"Restrepo" takes audiences behind the battle lines in Afghanistan
Veteran war correspondents Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington want Sundance audiences to feel the sand in their eyes, hear the gunfire and listen to the soldiers’ themselves describe their experiences in Afghanistan. The two spent most of 2007 embedded with the 2nd Platoon of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, living with and reporting on 30 young soldiers defending a remote outpost in the Korengal Valley.
The filmmakers collected hundreds of hours of video of the soldiers on patrol and under fire. Afterwards they interviewed them at their base in Italy to talk about the emotional aftermath of the deployment.
After 10 months of editing their material, Junger and Hetherington believe "Restrepo" offers an honest, intense portrayal of what American soldiers have experienced in a war zone that, until recently, was largely ignored by the public.
"I think we have succeeded in making you feel like you are on the battlefield for 90 minutes," says Junger.
The project began as an assignment for the magazine Vanity Fair. Junger, an author best known for the book "The Perfect Storm," was sent as the reporter and Hetherington, winner of the World Press Photo of the Year in 2007, was the photographer. Once there, though, they realized the story could also become a compelling film.
"This experience is a rich, intense one in a way that it wouldn’t have been if I made just a movie or just a book. Something would have been missing," said Junger, adding that his book about Outpost Restrepo, entitled "War," will be published in May.
To accomplish both, Junger carried a video camera in addition to his notebook and Hethrington added a video camera to his kit of photography equipment.
Junger also made a decision early on to avoid making a political movie.
"We restricted ourselves completely to the experience of the soldiers. We didn’t interview any generals or think-tank specialists. Our cameras never left the sides of the soldiers," he said. Over the course of five month-long stays at Restrepo, Junger said, "with the exception of pulling guard duty or firing weapons, our living situation was identical to the soldiers’."
"At first there was no shelter at Restrepo. You slept on the ground. When I went back, there were these little huts which were heated minimally by little gasoline stoves … There was no running water, no phone, no Internet, no hot food and we went on just about every patrol out of the base."
After carrying 80 pounds of gear including food, camera, bulletproof vest, helmet and water up a mountainside to get to the outpost, Junger admits, "it was some of the hardest work I’ve done."
Hetherington describes their relationship with the soldiers as being "physically as well as emotionally embedded."
"I wanted to make a film that brought the viewers as close as possible to the experience of the soldiers," he said.
Both journalists say they were profoundly affected by their interactions with the soldiers.
"We just became part of the platoon and once that happens you have feelings of anguish and concern about what will happen to everybody that you wouldn’t have if you were a lone journalist wandering around Africa reporting on civil wars," said Junger.
Both also admit to feeling some of the emotional turmoil that soldiers go through after returning home.
"In watching the film, I think it’s pretty clear that the bond between these guys rivals and in some way surpasses the bond within the family. It is one of the traumas of combat that isn’t talked about openly The bond between them became incredibly important and so the dispersal of the platoon after the deployment became its own trauma as much as actual combat," said Junger.
According to Hetherington, "the emotional part of what soldiers go through out there is a large part of the film. In some ways it’s about the loss of innocence. It’s probably the core of the story."
After Sundance, Hetherington hopes the film "Restrepo" will help soldiers’ families and the public to understand the psychological challenges facing soldiers, not only on the battlefield but also when they return home. He says, "The rest is up to political discourse, but we can add something by showing the kinds of experiences these young men go through."
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When it comes to the U.S. census, let’s just say Park City has… room for improvement.