The journal of the Center for Documentary Arts, a nonprofit initiative to bear witness to suffering and promote the common good through the arts. At the crossroads of art, ethics, faith, and social justice, the Center brings together makers and thinkers whose work advances beauty, compassion, collaboration, dignity, and mercy.

22 July 2010


Restrepo was the name of what was once the most dangerous outpost in the US military, in the Korengal Valley of eastern Afghanistan. The outpost was named for Juan "Doc" Restrepo, one of the first casualties of the Army platoon filmmakers Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger stayed with for a year in 2007-2008, chronicling life on the frontline of 21st-century warfare.  Hetherington and Junger's feature-length documentary, Restrepo, is a powerful and important film, a "90-minute deployment" to Afghanistan and an homage to the soldiers who serve there.
    I had an opportunity to attend a screening of the film on July 6 at the New York State Museum, in connection with the museum's exhibition Citizen Soldier. The experience was, to say the least, moving, both the picture itself and the discussion afterward. There's little question why the movie is getting universally excellent reviews; it is, at once, harrowingly dramatic and incisively deadpan, passionate and detached, engaged and cool. Restrepo takes no political stand on the war, yet in its apparent neutrality it is hardly passive. The filmmakers take as their cause the lived experience of men who fight for and are killed defending policies they didn't make, in the name of people who've mostly forgotten they are there.
    The film will surely go down as a milestone of documentary art. It seems safe to say that when most people think of documentary film today, they think of the sarcastic polemics of Michael Moore, or the earnest history of Ken Burns. Restrepo has nothing to do with either of these styles; it harkens back to the best tradition of cinéma vérité, to pictures like Barbara Kopple's Harlan County USA and D.A. Pennebaker's Dont Look Back. Cinéma vérité, French for "cinema of truth," designates a naturalistic style of filmmaking where the camera becomes a fly-on-the-wall witness to real life. The ethos is one of transparency; filmmakers working in this mode want you to feel like your looking over a person's shoulder rather than watching him on a screen.  Hetherington and Junger achieve this with startling clarity, producing an intimacy that at times is almost too much to bear. They did this by becoming part of the platoon, taking part in the danger, fear, boredom, isolation, brotherhood, and fun the soldiers themselves share.
Outpost “OP” Restrepo, Korengal 
Valley, Afghanistan, 2008.
 Photograph © Tim Hetherington
     When you spend that much time with someone you become friends with them, and the filmmakers treat the trust they developed with the men in the platoon with a care bordering on reverence. Their bond extends to the way they portray the Afghan people, seeing them, as through the through the eyes of the soldiers, as starkly Other. This viewpoint produces perceptive, disquieting moments in the film, as in a scene in a tribal council when we watch a village elder attempt in vain to navigate a straw into a juice box. "Hearts and minds," one soldier says, evoking the goal of the US to gain the sympathy of the people. "Yeah," quips his buddy, "we'll take their hearts and we'll take their minds." At the end of the film, we learn that after five years of fighting, the US pulled out of the Korengal in April, 2010. The Washington Post described the decision as "a hard lesson in the limits of American power."   
   The audience in the State Museum auditorium was in no mood for geopolitical analysis during the discussion that followed the film. A few dissenters, including some veterans, attempted to steer the talk to politics and the morals of the war, to little avail. After what the people in the room had just seen together, the energy was about honoring the men whose lives are portrayed in the movie, not questioning the meaning of their service. Filmmaker Hetherington was joined by Brendan O'Byrne, a veteran of the Restrepo platoon, and Troy Steward, an Afghanistan veteran who monitors the war in Bouhammer's Afghan Blog. Hetherington began the discussion by explaining that he and Junger's sole

From left, moderator Troy Steward, veteran Brendan
O'Byrne, and  filmmaker Tim Hetherington field questions at
the New York State Museum,  July 6, 2010
objective as filmmakers was "to bring home the reality of what soldiers go through"; the experience, he said, "should be seen, digested, understood, and honored."  From there, the attention quickly shifted to O'Byrne, who gave searing testimony to the effect of the war on his life. "I got home and all I wanted to do was fight," he said, ending up battling alcoholism until he was redeemed by his wife, who he creditied with loving him even when he could not love himself.
    The courage of O'Byrne's candor unleashed a flood of emotion from the audience, particularly other current and retired service-members. One by one men and women rose to tell their own experience and offer their own love to the clearly distressed O'Byrne. At one point, he described the emotional torment of seeing a comrade killed in action, and criticized the military for not knowing how to deal with the trauma. Treatment for PTSD should be part of a soldier's basic training, he said. Discussions about the inevitability of death and how to process it ought to begin before men are sent to fight, not after they've been subjected to the horror.
    I asked O'Byrne what the value of Restrepo is to him, who lived through the experience. "Discussion," he said. "That people see it and talk about it. Right now there are guys over there getting shot at and dying. People need to know about it, what it's like, and be able to discuss it. It doesn't matter if they agree or disagree. Just that they're talking."

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