Between them, veteran journalists Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington have several decades of experience in reporting on conflicts from Bosnia to Afghanistan. Hetherington was the only photographer to live among the rebels during the recent Liberian civil war, and Junger—best known for his mega-bestseller The Perfect Storm—was one of the last Westerners to travel with the late guerrilla fighter Ahmed Shah Massoud during his war against the Taliban. In 2007, they decided to follow a single platoon for the entire length of its deployment in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, one of the most dangerous postings in the U.S. military. Over 10 trips, they logged 150 hours of intense footage of not only the fighting, but the eerie spaces between, and the deep bonds forged between the soldiers. Their film, Restrepo, opens in New York and Los Angeles on June 25, and nationally on July 2. The A.V. Club recently spoke to Junger and Hetherington about the challenges of filming in such an intense environment, the delicate line between director and subject, and the factual inaccuracies of The Hurt Locker.
The A.V. Club: How did you decide on the structure of the story?
Tim Hetherington: We actually just battered it around for a really long time. Do you mean in the editing suite?
AVC: In the beginning, when you decided to go to Afghanistan.
TH: In the field, it was really organic. Sebastian had it in his mind that he had a video camera and a relationship with ABC News, and thought making a doc would be a neat idea. I didn’t really take him that seriously at first.
Sebastian Junger: I didn’t take myself that seriously.
TH: He had this really small video camera. You know, I’ve shot films before for TV, so I was like, “This isn’t going to happen.” We were both working for Vanity Fair. I was a photographer, and he was a writer. I was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ll film in a second, but let me just take my pictures for Vanity Fair.” That was the most important thing. After the first shoot we did together—he was there in June, and we were together in September—it had been such an amazing experience, both the guys and the story. We both just kind of looked at each other and were like, “Okay, we’ve got to make a film. This really is a film.” Our blinkers were very limited, and we thought we’d make a film for TV. As we started getting into it, though, we realized we wanted to make a film that was going to be in the theaters, a visceral war film that hasn’t been done before. In the editing suite, Michael Levine looked at all the footage for a couple of months, and then we started to bat around various potential structures. After a while, we were like, “No, it doesn’t work.” In the end, we settled on this very linear structure—they get in the valley, they do the year, and they leave—which is the most obvious structure.
AVC: What were other ones you tried?
SJ: They adapted to their environment, right? They got very comfortable there, and a lot of standards kind of fell. They were dressed like shit, you know, so we were going to start there with a sort of Lord Of The Flies beginning, then rewind and show how they got there, but that was just too contrived. It didn’t have the emotional weight that we needed. I should also say, just for me personally, I never worked on a film before. I’m so glad I didn’t know how long the odds are of doing what we did. How hard it was going to be, and how financially terrifying it would become… I’m really glad I didn’t know that in the beginning, because I wouldn’t have done it. When I said to myself, “Oh, I’m going to write a book, and maybe I can make a documentary,” I had no idea how absurd that simple sentence was.
TH: We had both come from a narrative background, but we hadn’t been to film school, so we didn’t really have any preconceptions about how to make a film, necessarily, like the conventions of it. Restrepo was kind of pieced together in our bedroom, and has the feel of that, but is a real experience. I guess for some people who have been really classically trained in documentary, it might really tweak them, like, “Why isn’t there this and why isn’t there that?” But if they just kind of sit back and experience it, it’s a roller coaster of an experience.
AVC: What were the challenges of filming during wartime?
SJ: I think it’s easier, in a way. The standards, unconsciously in the viewer’s mind, are lower. So if the light’s not quite right, or there’s dust on the lens, or something’s a little garbled, people really excuse it. I think if we were filming right here, right now, we would have to be absolutely technically perfect. That’s a pain in the ass. What we were doing out there, it wasn’t a pain in the ass. It was easy. I mean, you look at me like maybe I’m completely naïve about the whole thing, but I thought it was actually a simple proposition.
