(In the Korengal Valley, in eastern Afghanistan, from Restrepo, by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington. Images courtesy of National Geographic Films.)
“What an unlucky country,” Hamid Karzai says of Afghanistan, the final words spoken in Steve Coll’s extraordinary book Ghost Wars, recounting the country’s nightmarish trajectory of civil war, foreign occupation and Islamic fundamentalism from the December 1979 Soviet invasion to the terrorist attacks of September 11th.
Those words haunted me back in January right after I saw Restrepo on the opening weekend of this year’s Sundance Film festival. The film, one of the standouts in either fiction or nonfiction sections, won the grand jury prize for best documentary.
The film is the collaboration of British photojournalist Tim Hetherington and American war correspondent Sebastian Junger. The movie is culled from some one hundred and fifty hours of footage the two shot, separately and together, during the fourteen months they were embedded with a group of fifteen soldiers of the Second Platoon of Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Bridge in the Taliban stronghold of the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan.
The two journalists were originally commissioned by Vanity Fair to report about the war. They contributed two lengthy pieces combining Junger’s reportage with Hetherington’s photographs. They also contributed a couple of pieces to ABC News. The two have also written separate books based on their experiences: Junger’s War was recently published, and Hetherington’s Infidel is being issued in October.
I spoke with Hetherington last week, by chance on the day that President Obama relieved Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal as military commander in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the general’s notorious Rolling Stone interview. (As I write this, the Senate confirmed Gen. David H. Petraeus 99-0 as McChrystal’s successor.)
Regardless of the skill, reportorial prowess and cumulative power contained in the books, Restrepo is unsurpassable, a steely and ferocious examination of the personal consequences of combat that observes with a disarming precision of the rupture, fear and dread of war. From the opening moments, captured from the interior of a vehicle immobilized by an improvised explosive device (IED), Restrepo has an immediacy and caught in the moment verisimilitude that is enthralling.
These are tough guys, the soldiers, elite warriors, but the movie disabuses anybody of the romanticism of war or combat. The strength of the work is not just their sharp vignettes that individuate, but the particular manner their proximity to their subjects allows for a particularly unvarnished, direct and unmediated portrait. (The title refers to the name of the outpost the soldiers assign it, in tribute to a comrade, a medic, who died during the early stages of the operation.)
I have a few complaints: I wish they eliminated the direct address interviews they conducted with some of their subjects. Yes, perhaps it provides a balance and perspective, but it also clutters the work in a way that is wholly unnecessary, because the images, sounds and perspectives are so evocative, taut and overpowering on their own.
The film division of National Geographic acquired the theatrical rights out of Sundance, and they are now opening the film throughout the country, initially in New York and Los Angeles in advance of other major markets.
Here are some excerpts from my discussion with Hetherington. I’d also recommend checking out his website to learn about his background and work.
Light Sensitive: How did you and Sebastian first meet?
Tim Hetherington: We both worked for Vanity Fair. He was a contributing writer and I was a contributing photographer.
Light Sensitive: Hemingway defined it as grace under pressure, the ability to maintain focus and discipline under extreme duress. What is it about you personally that has allowed you to do this kind of work?
Tim Hetherington: It does require a very particular and different skill set. Hemingway wasn’t a photographer. If I had to cover a war with a pen and notepad, I’d be terrified, I think. I have my equipment, my tools. Sebastian said something very interesting, the filming technique allowed for the most accurate form of note taking or recording possible and nothing was missed.
Light Sensitive: What correlation do you see, aesthetically or formally, between your work as a war photographer and now a documentary filmmaker making a film about the war in Afghanistan?
Tim Hetherington: I’ve been a photographer, I’ve done a couple of art installations and now I’ve done films. I’m not interested necessarily in photography. What I’m interested in is communications and telling stories that illustrate what is happening in Afghanistan, as we follow these soldiers in the company.
Light Sensitive: Did you and Sebastian talk about the form and shape of the work?
Tim Hetherington: What we talked about was making an immersive and authentic portrait of the men in this platoon. We looked at some other films. There’s a film called Anderson Platoon [a French documentary, made by Pierre Schoendoerffer], about the first all-black platoon in Vietnam. There have been some people who have criticized the film or have complained that the film isn’t political enough. I think what they mean is not that the film lacks politics, but what they want is a moral film that condemns the war.
Light Sensitive: Do you think your presence and the soldiers’ awareness they were being filmed altered their behavior in any conscious or significant way.
Tim Hetherington: I don’t think so, and I understand the question. We spent a lot of time together. What Sebastian and I talked about was being part of the platoon. The system that embeds journalists with different companies, but in most cases, it’s never more than three weeks. I had a friend who was in Falluja with the marines for three weeks. We did ten one month tours, or trips, five each. The objective was really to get into the spirit of the unit. The whole point was to show this world, and not make political or value judgments.
For instance, there’s a scene in the film where the men are seen celebrating a kill. That’s not necessarily a proud moment, but the point was to accept it as part of the reality of what goes on there. You see a lot of different experiences, the scene where the men dance and touch one another. In The Hurt Locker, for instance, there’s the strong sense the reason the men keep returning to conflict and battle is the adrenaline. Is that really so? I think it’s more complicated than that. What they are drawn to is the group experience.
Light Sensitive: One thing the film reinforced is how intractable Afghanistan truly is, even more so than Vietnam or Iraq. The topography, the landscapes, you understand intuitively why the British, the Soviets and now American and allied forces have failed militarily to impose their will and order there.
Tim Hetherington: Except that I’m not sure it’s right to suggest that the Valley is representative of all of Afghanistan any more than Detroit is representative of all of America. But it does give you a sense of what they’re facing and confronting and how counterintuitive it all is. Again, it gets to the question of people probing what is or is not in the film. Since the time of the NATO invasion [in October 2001] there have been 16,000 civilian casualties. That’s obviously very high, disturbing figure. But then there’s the report from the previous decade by Human Rights Watch that during the time of the civil war and the Taliban’s rise to power, more than 400,000 Afghan civilians died.
Light Sensitive: Are you planning to go back?
Tim Hetherington: Yes, in October.
Light Sensitive: Based on what you have seen during your extensive time there, what is the end game, or is there one.
Tim Hetherington: America was truly welcomed by the Afghanistan people at the time of the NATO invasion in 2001. Sebastian said that he was hugged by Afghanis as he entered the streets of Kabul. But then the fight was diverted to Iraq, and I think you could call that the strategic blunder of the Bush Administration to only leave 15,000 American troops. Is it too late to get that [momentum] back, I’m not sure. As we’ve seen with recent developments and McChrystal, this is the critical time.