'Restrepo': A Soldier's-Eye View From Afghanistan
NEAL CONAN, host:
In the run-up to the Academy Awards, we focus on the Oscar-nominated documentaries. We'll talk with the directors of all five this week and next, and we start with "Restrepo," a film that was - follows one platoon's year as it tries to turn the tide in a very dangerous piece in Afghanistan, called the Korengal Valley.
One of the first casualties is 20-year-old medic Juan "Doc" Restrepo. Much of the film takes place at a new position named in his honor. Platoon commander Dan Kearney says establishment of Outpost Restrepo made a real difference.
(Soundbite of movie, "Restrepo")
Captain DAN KEARNEY (Second Platoon, B Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment): When the boys built that base, the Taliban or the AAF forces in the valley, they were completely in shock. It was like a middle finger sticking out. And they realized once they could not knock off OP Restrepo, we had the upper hand. They started becoming afraid.
CONAN: If you've seen "Restrepo" and have questions, especially if you served in Afghanistan, give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington shot and directed the film. They join us now from our bureau in New York.
And congratulations to you both on the nomination.
Mr. SEBASTIAN JUNGER (Writer; Co-Director, "Restrepo"): Thank you very much.
Mr. TIM HETHERINGTON (Co-Director, "Restrepo"): Thank you.
CONAN: And how much of that year were you guys there?
Mr. JUNGER: Tim and I each did five, one-month trips, so 10 in total. Sometimes we were together, sometimes apart. We kept getting injured, so eventually, we were sort of handing off the baton to each other, you know, alternating.
CONAN: So 10 months out of the 12 overall. That is an extraordinary commitment.
Mr. JUNGER: Well, you know, we - what we wanted to do was - we figured that our viewers were familiar with the discussion about the pros and cons of the war, and we didn't want to rehash those. What we wanted to do was be with the platoon and experience what soldiers experience. They really don't talk about the politics. But their reality, their emotional reality is not often reported on, and that's what we wanted access to. And it just takes a lot of time.
CONAN: And in the business, people talk about shooting ratios, how much footage is shot in return for how much is actually shown of the documentary. What was your shooting ratio on this documentary?
Mr. HETHERINGTON: We shot about 150 hours of verite in Afghanistan, and then we came back. And three months after we returned, we visited the men. Their base is in Vicenza, in Italy, where the Airborne is. And we shot about 50 hours of interviews with them, going back over the year and their thoughts and about what happened out there.
Mr. JUNGER: It's a 90-minute documentary, so your math is probably better than mine is.
CONAN: No, I'm afraid it's not.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: When you guys say injuries, what kind of injuries?
Mr. JUNGER: I was the first one. I ruptured my Achilles tendon on a very steep uphill climb with a heavy pack, and I kind of limped and crawled and hopped for the next few weeks out there. I slowly got better, but I had to come home and rehabilitate it with physical therapy.
Mr. HETHERINGTON: And then I came in next and broke my fibula coming down a mountain during an operation called Rock Avalanche and had to get out, and then eventually was taken to Bagram, and they operated on me. And so that put me back to rehabilitate here in New York. And then Sebastian went in after me and got blown up in a Humvee. Luckily, the explosion went off under the engine block, so nobody was killed. But I think he was a bit shaken, and so I came back out, and he came back and took a couple of weeks off.
CONAN: And those are two of the scary moments of the film - not because we see injuries to either of you, because of the circumstances and what happens to the soldiers you two were documentaring(ph) - documenting.
And, Tim Hetherington, Rock Avalanche, this is a, well, I guess, we see three days of this operation, and I think the soldiers in the film say this is probably the scariest moment of their tour.
Mr. HETHERINGTON: Yeah. Rock Avalanche was an offensive operation where the units went onto the other side of the valley and basically into the safe havens of insurgents.
