Interview with Retrepo’s Sebastian Junger
The top documentary prize at Sundance this January went to Restrepo, the film by writer Sebastian Junger and photographer Tim Hetherington, about a US Army unit posted to a remote mountaintop in Eastern Afghanistan. Restrepo is the camp, named for a medical corpsman killed by enemy fire. Shot by Junger and Hetherington, neither of whom had made a film before, the documentary is an account of life on the ground – if such a term can be applied to a site at an elevation of 8000 feet.
The camera seems attached to the soldiers as it follows them through long marches on mountain paths and into firefights and encounters with a local population that seems more uncomprehending than hostile. A filmmaker from Abu Dhabi whom I interviewed in Park City, while he said he admired the documentary, hesitated when asked about the war films representation of the Islamic world. “It was difficult to represent us in a small mountain village, so I didnt take offense to any of that,” he said, wondering about the American films representation of US troops. “They were put, basically in the middle of a bulls-eye, and saying fire.” It didnt make any sense.”
Keeping their eyes on the ground, Junger and Hetherington stressed that they deliberately avoided making judgments on the war and the decision that led to it.
I spoke to Junger before his film opened at Sundance.
DArcy : Where did you shoot Restrepo?
Junger: In the Korengal Valley. Thats where, at least when we were there, was the center of an enormous amount of fighting in Afghanistan. At least a fifth of all the combat in Afghanistan was in the Korengal, which was only six miles long. So it was a very intense area, and Restrepo was a 15-man outpost on a ridge-top. It was the southern-most and the most exposed position of the 173rd Airborne. It was named after a medic who was killed at the bottom f the hill early in the deployment, and the movie is both about the outpost and the men who were there, and the man it was named after.
DArcy: Had that medical corpsman killed when you were embedded there, or had the post already been named for Juan Restrepo?
Junger: Tim and I did ten trips altogether – sometimes together, sometimes one of us was alone – my first trip was in June 2007 , and Restrepo was killed in July. We went back at the end of the summer. So it was during this project, but I wasnt with Restrepo when he was killed.
DArcy: You say that this embed eventually became an emotional embed. Were you after something that was deeper than what most embeds had produced up to then ?
Junger: The wider context of the war really didnt interest me, at least not in the incarnation of what Id chosen for myself as a journalist on this project. More important was the experience of being a soldier in a platoon of combat infantry in the US Army. To do that, to understand their experience, I had to share in it as much as possible. That meant connecting with them on an emotional level. The only way to do that is to go back again and again.
Most embeds are a one-time thing. Maybe youre there for ten days or two weeks at the most. You can establish a pretty strong connection with guys in two weeks. But if you leave and come back a few weeks later, and you stay for six weeks at a time, you essentially become part of the platoon. And thats what I was looking for.
DArcy: What were the logistics of taking cameras in and filming there?
Junger: this was my first time using cameras, so I didnt know how delicate they were. I found that out pretty fast on the first embed, when I completely smashed a camera. I figured out some tricks for how to go on patrol, and heave the cameras use on a moments notice, and also to protect it from swinging into rocks. We cleaned them pretty regularly – when the guys would clean their weapons, we cleaned our cameras. We brought a lot of batteries – there wasnt always electric power – there was a generator at Restrepo, but wed go out on patrols sometimes, so youd need a lot of batteries. I always kept my camera wrapped. We were moving at night, so I kept my camera in my bag. Night is a very tricky time to walk, so I always kept my camera wrapped up.
We carried a lot of gear. Restrepo was a two-hour walk from the fire base, which was only accessible by helicopter. Tat two hours was straihgt uphill. When wed go out there for a one-month stay, I would be carrying 80 pounds up there. A five pound camera wasnt such a weight issue, but they were delicate.
DArcy: How isolated were you? How did you communicate?
Junger: There was no email and there was no phone. There was no hot water. There was no hot food. It really was sandbags and guns and ammo. They built some plywood structures to sleep in that were minimally heated. It was pretty rough out there. It wasnt quite the Shackleton expedition, but it was pretty close. I had a satellite phone for my personal use, so I would call home every day, but that didnt put me in touch with the army.
DArcy: How old were the soldiers?
Junger: The lieutenant was 24, the captain was 26, most of the soldiers were 19 or 20.
DArcy: Why had these young guys enlisted? What did they expect of the army?
