In front of a crowd largely consisting of military vets and recently discharged soldiers this week, Tim Hetherington introduced a screening of “Restrepo” with a story of how obligations prevented him from doing similar honors in person at the True/False Festival back in February. Rudy and Mace, two soldiers from the film, high-tailed it from their respective bases to make an appearance in his place, and Hetherington soon got a call from Rudy, who couldn’t believe what he was seeing: the name of his fallen comrade-in-arms Juan “Doc” Restrepo in big letters on the marquee of the Missouri Theatre.
For a documentary that isn’t given to such sentimentality, it’s a revealing anecdote. The title was one of the many things Hetherington and co-director Sebastian Junger had to fight to protect on their self-financed odyssey into the lives of soldiers stationed at the dangerous military outpost in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley (one that’s since closed).
Hetherington was only slightly teasing when he later told the audience that finding a distributor that wouldn’t compromise what he considers to be “a distillation of all the things we’ve come to understand about war and young men in war” was only slightly harder than dodging bullets in Operation Rock Avalanche, the 2007 military offensive that serves as the film’s centerpiece in which Hetherington broke his leg and the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team loses one of their own on camera.
“We had the terrifying experience of self-financing our film because we didn’t want essentially corporate taste in the edit room with us,” said co-director Junger. “And then we’re in the terrifying place of being prepared to turn down a perfectly good offer because it might’ve come with strings attached. We didn’t blink and in the end, it was good for the people that bought the film, it was good for us, it was good for the film.”
It might not have been comfortable for the duo — when not holed up in an editing bay, Hetherington spent last year “in an empty apartment with a bed and two broken chairs” — but the film, recognized by Sundance as its Grand Jury Prize winner for Documentary and hailed here by Alison Willmore, is one of the rare, authentic nonfiction looks into the experience of war from those soldiers on the ground and how it shapes their psyches.
Little attention is paid to military bureaucracy or even who the soldiers are fighting, though we get unusual glimpses into the often frustrating negotiations between the locals, who fear retaliation from the Taliban, and the soldiers who need to stand their ground; as one soldier remarks, “The war ends at the Korengal outpost and where the war ends, the Taliban begins.”
Culled from 150 hours of footage taken during ten separate visits to the war zone over a year, “Restrepo” evolved out of Hetherington and Junger’s day jobs as journalists on assignment for Vanity Fair. Far away from the Public Information Department for the Army, the duo were able to bring along a battered video camera and just started shooting.
While at first they envisioned the resulting footage at first some kind of TV doc, they realized quickly the potential for something for the big screen. Hetherington was surprised by the amount of freedom he had, acknowledging that this is “the most honest piece of reporting” that he’s done, while Junger believes the film clears up many misconceptions about what soldiers do.
“We were continually creating our concept of the movie as a reflection of the experience we were having,” said Junger. “Everyone’s seen Hollywood war movies, so there are all these visual or storyline clichés that are floating around out there and in the edit room, I think once in a while, we’d construct one of those and it felt false. It was not the reality out there, it was another reality — it was a myth created by Hollywood.”