And in the Korengal, it was an interesting place, because it wasn't just kind of local Taliban or the timber kind of mafia that were running it. There was also foreign insurgents coming in there. I mean, it really was - when we imagined what the war on terror could be, it was that place. It was Pakistanis, Chechens, Uzbeks, Arabs. You had (unintelligible), the Hezbi Islami were there, sometimes the Haqqani Network. So it was a very tough fight going on, and the combat got very close and personal, as you saw in Rock Avalanche.
And later on, in that same operation, Sal Giunta, a young man in 1st platoon was awarded the Medal of Honor during - he was ambushed. Two were killed, four were wounded. And he stopped his friend from being dragged off alive. But, unfortunately, Josh Brennan, the man in question, later died.
CONAN: So you can talk about the intensity of that operation. And Sebastian Junger, I have to ask you a question. You're known as a journalist and a writer primarily. And I know Tim Hetherington, you're a photojournalist. Did either of you know what you were doing when you started out on this?
Mr. JUNGER: I've been going to Afghanistan since the mid '90s. I've covered a lot of combat, starting in Bosnia in '93. And so, yeah - I mean, in a sense, we did. But specifically, we did not know and the soldiers didn't know that the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan in Kunar Province would be the scene of such intense fighting. I never heard of it. The soldiers went over there. A lot of them worried that they weren't going to see any combat and that they were just going to sit around all year drinking - sort of drinking tea with locals. And that did not happen. And so we were - I mean, that unit was in 400 firefights during their deployment and that we did not see coming.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. Our guests are the photographers and directors of "Restrepo," one of the Oscar nominated documentaries this year. Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington are with us from our bureau in New York.
800-989-8255. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. If you've been the film and have questions we'd especially be interested from those of you who've been in Afghanistan and have some knowledge there. Let's go to Nick and Nick is with us from Port Richey in Florida.
NICK (Caller): Yes. Hello. I just like to say that I saw "Restrepo" and I was in Afghanistan in 2005 with the 82nd Airborne Division. And we supported Marines that were stationed in the Korengal. Two, three Marines; one, three Marines; three, three Marines; they were all out there during our rotation. And every - you know, except for the wintertime - and they showed that even in the film that even in the winter time that's the only time that these guys give up. They would go through patrols all the time in that area. And it was always - you know, through all that airfield, that whole area, Camp Blessing. I remember all those names. But all this - that was always where the most intense things were happening. And all you could do is tell your people before you left that, you know, this is going to be hard.
CONAN: What did you think of the film, Nick?
NICK: It was an excellent film. Afghanistan was my first deployment. I didn't - I wasn't on patrols. I wasn't outside the wire the very often. But in Iraq, I was out at an outpost in southern Iraq and - I mean, that's how - this is the first film I've seen so far that showed the modern war and how things are fought, exactly what these guys have to deal with. I mean, it's a totally different from Vietnam and all the other generations before that. Those are great generations. They have their story. But this is a totally different story. This is a totally different type of warfare.
CONAN: Was there one moment in the film, Nick, where you said, oh, yeah?
NICK: I can't think - the whole film was just like that. I mean, you just saw when these guys - you know, when they're wrestling around - you live with these guys for an entire year. You only see about 20 people, maybe, on a regular basis. And you've trained with them normally. These guys were 173rd - we were the 82nd and it's the same type of training. You work with these guys every day. You're getting ready to do this. And when you go out, you're expecting to come home with them.
CONAN: Nick, thanks very much for the call. And Sebastian and Tim, that's quite a compliment.
Mr. JUNGER: Yeah, it's a tremendous compliment. We really wanted to somehow give the nation access to that reality out there, to allow people to engage emotionally with the facts that we're at war. We're a nation at war. And there's a political, there's a strategic level to that sentence. But then there's an emotional meaning to that sentence that I think people have a hard time engaging with.
CONAN: It's interesting. Nick talked about the moment, I think, when he said the guys were wrestling around together. The platoon appears very tough, very experienced, very focused. But there are moments when we're reminded that these are very young men indeed. And I'm just going to play a short clip from the movie.
(Soundbite of movie, "Restrepo")
Unidentified man #1: Tighter, come on.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified man #1: Play.