TH: The difficult side of shooting was the physical side. Being on patrols and in fighting and taking care of yourself physically was challenging. You always find that making images in those situations, it’s the logistics of it, and getting what you can. It’s funny, because now people come back and say, “Why didn’t you do this?” And I don’t know. I didn’t manage to do it, and there’s no coming back to the situation. [Laughs.]
AVC: You were in as much danger as the soldiers standing next to you. Were there people assigned to protect you? Did you carry weapons?
TH: I used to hide behind him.
SJ: Yeah, he’s bigger, so that wouldn’t work. No, your protection lies in group security. So to take soldiers away from the fight to stand next to a couple of journalists was absurd. It’s not a situation where you need bodyguards, because the fighting is at 400 meters. We certainly didn’t have weapons. We had video cameras. We’re journalists.
TH: Also, we’ve covered conflict and war for 10 years, so there were guys in the unit who were far more experienced than we were in combat, but we were more experienced than a lot of the guys there as well. We’ve probably seen more time in a war zone than they have. In a way, we’re like sergeants of journalism. We’ve done our time. That was a weird thing, to be with young guys who joined and were then suddenly having one of the most profound experiences of their lives, ultimately, one of the most traumatic experiences of their lives. That was very upsetting to see, because you kind of knew what was going to happen. Some of the guys, fresh-faced 18-year-olds, come into the unit. Something’s going to happen, and they’re never going to be the same again. It wasn’t that we were the greenest people on that thing, but of course, we weren’t carrying guns and we weren’t soldiers.
AVC: There are a number of different schools of thought in documentary film concerning directors’ relationships with their subjects. You mentioned after the screening that you forged a bond with these men.
TH: Definitely. We were part of the group. If you’re in a Humvee, and you get into a firefight, if you’re in a certain seat, you have to hand ammunition up to the gunner. You’re not allowed in the Humvee unless you do that, so in that way, you’re already implicated in the war machine. We’re there, and we’re eating their food and sleeping where they sleep. So we’re already kind of part of it. I mean, I never carried a weapon or fired a weapon. I never went on guard duty, although I got woken up a couple of times by them to see if they could get me on guard duty. In terms of the film, we’re with them up close.
SJ: There’s this whole vaunted thing about objectivity, which is completely unattainable. As journalists—we’re not filmmakers, we’re journalists using video cameras out there, and we made a film. We think of ourselves as journalists, and every journalist knows you’re suppose to strive to be objective. That’s particularly true if you’re covering the broad topic of the war, and its role in global politics. It’s very important to try to be objective. For our purposes, we were out there, and both of us were almost killed in various ways by the Taliban. We’re not going to be objective about the people that are trying to kill us. Forget it. It’s not happening, right? I don’t think journalists in World War II were objective about the Nazis, and I don’t think they should have been. Our bond with the guys we were with is the least of our problems in terms of objectivity about that situation. I think objectivity is like this strange myth that people think you’re supposed to achieve, but actually, the dirty little secret is that it’s not attainable any more than pure justice is attainable by the courts.
AVC: It’s great that you acknowledge that in the film, and are therefore able to capture such intimate moments and organic random bits of comedy. What was the editing process like? Did you purposefully leave things out?
TH: We shot about 150 hours of vérité and about 40 hours of the Italy interviews. We probably also had about two hours of feet shots when we forgot to switch the camera off.
SJ: That’s the DVD extras. [Laughs.]
TH: I think that what’s in there is pretty representative of what we got. We had a lot of great material that wasn’t put in. I mean, there’s a scene that I always loved that never made it in: Captain Kearney was in his toweling robe with his face full of shaving foam, conducting a firefight in the control center down at the main base—something you never see in vérité about the army. Totally un-protocol. There was another fantastic scene, which was this subplot we had where one of the Korengali locals obviously had a real soft spot for one of the soldiers, and kept on stroking him. Kearney was joking around about trying to sell him. There’s this whole subplot where—
SJ: They were going to sell him for peace.
