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A Spirited Q & A With “Restrepo” Co-Directors Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger

A Spirited Q & A With “Restrepo” Co-Directors Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger (photo)

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As a way of celebrating this year’s nominees for the Spirit Awards in the weeks leading up to the ceremony, we reached out to as many as we could in an effort to better understand what went into their films, what they’ve gotten out of the experience, and where they’ve found their inspiration, both in regards to their work and other works of art that might’ve inspired them from the past year. Their answers will be published on a daily basis throughout February.

How far would you go for a work of art? Directors Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger went all the way to a remote part of Afghanistan to bring us their powerful documentary “Restrepo.” And when they got there, all they did was spend ten months in the middle of some of the most intense fighting in the war. When they were shot at, when they were blown up by a roadside bomb, they didn’t flinch. Even more impressively, they kept the cameras rolling.

This seems like an astonishing sacrifice, but I imagine Hetherington and Junger don’t look at it that way. They would probably argue that they made no sacrifice greater than that of their subjects, the men of U.S. Outpost Restrepo, and they who don’t view what they’re doing as a sacrifice either. For the soldiers stationed at Restrepo, a tiny 15-man encampment on top of a hill in the middle of intimidating Korengal Valley, their work in Afghanistan is exactly that: a job. A dangerous job, but a job nonetheless.

Hetherington and Junger’s film makes no attempt to justify or contextualize the activities at Restrepo, when you’re in taking fire and mortars, justification and context don’t matter very much. Their approach brings the War in Afghanistan into terrifying clarity for those of us fortunate enough to previously know it only as a talking point on news programs.

“Restrepo” makes us reconsider not only the war in Afghanistan, but movie violence in general. It’s hard to look at gunfights onscreen the same way after you’ve seen it. In fiction movies, we never see bullets, just muzzle flashes and men falling over. Most times, there isn’t even any blood. “Restrepo” shows us the reality: when you are in a firefight, you can actually see bullets flying at you, red hot lead slicing through the sky like flying razors. I will never forget that image as long as I live.

I think it’s telling that Hetherington and Junger answered our Spirit Awards questionnaire in a single voice, as their film was clearly a very successful collaboration between two dedicated artists and journalists. The film is about collaboration, too; fifteen or so men defending this untenable outpost against an endless barrage of enemy fire. What you take away from “Restrepo” aren’t the things they accomplished; but they tireless effort they made trying to accomplish them. That goes for Hetherington and Junger too.

Why did you want to make this film?

We felt that – amidst all the political discord about the war – very few people back home understood what the actual soldiers themselves go through. We wanted to make a film that communicated that in as immersive and powerful a way as possible. As journalists we have very strong feelings about the war, but we hoped that a neutral film would allow people across the political spectrum to connect with the topic. It’s not hard – or original – to create a film that condemns war; any realistic film will do that well enough. The problem with that approach, however, is that you wind up preaching to the converted and alienating everyone else. We wanted our film to impact everyone in the country. The war itself doesn’t seem to be doing that; but maybe our film could.

What was the best piece of advice you received that applied to the making of this film?

Do not, under and circumstances, cede editorial control of the film to anyone else. We had to walk away from a deal and independently finance the film – a terrifying move at the height of the recession – in order to retain full control. But it was worth it.

What was the toughest thing to overcome, whether it applies to a particular scene or the film as a whole?

We spent a total of ten months, between the two of us, filming in the Korengal valley. Frankly, all of it was tough. We did not have a “film crew” or any outside support; we each carried a video camera and shot this film with whatever equipment we could carry on our backs – along with all the gear we needed to survive in that environment. Restrepo was a two hour walk up a steep mountain at 5000 feet. Physically, shooting this film was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. And emotionally it was even harder. We got very close to those guys, and the retrospective interviews we did in Italy were absolutely gut-wrenching. Every soldier spent much of those interviews struggling not to cry. What the camera does not show is the filmmakers struggling with those same overwhelming emotions. It was extremely hard on everyone involved.

What’s been the most memorable moment while you’ve traveled with the film, either at a festival or otherwise?

Over and over again we have heard that the soldiers themselves can’t speak very easily about their experiences, so their wives and families are never able to understand this thing that has effected their men so profoundly. So at screenings, we would often hear from the wife or mother of a soldier that they FINALLY understand this strange world called ‘combat.’ It was as if they were able to peek through a keyhole into this very male world that they otherwise could never enter. Those encounters were always very moving and meaningful.

What’s your favorite thing about your film that’s been largely uncommented upon?

The embed program, which places journalists with frontline combat units, is often looked at very skeptically by the general public. In fact, we exploited that program to shoot footage that is almost never seen in this country. Our movie contains scenes of Afghan civilian casualties, of a dead American soldier, of soldiers scared or sobbing in grief or openly celebrating the killing of an enemy fighter. To their credit, the US military never tried to impede us from shooting or disseminating these images in any way. As journalists, we feel that it is extremely important that the American public have access to this information. But we are not sure that people understand how incredible it is that we were given the open access that we were to this particular platoon.

What’s been the most gratifying thing to come out of this film for you personally?

As journalists, we are not accustomed to forming an emotional bond with our subjects. We were able to retain a healthy political neutrality in the film, but on a personal level, the experience of getting so close to the men in the platoon was a profound one. It affected us in many ways, emotionally. Neither of us will ever be the same again, I think.

What’s been your favorite film, book or album from the past year?

Tim Hetherington’s favorite was ‘Carlos’ by Olivier Assayas. Sebastian Junger’s favorite was ‘A Prophet’ by Jacques Audiard.

“Restrepo” is now available on DVD, Blu-ray, iTunes and Netflix Instant, among other services. The Spirit Awards will air on IFC on February 26th.


Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.


Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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GIFs via Giphy

Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:


The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.


They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!


Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.


Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.