Bearing Witness in Afghanistan: An Interview with Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, the Oscar-nominated Directors of RESTREPOBy Terry Keefe
February 20, 2011
I’ll just come out and say this – Restrepo is one of the best films about war ever made. My statement includes fiction and non, although Restrepo’s power is inseparable from the fact that it is a documentary. Filmmakers Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington embedded themselves for a year with the Second Platoon of Battle Company of the U.S. 173rd Airborne Brigade in the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan to shoot the bulk of Restrepo and have created a non-fiction film which approximates the experience of a lengthy military deployment in the country as much as would be possible without actually going there oneself. The film is nominated in the Best Documentary Feature category of the upcoming Academy Awards, where it will compete for the gold man with fellow nominees Waste Land, Inside Job, Exit Through the Gift Shop, and Gasland.
Junger and Hetherington deliberately keep Restrepo non-partisan, and consequently, the film contains no discussion of the political backdrops of the Afghanistan conflict. Instead, the filmmakers sought to open a window onto the lives of one group of very brave soldiers, and simply “bear witness,” a phrase that Hetherington uses in our talk to describe their objective. What makes Restrepo such an achievement is that it captures the day-to-day existence of soldiers in a manner which only fiction films about war have been able to in the past. The nearly unprecedented length of the embedment was key here, in that the filmmakers became such an accepted presence around the company, that the soldiers let all guard down, allowing for the true fly-on-the-wall feel that every good documentarian hopes for. Intimately shot, the battles are often harrowing, particularly one in which a soldier is killed, sparking the temporary mental anguish of another, all as the bullets keep flying.
Junger rose to prominence as the author of The Perfect Storm, has reported extensively from war zones around the world – including Monrovia and Sierra Leone, and recently released another best-selling book, War, which also covers his time with Battle Company in Afghanistan. UK-born Hetherington is a contributing photographer for Vanity Fair, lived behind the rebel lines as a photographer while the Liberian civil war raged, and has received four World Press Photo prizes.
After watching Restrepo, it is almost a surreal contrast to be sitting with Junger and Hetherington at the Avalon Hotel in Beverly Hills, sipping coffee on a sunny day, but here we are.
You chose not to editorialize one way or the other on the merits or politics of the war in Afghanistan. Was that a choice you made going in, right from the start?
Tim Hetherington: Well, we’re journalists, so our default position is we’re not writing editorial. We’re trying to bring information to readers, viewers, so that they can make up their own conclusions.
It’s refreshing to hear somebody say that these days.
Sebastian Junger: Good. Yeah, we’re making a documentary, but we’re making a documentary as journalists. And we had a very specific mandate that we’d given ourselves, to bring the experience of being a soldier to viewers. And soldiers aren’t political. We really didn’t want anything in the movie that wasn’t part of their reality, so we don’t even ask the general how he feels. We never tried to get an interview with the general at the main base, about the strategy, because the soldiers don’t have the opportunity to ask those questions either. So that was our sort of central ethos with the movie, to create their reality onscreen.
Hetherington: And you know, part of this is that we’re bearing witness to what’s happening. And in bearing witness, by not having opinions, then we’re just recording everything that we come across. It’s not like we’re sort of saying, “Oh, we’ve got to present soldiers, and this film is glorifying soldiering.” It’s not, it’s just that this is bearing witness to what happens, this is what their reality is like, the good and the bad. That they [the soldiers] responded to that, when they saw the film… it was really gratifying, because it was true to their experience, both the good and the bad.
Was this length of embedment difficult to get authorization for?
Junger: I don’t know. It wasn’t for us –
Hetherington: Well, you did something different, though, I think people just don’t do that kind of thing.
Junger: Yeah. Well, I had been with Battle Company in 2005, and so I went back to the military and I said, “I want to follow a platoon from Battle Company for a whole deployment — when they go back to Afghanistan.” And someone signed off on it, and then I think they forgot about it. And so the public affairs officer that I dealt with, he knew me: “Ah, here you are again. Okay. Good luck in the Korengal” – but I think, higher up than that, they weren’t really focused on it.
If someone had put the question to some general: “Okay, there’s a couple of journalists who are going to follow a platoon for ten one-month trips,” it’s possible that that general could get uncomfortable with the idea, because we’re going to see stuff that a journalist doesn’t usually see. Soldiers are going to become open in a way that they aren’t when you’re just there for two weeks and you leave. But the issue never rose to that level in the military.
Hetherington: The average embed is like a week. Two weeks. Friends of mine who did rotations regularly in Iraq, and Afghanistan, the longest they’re there with a group of soldiers is two weeks, and then they don’t really ever see them again. So I think what we did was kind of just unusual.