TH: Just picking up on the last stuff about journalists, I look at the film and think we made an apolitical film. But in some ways, we’ve also made a film without a moral judgment. For a lot of journalists, that’s hard to do. The funny thing about war is that people feel you need to be morally outraged. I feel morally outraged about it, and I’ve been doing it for long enough to feel morally outraged, because I have been in massacre scenes in West Africa, and I’ve been doing this for a long time now. So I don’t need to have my credentials and go up on the stage and say “Feel moral outrage about the war.” I’m trying to communicate to you what’s going on in the war, and moral outrage really just gets in the way. If you say to an audience, “Who here feels there shouldn’t be war?” I can guarantee everyone would put their hand up, but that doesn’t mean you’re any wiser about why the war’s happening, or what it’s like to be in the war. There are more important things we have to communicate, rather than have the consensus of “Oh, we’re journalists, and we think this is bad.”
AVC: Throughout the course of filming, did your personal political beliefs about the war change at all?
SJ: I didn’t realize there was such intense fighting. I didn’t realize that the U.S. effort was so undermanned. To me, the problem, at least in that valley, was that there were only 150 men. I felt they either shouldn’t have been in there, or they should have had 500 men and really done it right. In that sense, I think the Korengal was a microcosm for the entire country. In other senses, it’s not, but in that narrow sense, the struggles in the Korengal reflected the country as a whole. It basically came down to the fact that the war was undermanned and under-resourced from day one. We marched off to Iraq, and essentially doomed what could have been a very successful stabilization effort in Afghanistan.
AVC: Do you think we could win in Afghanistan in spite of its history of being unconquerable?
SJ: I think we could have won. Can we win now? I don’t know, but we definitely could have won in 2002 if we had done something more than left 15,000 men there and moved on to Iraq. If we did 50 percent more than that, I don’t even think there’d be journalists in Afghanistan right now. I mean, a little bit like there was in Bosnia afterward, but not much.
AVC: Did you purposely leave scenes out for other reasons than time constraints?
TH: There were two things I left out: graphic shots of dead Afghans, and graphic shots of dead American soldiers. I didn’t feel it was necessary to have a shot of someone with their head half taken off. I think you go on an emotional journey in the film, and you feel like you’ve been in the middle of a battle. It’s about making effective communication. We were never censored by the U.S., and I was really surprised by that, my first time embedded with the Americans. I’m a cynical Brit, and I’m like, “They’re going to start telling me what to do,” but not at all. It was quite refreshing. I’ve been with a lot of armies—not necessarily orthodox ones—and I’ve been forced not to film things.
AVC: How has this differed from your past experience covering wars?
SJ: This was my first experience with a professional army. Everything else I covered, they were militias at best. It was a completely different experience. It’s the difference between a street gang and the police. There’s accountability up the chain of command, they’re trained—
TH: There’s no alcohol.
SJ: Yeah, there’s no alcohol. There’s no drugs.
AVC: No women?
SJ: Yeah, no women. No looting. There was also a sense of moral boundaries and ethical boundaries that’s pretty much missing in civil wars in Africa. Killing civilians is just a given; it’s part of the strategy, actually. Cutting people’s arms off for voting in an election is a strategy that kind of worked. With the U.S. military, the ethical and moral guidelines are incredibly rigid, and the consequences are sometimes really severe for people that violate them.
AVC: Captain Kearney expresses regret for civilian casualties, and you deal with the mental health of the soldiers in the film, but how has it affected you?
TH: He’s pretty tense, I don’t know. [Laughs.]
