As the soldiers found their way in this unspeakably dangerous landscape, the cameras were there to record their progress, their friendships, their fears and hopes, and overall, their day-to-day experience on the tip of the spear in the middle of a much-contested war. Once they had fought their way forward enough to stake a new claim, the soldiers built a strategic outpost on a rocky ridge. The fighting had been deadly, and they named their new home after their fallen comrade, a medic named Private First Class Juan Restrepo, who was killed in action just two months after arriving in country.
Junger and Hetherington were new to filmmaking, but they knew what they wanted to give viewers: an unobstructed view of the life of a soldier, told with a journalistic objectivity. That meant no narration, no interviews with families back home, no political considerations of the war debate raging at home—Restrepo is solely the point-of-view of the soldier on the ground. To do so, they lived at Restrepo, which meant eating the same MREs, facing a soldier’s fears, dodging the same bullets, sustaining similar injuries, and renouncing the comforts of home.
The two filmmakers sat down with us this week to talk about their hopes for Restrepo, their intentions, their reasoning, and their own commitment to the project.
Sebastian Junger, Tim Hetherington
Tribeca: How did the film come about? You are journalists, so how did you decide to make a film?
Sebastian Junger: I’d been with Battle Company, 173rd Airborne in Zabul Province in 2005. I’d never been with the US military before—all my reporting, going back to 1996, in Afghanistan, had been with the civilian population.
After it was clear the war was not going to wind down quickly, I wanted to understand what it was like to be a soldier in combat. I decided to follow one platoon for an entire deployment in Afghanistan. I wanted to follow Battle Company, and I hooked up with Tim, and we started out in the fall of 2007 following 2nd Platoon of Battle Company at this remote outpost called Restrepo, named after the platoon medic. Our goal was not to evaluate the war, morally or politically. Our goal was to simply create an immersive experience for the viewers on what it’s like to be a soldier in combat.
I had a vague idea of making a documentary, [but] it didn’t become a reality until Tim came on board—he knew what he was doing, I didn’t.
Tribeca: Film as a medium was new for you. How is it different from a book or an article?
Junger: Film provides the illusion of being there. You are in a dark room, surrounded by sound, surrounded by visual images. It’s as close to a dream as technology can provide. We just felt it was the ultimate way of making viewers feel the experience of combat. You can understand it in a more intellectual way with writing, perhaps, or photography, but this is immersive.
Tribeca: As a still photographer, what was it like for you to move into film?
Tim Hetherington: Well, I’d been working with moving imagery for some time now, as a cameraman in other places. Video is 29.7 frames per second with sound, so it kind of drags the viewer through the story, because it’s so contextualized. And also, the net that you cast when you are shooting video just feels wider—you’re getting a lot more [in each shot]. In still photographs, you have to be a lot more incisive; you have to think about the meaning of [each] still, which kind of helped me when I was filming. [I would suddenly realize,] “Oh, wow, the gun brass going down into Pemble’s shoe is quite interesting,” so finding these little details that allow the viewer some kind of creative engagement, [to see] the small things that are a part of everyday life.
Tribeca: How did you share the duties? I understand you both were injured, but that didn't stop you...
Hetherington: We both got injured—he tore his Achilles tendon, and then he was out of action, so I went back, and I broke my leg, so I was out of action. He went back, got blown up in a Humvee, so he was a bit shaken up, I went back… So it ended up a bit like a tag team, although we found times to be there together.
Junger: The first time we were together, and in the middle we overlapped a few times.
Hetherington: Neither of us trained in film school, but we were both interested in narrative. I am a visual storyteller, he’s a narrative storyteller, a writer… It may accord to the classic rules of documentary filmmaking, but we hope it’s a very experiential cinematic journey.
Specialist Misha Pemble-Belkin and Ross Murphy relaxing at Restrepo
Tribeca: What kind of red tape did you have to cut through to make this happen?
Junger: It was pretty simple. It wasn’t about us—there’s an embed system. If you’re an accredited journalist, and you sign a waiver of responsibility, they will embed you with a unit.
Tribeca: So there’s no difference between making a documentary and doing a news piece?
Junger: They make a distinction between documentaries, which are often independent, and network news, newspapers, etc. For documentary film, [the Army asks] to be able to watch a rough cut of the movie, and if there are any privacy issues—like showing a wounded soldier who’s in agony, and maybe doesn’t want to appear that way on the big screen—or any issues of security, like overhead shots of a military base, for example, those get dealt with before the film gets printed. But you must make the distinction between that and censorship, which never—
Hetherington: But we had none of those issues. We show overheads of military bases, and we’ve shown dead and wounded American soldiers, and those were not an issue for them. This was my first time being embedded with American soldiers, and I was expecting to be controlled, and I wasn’t controlled at all. Did I censor myself? Absolutely. In the edits, I didn’t want to show a guy with the back of his head blown out, and I didn’t want to show a dead 5-year-old Afghani boy. But we do show civilian casualties, and American deaths, and I think the film goes on enough of a rollercoaster emotional whirl without having to take you into that graphic voyeurism [just to prove] that I’m not censoring myself.
Sergeant Brendan O'Byrne and Private First Class Juan "Doc" Restrepo
Tribeca: Did the soldiers have any say in what was shown and what wasn’t?