Well, you guys were part of the company, basically, in many ways.
Hetherington: Yeah. Apart from pulling guard duty, which they tried to get us to do – you know, in the middle of the night – or carrying a gun. We were at a screening last night, a Q&A, and we were talking about this – because in the film you see a moment where the guy’s shooting somebody – and then they’re cheering him. As journalists, because you don’t carry a gun, you sort of become this observer.
Last night, guys who are Iraq veterans were watching the film, we talked in the Q&A about their interests, and it was kind of cool to have a very open conversation, like, “Why do soldiers cheer when they shoot someone? What is the idea behind that?”
Junger: Because they’re not sociopaths. You need some other explanation, other than a psychological disorder, because that’s not what it is.
What were some of the things that came out when you posed that question? Were they able to put it into words?
Junger: You know, in the movie, the kind of movie we did, we didn’t tackle that question directly. We let it unfold. In my book, I tackle it directly, I ask [a soldier], “What was that about?” And he said, “I know it doesn’t look good, but that’s one more guy who’s not gonna kill one of us. And we’re cheering, we’re really cheering that fact, more than his suffering or whatever.”
(A firefight at the Restrepo outpost.)
One of the things you notice immediately in the film, is how young these guys are. The fact that soldiers are young is obviously something you know, but as a civilian, I think you forget about it. And you have this young captain (Captain Dan Kearney) who has the most difficult job in the world. He has to deal with his own guys, the enemy, and the village.
Hetherington: The captain’s like twenty-six, twenty-seven.
Junger: The lieutenant was twenty-three.
Hetherington: And I mean, that was part of the point [of the film]. Again, we just thought we’d eschew the political point of view, because we wanted to create a paradigm-shift in thinking, really, about a war, which is…people at home need to understand what these men experience, what we’re asking them when we send them to war. What does that actually mean? And, you know, polarizing it politically is not really a useful strategy to getting as many people as possible to understand their reality, so we can understand, “What are we asking them to do?” And “Is it right?”
As you’ve said, you look at the guys, and they’re eighteen to twenty-three, and they’re dealing with some of the existential questions of living and dying that we only deal with as we get old. It’s astounding.
(Capt. Dan Kearney meets with village elders.)
What was an eye-opener for me is that you would think the war in Afghanistan is largely smart bombs and high-tech warfare from watching the pundits speak on the news domestically, but the actual experience on the ground is a lot closer to Vietnam.
Hetherington: As a photographer, when you say to me, “Picture the war machine,” I will say to you, “Oh, give me a picture of an Apache attack helicopter or missiles or an aircraft carrier – that’s the war machine.”
The real war machine is taking young men, training them together, putting them on the side of a mountain in Korengal, and they’re gonna kill and be killed for each other. And there’s something very intimate and very human about that. In society we want to sanitize war, or we’re asking to dehumanize that, to make it very inanimate. It’s actually doing a disservice to the people, and to ourselves.
It’s interesting that the soldiers, and we as the viewers, rarely seem to actually see the Taliban. Was that because it was difficult for you to shoot images of the Taliban? Do the soldiers see them fairly frequently?
Junger: No, they don’t. They almost never saw them. So the film reflects their reality.
It’s almost an invisible enemy.
Junger: They say the same thing. I mean, the guys in Iraq, that’s urban warfare. That’s probably a little closer and uglier — but yeah, in the Korengal…the thing is, if you can see someone you can kill them, so each side is going out of their way to not be seen.
(Lighter moments at the outpost.)
One of the soldiers says that, before going to the valley, he didn’t want to do any research on it. To what degree did you two research the Korengal, or did you take a similar approach?
Hetherington: Yeah, that should be my line. I didn’t want to read up on it – [laughs] – but, initially when I went in there – in 2007, I had been doing undercover filming in Sri Lanka, for Human Rights Watch, doing a film about right-wing death squads, and suddenly I was going to Afghanistan, to work with Sebastian, initially for Vanity Fair, and so I really didn’t have time to catch my breath, to think about what I was doing.
And I thought, “Oh, Afghanistan, it’s gonna be quiet out there, we’re gonna walk down the mountains, we’re going to drink cups of tea and occasionally we’ll get shot at.” And we met in Heathrow Airport, and we went over, and a couple of days in, I remember looking at each other, “What is going on here? This is insane.”
It was incredible, the amount of fighting. It was very obvious Afghanistan was slipping out of control, and we were also with this group of guys who were pretty incredible, just really interesting, and we were suddenly in this crazy little outpost on the side of a mountain.
It was really, really unusual, and I was just, like, “Wow.” That’s when [we decided] we were gonna make a film.