Junger: To get into an airborne unit, you have to jump through a lot of hoops. You dont get into a combat unit by accident. You have to want to experience combat. Some of these guys fathers were in Vietnam. Some had grandfathers who had been in World War II, but in the end they had decided that combat on some level was what they wanted to experience, or they wouldnt have joined an airborne unit. They could have done army service, but in another kind of unit.
This wasnt a very political unit. Some of their feelings reflected the mindset of young men, frankly. They get kind of addicted to combat, as traumatic as it was. They lost friends, and all almost got killed, but it was still addictive.
DArcy: What do you feel has been misunderstood about troops like these on the ground? What did you want to show that hadnt been shown before?
Junger: We wanted to give the viewers of our movie the experience of being in combat in a small unit, basically being deployed for an hour and half. We did not want any outside intrusion, any outside political discussion, any outside moral consideration in the film. We really wanted it to be their experience. If they sat around the campfire at night talking about the politics of the Bush Administration and the war on terror, that would have become part of our movie, but they really did not.
That also went to our decision about having an outside narrator. We didnt want anything in the film that was not indigenous to the Korengal Valley when we were there. So the only voices and images were of the men who were fighting there. We made no attempt to get the Afghan side of this. Even if we wanted to, we couldnt have left the wire to do that.
Its a purely subjective, purely experiential film. Its not like we had a point to make, but we felt that this hadnt really been done before, so we wanted to do it.
DArcy: You and Tim produced this yourselves?
Junger: We did everything – all the camera work. We did all the directing. We did all the producing.
DArcy: Did you fund the trips yourselves?
Junger: The trips were quite cheap. We were on assignment for Vanity Fair Magazine. So I wrote two articles, and Tim shot some film. What was expensive, which we funded ourselves, was the year of editing, and we did a very expensive shoot in Italy after the deployment. Three months later, the men returned to their base in Italy, in Vicenza. We went there with two cameramen, two vericams, a whole light package, and we set up a recording studio in Vicenza and interviewed our main characters with a neutral black background. We asked them to look back on the deployment and what it had meant for them. They were able to speak with an emotional intensity openness that, as close as we were to them at the time, they just couldnt speak like that while it was going on – the stakes were too high. That became an important part of the film, and that was a $40 or $50 thousand shoot.
All of that we funded ourselves, with nine or ten month of editing on the film, until last November, when National Geographic Channel brought the TV broadcast rights and money from that started to come in.
DArcy: Whats the difference between going into a place and expecting to write an article or an article that could be expanded into a book, and the approach of making a film about a trip or series of trips – creating a visual record and editing it down to what you are calling a 90 minute deployment? Youve also seen your own work made into a movie.
Junger: My experience of the movie of The Perfect Storm was divorced from that movie-making process. This is my first film, and its the first time that Ive ever used a movie camera. Its also my first experience directing, and taking on the responsibilities of producing a movie. I had to learn it as fast as I could.
I am used to turning information into words and arranging the words into pleasing way where people want to read them. I do that almost by reflex. Its hard, but its not a mystery to me any more. My reaction to not knowing much about filmmaking was to film as much as I could. I shot a lot that wasnt really usable, and I shot a lot of great stuff that we couldnt get into the film.
That was the beauty of doing ten trips out there. We were able to correct mistakes on the next trip. What we didnt get on the deployment, we got in Italy. When it came time to edit, storytelling is storytelling, a narrative arc is a narrative arc, whether its in words or pictures, so I still felt on fairly familiar ground. The vocabulary was a new vocabulary, that was clear to me. But Im a pretty visual writer, so when it came to directing our movies, its was in our laps, the kind of movie we wanted to make. We figured it out. It wasnt a big mystery to me. A good storys a good story. When you start to shape one its pretty unmistakable that thats what youre doing. It wasnt that hard.
DArcy: Any thoughts about the broader picture of the war in Afghanistan, which has been called the graveyard of empires? Is the war going to be won by platoons like this?
Junger: It depends on the decisions that are made, and those are often made on political considerations, not military ones. It gets so complicated, I wouldnt dare guess what was going to happen there.
DArcy: How far did these guys feel from the decisions that were being made about what they would be doing, about the orders they were eventually given?
Junger: Unless its right in front of them, they dont really think about the broader picture and the decision that are being made for them. Their big fear was that there wasnt going to be enough combat in Afghanistan, that they were going to have to sit for 15 months on a base, bored, and not engage in actual fighting. They were very wrong about that. Later they laughed at their naivete. But it wasnt like combat was a thing they wanted to avoid. If anything, it was the other way around.