Hetherington: We invited as many of the platoon as we could and their wives down to New York and showed them the rough cut. I think at the end of the day that none of them really had a complaint about it. I think they found the film was very raw, that we didn’t gloss over difficult moments. The wives are going to be the fiercest critics, and they said it was a fair job. We see them in the hard moments, and in the lighter moments, and they accept that’s part and parcel of recording the breadth of war, and the honesty of the film.
I think that we just ended up in this outpost—the tip of the spear, the furthest place in the Korengal. If you’re serving in the U.S. Army, this is the most remote place you could be. In some ways, we were far from the control of public information in Bagram or Jalalabad, and they just kind of forgot about us. To be honest, I don’t think the military expected a pair of journalists to spend five months apiece in this crazy, small outpost on the side of a mountain, so we kind of gained an intimacy and an honesty…
We’re journalists, we’re not activist filmmakers, and our job is just to report. When I first came to journalism, I brought with it a lot of baggage—my own agendas, a kind of moral outrage. And that stuff just gets in the way, just as the activism can get in the way. We just wanted to bring people as close as possible to the experience of these soldiers, so we shelved that stuff. I think that Restrepo is the most honest piece of work that I’ve made; it just shows it as it is.
Tribeca: Was the non-politicization of the film something you agreed about at the outset?
Junger: We’re journalists, and that’s our default mode, so it wasn’t a topic of hot debate for us. A bit more subtle than that was: What do we put in the film? Can we interview a general, who was not in the Korengal, but has a strategic overview of the Korengal? Can we interview families about the impact of having their men away for 15 months? The answer we came up with was No. We wanted to show what it’s like to be a soldier, in combat. As soon as you cut away to a general who’s in an armchair on Bagram Airbase, you’re outside of the soldier’s experience, and you’ve broken the illusion that you as the viewer are in the Korengal. Suddenly you realize, “Oh, right, this is a broad view of the war, this is a polemic…”
So that was our guiding principle, up to the point of excluding any kind of outside narration. Morgan Freeman was not explaining events in the Korengal while things were happening in the Korengal—there was no big, beautiful voice booming down from the sky while it was happening, so we couldn’t even have outside narration because that was not part of the soldiers’ reality.
Misha Pemble-Belkin (l.) and fellow soldiers from Battle Company, 173rd US Airborne during a firefight at Outpost Restrepo
Tribeca: Documentarians often claim journalistic objectivity, but quite often that’s not what we see on screen. Restrepo feels truly authentic. What do you want people to take away from the film?
Junger: Soldiers understand themselves to be fighting for us, the American public. They know the American public includes people who don’t want them there. They get that, [but] they don’t really care; it’s not an important distinction for them. What I’m hoping is that when people enter the cinema, they will drop their political viewpoints, their ideological baggage, and they will experience the film as soldiers experience the war, as an emotional thing.
There are no Republicans out at Restrepo, there are no Democrats, there are no gay guys, no ugly guys, no poor guys or popular guys from high school. There’s nothing except American soldiers who are either good at being soldiers, and they’re out there, or they’re bad at being soldiers, and they get kicked off the hill. That’s all there is at Restrepo. What I’m hoping is that the moviegoing public can experience the film with the same level of purity that the soldiers actually, in a weird way, deal with combat.
Hetherington: From a different angle, the military has a rather prickly relationship with journalists. And consequently, the public doesn’t really know a lot about the military or military families. When we started making Restrepo… I realized how separate [the story] was from the mainstream dialogue about the war that was going on. In some ways, because journalists have come with their opinions, it’s enhanced this divisive nature… so military soldiers and their families are not part of the discussions of what’s going on in the wars.
I hope if people leave their opinions about the war—Republican, Democrat—to one side and go see the film, then the soldiers’ [perspective] can be brought into the discussion at a time when the country really needs a unified discussion on Afghanistan.
Specialist Kyle Steiner
Tribeca: Talking about the cross-section of soldiers at Restrepo—you couldn’t have had a better “cast” if you’d gone to Central Casting. There’s such a diversity—of opinion, of background, of presence on the screen. How did you choose the stories—the 4 or 5 that you focused on? Did you choose them? Or did they naturally emerge? I mean, Captain Kearney—
Junger: He’s a great presence on screen, huh?
Tribeca: He’s like a movie star.
Junger: We had a cast of 35 characters, and we focused on the ones who were most comfortable being on camera. They made the decisions themselves. Some of them didn’t really want to be part of it—not because they didn’t like us, but they just weren’t comfortable.
Hetherington: They all had compelling stories. We had amazing access to them, and they opened themselves up to us. It wasn’t the case that we became a fly on the wall. A fly is this idea that you don’t really see it, or you rather it wasn’t there. It was kind of the opposite with 2nd Platoon. I think at some point they had a discussion about us, and they agreed that they were going to let us into their lives in a much more coherent way than when we first arrived.
I think they realized when they were going through the deployment that they were going through the most profound experience of their lives. And then they collectively, eventually, all realized, “Wow. We’ve got two guys here who are willing to do all that we do and to document it. That’s a pretty cool thing.” And this is something that when they are much older, they will have this complete documentation.
Increasingly, as they see this film, Sebastian’s book, my projects get traction, they are willing to take part—they come to the Q&As. Again, this is getting the military into a discussion with the American people. And that’s a really valuable thing.