersonal relationships between soldiers. Take a small group of soldiers, platoon size, train them together, put them together in extreme circumstances and they will kill and be killed for each other. That is the heart of the war machine. And that’s really what our film became about. That was something we really got turned onto after awhile.
Filmmaker: Hadn’t you seen that experience before, though, in the course of your war reporting?
Hetherington: This was my first time with the American military, but I have journalist friends who toured during the battle of Fallujah and the longest they stayed was three weeks. You don’t really have time to develop a relationship. I mean, I was embedded with rebel armies in West Africa, but that is a much more difficult relationship to build up. We spent ten months in total, five months each, sometimes together, sometimes apart, and I don’t think the military really expected us to go hang out with a group of soldiers for ten months on the side of a mountain. It just wasn’t in their idea of embedding. In that way we’d done something within the embed system that hadn’t been done before. I think that’s why you get this real insight into male bonding and war.
Junger: I just want to go back a moment to the previous question about shaping the story while we were out there. We definitely discussed — I remember discussing character. Like, which guys are we gonna focus on? There were 35 guys so we had to begin focusing in preparation for the interviews in Italy. I mean, we couldn’t interview all 35 guys. So we began shaping the story in terms of character pretty early on. One thing we wanted was for six, seven or eight characters to be representative of different elements in the platoon, but we also needed guys who were at least moderately comfortable in front of the camera. The other thing we did was we wanted to have a kind of visual library, so my ideal was to have so much footage — basically, the visual vocabulary that any director would stage for a fiction film. We wanted that available to us in nonfiction form. That way we could put together the film the way a scripted film would be put together. Maybe it was naïve, but I was, like, let’s just try to film everything we possibly can. So if we need that little visual bit to complete that visual sentence we have it in the archives.
Filmmaker: I actually think a lot of documentarians think that way — like, I’ve got to get as much imagery as I can because once I get in the editing room I’m going to kick myself if I don’t have what I need. They want to avoid having any regrets. Interestingly, the other thing that really hit home for me, I kept thinking about the soldiers the soldiers were fighting against. I recently watched a PBS doc — I think it was a segment on Frontline — dealing with a post-Iraq deployment rash of suicides and violent behavior. Since you’ve covered other country’s war machines what do you think are the similarities and differences between our soldiers and those of other nations you’ve witnessed? How do other governments handle the men returning home and how do those soldiers make the transition back to society?
Junger: I think probably the U.S. is about as good as it gets.
Junger: Yeah. I mean, the Russian army? (shakes his head) Maybe the Israelis. I don’t know. Maybe the Israelis are pretty good with that.
Hetherington: Well, I think integration is such a big question for every country. It’s so varied. Like you said, Russian reintegration of their guys coming back from Chechnya? Wow. I don’t think there’s much of that.
Filmmaker: Yeah, which made me wonder if they have a higher rate of suicides and violent behavior than we do. I mean, you’re British (to Hetherington) — how does Britain deal with it?
Hetherington: I think Britain is in denial about all this stuff in Afghanistan.
Junger: You know, people expect that there’s a complete solution to every problem. There isn’t. At best there’s a partial solution. So you’re going to have guys coming back with PTSD. There’s no government program that is going to completely eliminate that from society. Not any more so than you can eliminate PTSD from car accidents, from divorces, from all of life’s traumas. You don’t have to go to the battlefield to become traumatized. In life, trauma will find you in one form or another. There is no way to eliminate how the mind processes that. There’s no way to make it disappear.
Filmmaker: What was the biggest surprise for you as veteran journalists? Anything that really stood out?
Hetherington: Yeah, how good Sebastian was at filming.
Filmmaker: O.K., I won’t ask you to elaborate on that. Thank you both so much.