Cinema Verité in The Valley of Death
(Restrepo, Tim Hetherington & Sebastian Junger, USA, 2010, 93 mins)
With The Hurt Locker’s Oscar win drawing the eye of the cinema-going public firmly onto the conflict in Iraq, it’s easy to forget that coalition forces are embroiled in another war in the Middle East, one which recently became the longest military engagement in US history. In Restrepo, a feature-length documentary chronicling the deployment of the American troops of Second Platoon, Battle Company, filmmakers Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger look to draw attention back to the war in Afghanistan.
Embedded with the soldiers in the remote Korangal valley – dubbed the ‘Valley of Death’ by US forces and the site of 18% of all combat and 70% of ordinance dropped in Afghanistan in 2007 – for more than ten months, Hetherington, a photographer best known for his work on the Liberian civil war, and Junger, a veteran reporter and author of The Perfect Storm, were flies on a wall constantly at risk of being swatted by high-calibre rounds. Named for a soldier killed early in the platoon’s deployment, Restrepo offers a grunt’s eye view of the harsh reality faced by the young men tasked with winning the War on Terror.
Shot on whatever equipment the pair had to hand – from high-definition digital camcorders to grainy mobile phones – Hetherington and Junger capture everything from the soldiers’ well-drilled maintenance routines, their sessions of rowdy horseplay, to the empty moments of downtime, and even the dirty but necessary task of burning their own excrement. The result is the most in-depth portrayal of the arduous conditions faced by coalition troops – dirt, dust, danger, and death are the components of a normal day – ever committed to celluloid. But, while these insights fascinate, they also occasionally – necessarily – reflect the long periods of tedium the men face each day. Of course, these stretches of emptiness only serve to make Restrepo’s scenes of combat all the more striking.
Hetherington and Junger’s piece opens with a scene so cinematic and visceral that it bears comparison to both Saving Private Ryan’s Normandy Landings and The Hurt Locker’s heart-stopping opening. An explosion from an I.E.D. rocks the vehicle the filmmakers are travelling in. The sound drops out as the camera lurches through the mangled vehicle’s door to see smoke pluming from its engine block and the men of Battle Company returning noiseless fire to unseen ambushers. The sheer ferocity, confusion, and lethality of modern warfare is staggering.
But, for all their willingness to present a true portrayal of life in a combat zone, Junger and Hetherington largely refrain from showing the ultimate result of warfare – death. Instead, the directors focus on the emotional and psychological fallout of war, providing a more horrifying portrait of the effects of conflict than any lingering shot of a casualty could.
Interspersed with the footage of the Korangal deployment are interviews with the troops, conducted at the end of their tour, that provide a startling insight into the psyche of the modern soldier. While many of the soldiers echo Chris Hedges supposition ‘war is a drug,’ which also opened Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker – ‘You can’t get a better high; it’s like crack,’ remarks one following a skirmish – when these cogs of war are stripped from the machine, we see the true effects of combat.
‘I’ve been on about four or five different types of sleeping pills,’ says one young soldier post-deployment, ‘and none of them help. That’s how bad the nightmares are. I prefer not to sleep and not to dream about it.’ With the Middle East conflicts finally ‘winding down,’ and the need to reintegrate these young men becoming a pressing issue, Restrepo is a prescient reminder of the old adage that, in war, even the survivors are casualties.
Although Restrepo resists taking any openly political stance – Junger and Hetherington are very rarely heard, and there are no hackneyed discussions of ‘why we’re here’ by the men themselves – the piece, by revealing the day-to-day reality of the Afghan war, does lead to some questioning of US strategy.
While the Americans excel at fighting – a mural of a Spartan helmet that adorns the walls of the outpost strikes an eerily symbolic note for the 15 men holding the position deep in Taliban territory – their lack of PR skills, and the resultant loss of the villagers ‘hearts and minds,’ is resoundingly apparent. As the Company’s uncompromising commander, like the villain of an old western trying to build a railroad through Indian lands, tells the elders of the valley ‘We can make you guys richer; I’ll flood this whole place with money,’ you can hear a thousand Vietnam veterans screaming.
After ninety blood-specked, tear-filled minutes showing the struggles and sacrifices made to retain the US position, Restrepo closes with the crushing declaration that the Korangal valley was abandoned to the Taliban in April this year. There may be no honour or victory in this war, but, like the lives of the men within the Korangal, Restrepo is exhilarating, harrowing, and, yes, even boring. And, like the men, what happens in that rocky six mile stretch will stay with you long after you leave it behind.