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Filmmakers follow soldiers in Afghan hotspot in unique documentary

| Friday, Sept. 10, 2010

The politicians, generals, diplomats and pundits all have opinions about what needs to be done in Afghanistan. But one very important voice has been largely absent -- the soldiers doing the actual fighting.

"Restrepo," a documentary opening this weekend at the Manor Theater in Squirrel Hill, would be significant if it merely collected soldiers' stories. But filmmakers Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington did something else. They followed a single platoon of soldiers for 10 months, through their deployment in Afghanistan's remote Korengal Valley, one of the most dangerous places on Earth.

"The idea was just to immerse you in a very visceral and experiential film," Hetherington says. "Because we felt the experience of the soldiers on the ground level needed to be seen, digested and understood.

"We didn't flesh out the politics. We just wanted to give a very narrow, soldier's view of things. We're not going to talk to generals, because they don't talk to generals, and we're not going to talk to politicians, because they don't talk to politicians."

They ate, slept, sweated, itched, froze, patrolled and joked around with the Second Platoon (Battle Company, 173rd Airborne Brigade), mostly on an isolated outpost called Restrepo, after the unit's medic, PFC Juan Restrepo, was killed early on.

Hetherington is an experienced war-zone documentarian, with films about Liberia and Darfur already under his belt. Junger is best known for his book "The Perfect Storm," but has long experience as a writer and correspondent in Afghanistan. The two worked together on assignment for Vanity Fair, when the idea for a documentary began to germinate -- but neither saw the scope or reach of the project coming.

"It was obvious when we arrived there, at the Korengal Valley in 2007, that the war had slipped out of control," Hetherington says. "My guess is that if you put a brigade of soldiers in the Korengal Valley, there would be security there. But there wasn't. There was a company, because the money, resources and manpower were going to Iraq."

It's easy to see why the Korengal Valley is so feared. The camera pans over steep, rocky valleys, dense, scrubby foliage and small, weather beaten houses -- providing a nearly infinite number of places to hide and shoot. Tanks and other vehicles are largely useless here.

It's less clear why the Korengal is so important. The locals are promised a road, if the valley can be secured. It's also near the Pakistani border -- a constant source of weapons and insurgents -- and the vital Pech River Valley trade artery.

Hetherington and Junger's cameras capture a startling intimacy with the soldiers, who open up about their many, often very different, reasons for volunteering. We also see their practical jokes and distinctive brand of humor -- but also the fear and knowledge that at any moment, a gun barrel could be trained on you.

From random potshots to full-scale assaults with rockets and heavy machine guns, the one constant is the inevitability of incoming fire. Nobody is safe. Although it goes unmentioned in the movie, Junger tore his Achilles tendon at one point, and Hetherington broke his leg clambering down a mountain during an ambush.

"It was operated on in Bagram, they fitted a metal plate, got me walking again, and I went back out," Hetherington notes.

For the British-born Hetherington, the biggest surprise was the friendships they developed with the much-younger infantrymen. They still keep in touch with many of them, mostly through the Facebook page for "Restrepo."

Hetherington sees "Restrepo" as part of a dialogue that needs to happen, in order to find a solution to the myriad problems of Afghanistan.

"The military and their families are very cut off from the civilian world, and civilians are cut off from the military," Hetherington says. "This film -- we didn't load it with politics or our own points of view, because I didn't want to cloud the viewer's experience of what's really going on out there. We've managed to create a space whereby civilians can talk to military. People in the same theater can have the same experience, and discuss things in a way that was limited before by party/partisan rhetoric."

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