SJ: Yeah, I just got off my medication recently. [Laughs.] We should probably both answer that, because we had separate experiences. For me, my identity as a civilian is solid. I’m 48. I have a career and a life here. I have an effective counterbalance to the identity I had on that hilltop. For 19-year-olds, they’re comparing things that are hopelessly mismatched. They have a 19-year-old identity, which is to say zero social status, nothing going on, and probably not a job walking around back home, as opposed to on that hilltop, where they have everything a young man needs to feel confident and mature about himself: identity, a role, they understand how they are necessary to a small group of people they care about. They have everything your psyche needs at age 20, so part of their difficulty returning is that they’re returning to a shitty deal. Suddenly, they’re returning to walking down the street and looking for a job. It was much easier for me to come back, because I wasn’t returning to that. I was returning to a high-status position in society. That’s easy. The negative effects of combat were nightmares, and I’d get jumpy around certain noises and stuff, but you’d have that after a car accident or a bad divorce. Life’s filled with trauma. You don’t need to go to war to find it; it’s going to find you. We all deal with it, and the effects go away after awhile. At least they did for me.
TH: But also, something I noticed about being with Sebastian and going through that event is that he was very grounded through his wife. You know, I wasn’t in a relationship then, and it was very hard to not have something grounded to come back to. I noticed Danielle, his wife, was a really solid pillar in his life that helped him find the balance. With soldiers, their wives are so fundamental in their relationships, and yet there’s this kind of other war happening back in the States, where wives of soldiers don’t quite understand what their husbands have been through, because their husbands won’t really talk about it, and that’s really the hidden war. That’s why the film has really struck a chord with people connected to soldiers, because it gives them a sense of what those loved ones go through.
AVC: How did you decide to go to Italy for the post-battle interviews with the soldiers?
TH: We went to Italy to glue it all together, and that footage became so compelling because we weren’t their family or their shrink or authority figures.
AVC: You alternated filming during the course of the deployment. How did that collaboration work?
TH: It wasn’t ideal in the end, the kind of doing the tag-team. It ended up happening, really, because of commitments back here. We both had lives back in the U.S. that we needed to keep juggling, and [because of] injury. We both got messed up.
AVC: Can you talk about the injuries you sustained?
SJ: I took the first injury. I ripped my Achilles tendon on a patrol. It was a partial tear, so I was able to limp for the next few weeks. But I had to really baby it, and went home for physical therapy, so Tim took the next trip. He broke his leg. I took the next trip, where I got blown up. It didn’t hurt me physically, but it gave me something to think about.
TH: We ended up in a zone with the film, and Michael was a fantastic editor.
AVC: Did watching the footage in the editing room bring back the experience and make it more difficult?
SJ: For me, that was the thing I guided off of: “Do the emotions I’m having in the editing room reflect the emotions I had out there?” There were false notes where we would try to construct something that was sort of clever in terms of moviemaking, but it felt false. The things that aroused emotions in me went in the movie, and the things that didn’t were quite apparent. They were false constructs that I think were expected by the film-going public, but didn’t reflect the feeling out there.
AVC: That scene where a soldier is dealing with the death of his comrade—I don’t think we’ve ever seen such a raw expression of loss in a war film before.
SJ: A director probably would not have directed the scene that way, because you would have thought, “That’s not what happens in combat. Soldiers don’t do that.”
TH: Just as people think that soldiers go back to combat for adrenaline. The Hurt Locker suggests that soldiers go back into combat for adrenaline, whereas our experience of it is that they go back for a myriad of reasons. Adrenaline is only a small part of it. There’s a lot of sense of meaning and significance. When you come back over here, you feel something’s missing.
AVC: What did you think of The Hurt Locker?
SJ: I thought it captured something pretty effectively. There were some scenes where that kid had the explosives inside him—that was very grotesque and powerful, but the central message of the film, that this sort of cowboy character wanted to go back to basically keep playing Russian roulette, was completely false. The central ethos of a soldier, at least the guys we were with, is “You don’t get your buddies killed.” So a guy who was acting in reckless ways like that… a) it wouldn’t happen, but b) if it did, they would just beat the shit out of him.
TH: It was a good, entertaining movie, but all my friends who have covered the Iraq war have serious problems with it—a Humvee driving around in Baghdad just wouldn’t have happened in 2004, or the way the guy runs through Baghdad alone in the middle of the night. He wouldn’t have made it back alive.