And you made a number of trips. Was it difficult to get back on that plane each time? Or were you excited to go back?
Junger: I always dreaded it a little bit, because something bad always almost happens. But it was also, physically it was hard, the patrols were hard. But I got really close to those guys, and when I wasn’t there, I missed them. I never was happy to have to leave.
You obviously had to build the trust of the soldiers. Did it come quickly?
Hetherington: I mean, all journalism is predicated on access, and the press and the military have a prickly relationship, you know, historically. But, we’re used to going into those situations and integrating ourselves into people’s lives, that’s what I do as a documentarian. And as a good documentary filmmaker, you want to be inside that experience. You seek that emotional “inside-ness,” and I think once they saw that we were just going to do everything they did, they were like, “Okay, these guys are in for the long haul.”
It wasn’t a case of being there for four days. They had no running water or electricity, just a bunch of sandbags, and we were sleeping out in the open. Very dirty, dusty, no hot food, no hot showers, no internet or phone, no electricity. We would go on every patrol and every combat situation, and after a couple of those kind of trips, they got it.
In terms of what you would shoot and what you wouldn’t, during Operation Rock Avalanche, there’s a death –
Did you take the attitude: We’re just gonna shoot it, and then request later if it’s okay to put it into the film?
Junger: Yeah, we showed them.
Hetherington: I mean, we showed everything. There was nothing where it was like, “I shouldn’t be filming this.”
Junger: There was no request process. We never checked with the military if anything was okay. We would just try to use our own sense of, uh, well, morality, really. “What’s appropriate to show, particularly in light of the fact that veterans and mothers will watch this?”
Hetherington: And also, we wanted to make sure, again, that the film is inclusive. That doesn’t mean you’ve got to water it down, but sure, I’ve got a picture of a soldier with the back of his head blown off, I’ve got a more graphic picture of wounded Afghans or dead Afghans. You do see dead and mutilated Afghans, you do see a dead American soldier. You just see it in a way [in this film]…that doesn’t seek to shock you. It does shock you emotionally, but…seeing someone’s brains leaking out of the back of their head… you don’t need to see that.
This is what I do for a living. I film this for a living. I’ve worked for Human Rights Watch in Chad covering massacre sites, or, you know, in Liberia, and there is a utility to stuff. It’s important to film everything, so it’s on record, and it’s accessible to people, if you want it and need it professionally, but it’s also trying to build bridges, for people trying to understand these realities. You have to kind of work out a realistic way to do that.
In terms of directing together and shooting together, did you set out a shorthand in advance, in terms of who would film what and when?
Junger: We weren’t always there together. But when we were there together, if there was a scene unfolding that would benefit by two cameras – I mean, sometimes I had to take notes, and Tim would shoot, or sometimes Tim had to shoot, or take stills, and I would shoot – but if there was a scene, like when they were negotiating about the cow, Tim and I would sort of whisper to each other a lot about, okay, who covers what, because we knew this was going to be a kind of interesting scene.
Were you editing the film as you went along?
Hetherington: No. We shot it, and then we came back. I was on the last helicopter out with them. We went to Italy three months later, where [Battle Company] was based, and did the post-interviews, as a device because we wanted them to be the narrators of their own story, in a way.
We weren’t company shrinks, and we weren’t the authority figures, we weren’t in their family, but we were friends, we could ask them very good questions about particular moments, like, “When that happened, what were you thinking? How did that make you feel?”
Those are amazing interviews.
Hetherington: At the end of the five days, we did three a day, we were just brain-dead. It was this intense emotional intensity.
Did you show them any of the Korengal footage before the interviews, or did you wish them to speak entirely from their own recollections?
Hetherington: No, we didn’t show any footage. It was just a black background, two cameras, and, you know, let’s go for it.
As you were cutting, were there a number of different possible films that emerged?
Junger: Any film could have been a million other films. The events that happen are in historical sequence. We didn’t pick up one battle, drop it in, and–
Hetherington: Yeah, winter follows the Rock Avalanche [mission], which it does, and then goes into the spring.
Junger: We emphasize different things, more or less, than other things. One of our sort of central ethos in editing this was there was no one in the film that’s not fighting in the Korengal. No generals, no wives, no diplomats, just the guys. But the other one in terms of editing, was – for me, one of my guideposts – was “Does watching the movie elicit the emotions to me that I was having when I was out there?” We’d cut together some scenes that were clever and sort of revealing or whatever, but something about them would feel false, and I realized what felt false was I wasn’t having the same emotion that I had out there. Something that’s clever isn’t…that’s not an emotion I had out there. You know what I mean? So it’s not in the film. There were a lot of things that were pretty charming, or painful, but it wasn’t quite true to those same feelings, and so –
Hetherington: That’s why we had humor in the film.
