EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a daily December series that will feature new or previously published interviews, profiles and first-persons of some of the year’s best filmmakers, writers, actors and actresses. This edition is an interview with “Restrepo” directors Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, who just won a National Board of Review award
U.S. doc competition feature “Restrepo” is the directorial debut for filmmaking duo Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, though this isn’t their first foray into film. Hetherington was cinematographer in Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg’s “The Devil Came on Horseback” (whose latest, “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” is also in the doc competition this year), and Junger wrote the book to “The Perfect Storm,” which became the 2000 film directed by Wolfgang Petersen. “Restrepo” shows a year with one platoon in Afghanistan’s deadliest valley.
Junger & Hetherington do intros and describe what they thought Afghanistan would be, and how it really was and is from the soldiers’ point-of-view…
Sebastian Junger: My background is in print journalism – particularly in war zones – so I had no experience in documentary filmmaking before this project. In 2005, I spent a couple of weeks with Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne in central Afghanistan, reporting and shooting video, and I decided that if they ever went back, I would follow one platoon for an entire deployment. That chance came in 2007, when Battle Company deployed to the incredibly dangerous Korengal Valley of eastern Afghanistan.
My idea was to write a book and shoot enough video to produce a documentary on the experience of one platoon – thirty men – over the course of a year-long deployment. After my first trip to the Korengal, I had the great fortune to team up with Tim Hetherington, who gave me my first lessons in filmmaking. Together, over the course of ten trips, we began to document on camera the experience of a handful of men at a remote American outpost.
Tim Hetherington: I came to filmmaking through photography but am essentially an image-maker who works across many different formats – film, magazines, television, art installations, books and exhibitions. I guess what unifies my work for the last ten years has been a focus on young men and war. Sebastian and I work together as contributors for Vanity Fair – he’s the writer, I’m the photographer – so the initial impetus to cover the story evolved out of Sebastian’s idea for the magazine assignment.
I didn’t think much about it prior to the initial visit – I thought we’d be doing a lot of walking, drinking tea with locals, and maybe get shot at – but once we got there, we were both completely astounded by the amount of combat that was going on at that time. I mean it was 2007 and the focus was still very much on Iraq. The public had no idea that US forces were involved in heavy fighting in Afghanistan. We knew pretty soon that this was an important story and we had the focus and access to make something powerful.
SJ: Our idea was to make a completely experiential film that never departs from the soldiers’ reality: they can’t interview generals so neither do we. They have almost no access to strategy or politics, so we avoided those things as well. Our goal was to give viewers the experience of having done a 90-minute deployment, so nothing outside that reality – not even an outside narration – would be allowed into the film. The soldiers’ job was to stay alive and psychologically intact for 15 months in the most combat-intensive place in all of Afghanistan, and our film would be about that process. The politics of the war, the broader strategy or the moral debate about use of military force were all irrelevant to the soldier’s lives – and therefore to us.
TH: Both of us have covered wars for some time now, so in many ways the film is a distillation of our combined experiences in conflict. We wanted to bring the audience as close as possible into that world, and show them things they’ve never seen before in verite, and we wanted to make an honest film – something that brings together all the comedy and tragedy and boredom that you find in war. To do this we immersed ourselves in the experience and just lived it with the soldiers.
SJ: We were granted complete and almost unlimited access by the US military, and despite having shot very sensitive footage – civilian casualties, dead American soldiers – we were never censored in any way. Our biggest obstacle was gaining acceptance by the men themselves, though after a couple of trips that no longer seemed to be an issue. Without the trust and outright friendship of the men in the platoon, this film would not have been possible. Both Tim and I were seriously hurt during the course of the year in the Korengal – Tim broke his leg, I tore my Achilles tendon – and our physical welfare was probably the gravest threat to the completion of the film.
TH: I won’t ever be able to fully express what it was like to make this film. For sure, the actual filming took me to certain physical and emotional limits, but nothing prepared me for the marathon of what was to follow in terms of getting the film financed and made. It’s pretty hard to believe we’ve made it this far.
Their take on how audiences will view the doc…
SJ: Having never been involved with film I can’t say that I was guided, artistically, by other documentaries. But Tim and I both seem to have a taste for experiential, non-didactic works that refrain from telling you how to think and simply bring you into a world and let you stay there for a while. Our incredible editor, Michael Levine, made a film called “Billy the Kid,” which was very inspirational to us in that regard. His work showed us that a film doesn’t have to be instructive or pedantic in order to have intellectual value.
We think that theater-goers will enjoy this film because it shows – possibly for the first time – what it is like to be an infantryman in heavy combat in Afghanistan. The political debate about that war can – and should – happen elsewhere, but it does not have a place in our film.
TH: I have no idea what people will think of our film, but I do know that it will take them somewhere they’ve not been before.