Americans soldiers, weighted down with backpacks and machine guns, rush up a hill in the remote mountains of Afghanistan. We follow them closely through the underbrush as bullets whiz past their heads, then voices call out — a man is down, one of theirs. A grieving soldier goes into shock, breathing heavily, on the verge of breakdown, as his comrades try to steady him. It’s utter chaos — in short, this is war.
But this is a very specific representation of war — as chronicled in new documentaries like Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger’s “Restrepo,” the Danish Cannes winner “Armadillo” and photojournalist Danfung Dennis’ work-in-progress “Hell and Back Again.” Visceral, alarming and in-your-face, these Afghanistan docs offer a depiction of war that isn’t exactly new in the mediascape, but it stands in striking contrast to the images we’ve seen coming out of Iraq for the last several years.
Because the bulk of Iraq docs focused on political controversies (“Standard Operating Procedure,” “No End in Sight”) and the war’s impact on U.S. soldiers (“Gunner Palace,” “The War Tapes”) and Iraqi civilians (“Iraq in Fragments,” “My Country, My Country”), the films lacked a key ingredient that we’ve come to associate with war: combat.
As “Gunner Palace” director Michael Tucker puts it, “Iraq was a really dirty, ugly, horrific, incredibly boring hot thing, where it’s driving, driving, driving, and then ‘boom,’ suddenly people die. But Afghanistan looks like Khe Sanh: it’s got Chinooks; it’s not in the middle of the city; it’s easier for people to process.”
“They’re entirely different conflicts,” agrees Danfung Dennis, who is the middle of cutting down 80 hours of footage of his film, “Hell and Back Again,” which follows a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan and back home in North Carolina. “They are different insurgent groups and different tactics. Iraq is about IEDs; not so much small arms’ fire. Iraq is urban; Afghanistan is mostly rural. And the fighting is very localized in Afghanistan to a number of districts. If you find out where those areas are, you can capture these combat scenes that are more accessible to audiences.”
Indeed, the filmmakers behind “Restrepo,” “Armadillo” and “Hell and Back Again” all have similar aims: to capture a “you are there” immediacy that filmed combat can so bracingly convey. And because of the nature of the war in Afghanistan, and its many differences to the more diffuse battlefront in Iraq — in addition to the use of intimate shooting techniques — they’ve been able to evoke the kinetic horrors of war in a much more palpable way.
“Visceral, immersive and honest” are the words Dennis uses to convey what he is trying to capture. Embedded with a company in Southern Afghanistan for three weeks, Dennis loaned some of his footage for the opening sequences of the recent Frontline documentary “Obama’s War.” And like “Restrepo,” we see soldiers caught in “What the Fuck!” screaming fits, firing machine guns crazily into a dusty haze, and yes, taking casualties.
Shot with the Canon 5D Mark II, which looks like a standard still camera, and mounted on a lightweight stabilizing system with custom-made aluminum “wings,” Dennis’ scenes have a kind of gut-wrenching quality that echoes the violent landscapes we’ve come to associate with previous war imagery, whether the jungles of Vietnam or the beaches of Normandy, whether their fictional representations, from “Apocalypse Now” to “Saving Private Ryan” to those from news footage.