Junger: Yeah, yeah.
Hetherington: Because some things out there were really funny. It kind of shocks people, but it’s funny. People’s conceptions of what war is, people who have never been there, who’ve only been studying it or whatever…it’s completely different from people who’ve experienced it, and we just wanted to bring that home, try to mediate that experience in an honest way, and so the film is funny.
The sequence with the dead cow comes to mind, with the villagers looking for compensation from the soldiers. There’s a lot of humor, but it’s also a legitimate problem for the soldiers…which makes it funnier.
Hetherington: Somebody asked me the other day about that, because in Apocalypse Now, there’s the scene when they brought the cow in by helicopter, and I was asked, “Did you notice that?’” and I said, “I’ve never thought about that.”
Another moment that reminded of Apocalypse Now was that a soldier reads a surfing magazine. Francis Copolla was criticized by some for putting those absurdist moments in that film, although your film shows those contrasts are real.
Hetherington: Right, right.
Is the outpost still manned? Or when they left, was it destroyed?
Hetherington: Taken over by insurgents. And, in fact, there was an Al Jazeera caravan embedded with the insurgents, and now the place is on the internet. And I saw it, and a lot of the local people they [the American soldiers] were doing business with were in that video, milling around with the insurgents, or carrying weapons or part of the insurgency, so that was kind of really interesting.
You were both injured during the shoot.
Sebastian, it was your Achilles?
Junger: I ruptured my Achilles tendon.
That’s a horrible injury.
Junger: I mean, it wasn’t a complete rupture, it was a partial tear. But it was enough to mess me up for a couple weeks.
And were you able to get to a hospital or leave?
Junger: No, no, I stayed out there. I just crawled the first day, hopped the second day [laughs], limped the third day, and I could sort of go on patrols the fourth day.
Hetherington: The terrain was really unforgiving, you know.
People that have blown an Achilles say it’s incredibly intense pain.
Junger: It wasn’t. It wasn’t a complete blow. Because if you rupture your Achilles down here, where it’s a real cord, I imagine that’s pretty bad. Mine was torn higher up, where the Achilles branches out, and feeds into the muscle, and it tore halfway through, in that part that spreads out. So it still functioned, but not very well. Like, I couldn’t, I could put weight on my foot, but I couldn’t push off at all. I couldn’t do anything with my toes, I could not push off, so it’s very hard to walk without pushing off your toes. So I sort of flopped my foot forward, then just rolled over it.
We were in the middle of a climb up to Restrepo with bags, with gear. Within a few hundred yards, I realized I was actually tremendously straining my right leg, and I was like, “Shit, something else is going on.” And it was a really horrible, horrible walk, to get to Restrepo. And there was shooting in the valley, and I just didn’t want to slow people down –
Hetherington: I was just thinking about the mountains and climbing, and how many other films have been made where you carry the equipment on your backs? You now have these new lightweight cameras to film with, but I’m talking about, like, you know, everything. So if you actually put together a film kit, normally, it’s quite a lot: You’ve got a tripod, and chargers, and stuff — but everything that we had to make the film, we had to carry on our backs.
Junger: Along with our bullet-proof vests. I mean, it was a lot of gear. I would occasionally get questions from people about our “film crew.” [laughs]
The gaffer and best boy.
Junger: Yeah, I was gonna ask ’em about the catering service [laughs]. So it was what we could carry, along with the rest of the stuff we needed to carry, to just be with those soldiers.
Hetherington: There’s no electricity in Restrepo, so we’d have to charge batteries.
I’m not sure who first said this, maybe it was Oliver Stone, but if you make a war film, it’s almost by nature an anti-war film, even if it’s as objective as possible. Have you gotten that reaction from people?
Hetherington: Yeah. That’s what’s so funny, when people are upset that we haven’t made a kind of voice-over/moral condemnation –
Do you need it?
Hetherington: Yeah. Do I need to tell you what to think? Isn’t it enough just to show you what it’s like?
The thing that a lot of people misunderstand, a misunderstanding about war is that war…and it was Murray Fromson, who’s a very respected journalist, he covered the fall of Saigon, covered the Year Zero in Cambodia, you know, Korean War, Vietnam War. And he said, that war abases you, it kind of humiliates you, but you also find a kind of humanity. And I think that people that want the outright moral condemnation of the war [in the film] feel conflicted with the kind of position, where [we] actually also reveal the humanity of the soldiers, and I find that really confusing. Well, it’s not confusing, but the nuance of war is that all of these emotions actually do exist in the same place, and that, you know, it’s not just one thing or the other, it’s a mixture of the stuff.