“Restrepo” takes audiences by the hand
BY ROBERT W. WELKOS
PARK CITY, Utah–We see him in flashbacks: laughing, hugging and goofing with his Army buddies as they deploy for war in Afghanistan. His name is Juan “Doc” Restrepo, medic for Battle Company, Second Platoon of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. His The death, in action, of Restrepo led members of Battle Company to erect a remote and strategic outpost in his name in the deadly Korengal Valley of eastern Afghanistan–considered one of the most dangerous postings in the war.
In their riveting documentary, “Restrepo,” which premiered Thursday on the opening night at the Sundance Film Festival, directors Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington provide a gripping look at American soldiers battling an unseen Taliban enemy. A crowd of over 1,000 attended making it the largest audience for a documentary in Sundance’s fabled history. Apolitical in tone, the film does not question why we are in Afghanistan, but provides a boots-on-the-ground snapshot of men in combat. Buddies die with their faces blown off and we watch as one soldier, realizing his pal is dead, has an emotional breakdown–with the enemy only yards away. We watch as the outpost leader tries to explain to an Afghan elder why the soldiers had to slaughter his cow (because it got caught up in concertina wire and was incapacitated), then refuse the elder’s request that the Army pay for the cow, instead telling him they will gladly give him the cow’s weight in rice and beans and sugar, but not the $500 he is demanding. Or, we see the fatigue in a captain’s face as he explains how difficult it will be to convince an Afghan father that the Americans are on their side when airstrikes have just wounded his baby and killed others in the village. To watch one Afghan elder yawn as officers try to explain how America will bring jobs to their village is revealing to say the least.
Junger and Hetherington began filming in June 2007 and made a total of 10 trips to the Korengal on assignment for Vanity Fair magazine and ABC News. They ate, slept and survived the heat, cold and boredom with the soldiers, bringing back 140 to 150 hours of video.
After the screening, Junger and Hetherington answered questions from the audience. Were they scared? “We’re big boys,” Junger, a veteran war correspondent, replied. “…By the third trip, we felt we were part of the platoon.” Each man had a camera–which often got smashed on rocks or clogged with dirt or hit with shell cartridges during fire fights.
One of the strengths of the film are the individual sit-down after-deployment interviews in Italy with surviving Battle Company members. The pain is evident on their faces, even when masked by constant smiles. One soldier says he can’t sleep at night because of the constant nightmares. Another says that he never wants to forget what he saw because remembering, in an odd way, infuses him with a will to live. One man simply has to take a break from talking, his emotions too raw.
Junger noted that all but one of those interviewed are still in the Army. He said 10 to 12 of them are back in Afghanistan, some serving only 15 miles from the Korengal.
The National Geographic Channel has worldwide rights to the documentary, which will premiere in the fall.