Unidentified man #2: Touch me.
(Soundbite of stomping boots) (Soundbite of music)
CONAN: And those boots thumping on the floor, these young men are jumping up and down, smiling ecstatically. They're just having a tremendously good time in an extraordinary situation. That's a great piece of footage.
Mr. HETHERINGTON: Yeah. Well, I mean, they're having - they're trying to enjoy themselves in that moment for sure. But, you know, in the first couple of months, the battle company was running a casualty rate of 25 percent. And, you know, many of these young men were going through some of the most traumatic experiences of their life. They were dealing with big existential questions, the most that anybody'd deal with as we get older. I mean, both the idea of killing and being - the threat of being killed or seeing your - you know, having a friend die in your arms, as Doc Restrepo did. You know, they tried to save his life but he bled out on the side of a mountain and it affects them deeply.
And we wanted to bring the public into that emotional terrain, get them to kind of see it and digest it because, ultimately, these young men that we've instrumentalized(ph) and sent out there in the name - you know, on taxpayer dollar are coming back home. And we have to make a space for them. We have to kind of realize what they've been through and tried to find a way to reintegrate them.
CONAN: And Sebastian Junger, we see interviews with them, as you say, three months after their tour. How are they doing now?
Mr. JUNGER: Well, all but one decided to stay in the Army. They didn't come home. They did not readjust to civilian life. They stayed in the military. They've since done another deployment since we were out there, ending in '08. And they're doing okay. I mean, combat is traumatic, and they have a certain level of trauma that I think they've adjusted to. But they're still functional and they're still serving.
CONAN: Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, the photographers and directors of "Restrepo," one of the five films nominated for best documentary, feature-length documentary. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Let's get Andrew on, Andrew with us from East Moline in Illinois.
ANDREW (Caller): Hello, thank you for taking my call.
ANDREW: I just wanted to real quick say I watched the movie, incredibly well-done documentary. And in during that time of watching it, I was actually considering joining the Army. And of all the stuff that you get during that time where you're thinking about it, you get kind of a candy-colored lens of everything. And that seemed to be more of a - just a window into what was actually going on and really helped made my final decision in that, you know, I don't want to say that was Army life at it's worst, but at its hardest. And even at that moment, I just felt that I still needed to do it. And so thanks for making the film. I really appreciate it. It had a big impact on my life.
CONAN: And have you since been to Afghanistan, Andrew.
ANDREW: No, actually I ship out for basic in May. So I just finished everything here.
CONAN: All right.
Mr. JUNGER: Good luck to you.
ANDREW: Thank you very much.
Mr. JUNGER: I did an event at West Point and a young cadet came up to me and said, you know, we read a lot of books, we see a lot of films about the war that we're going to fight. You know, this guy was maybe 19, 20. He said, but your work is the only work that explained to us how we were going to feel when we got there. I think that's a really crucial part of this whole deal for the soldiers.
CONAN: Let's go next to Rebecca, Rebecca with us from Reno.
REBECCA (Caller): Hi, thank you for taking my call. I wanted to thank Sebastian and Tim for making this movie. My son was part of the platoon that relieved the platoon that was in the movie. And it really gave me an opportunity to understand what he went through over there. And it gave the two of us an opportunity to talk about what he went through. And it was monumental. And I really want to thank you both for doing that. I think it was very important to a lot of families.
Mr. HETHERINGTON: Oh, thank you. Your son was in the 1st Infantry, huh?
Mr. HETHERINGTON: Gee, what was his name?
REBECCA: Joshua Trudeau.
Mr. HETHERINGTON: Okay. I - because I met a whole bunch of them when they came up. They came up to replace the 173rd. So I actually spent a lot of time with the guys from the 1st ID there. But we didn't include them in the film. Obviously, in 90 minutes we couldn't get everything in. But, you know, and I saw some of them again just recently when we played in the Army base in Tennessee. So how's he doing now?
REBECCA: He's doing terrific. He's in Washington now. He got through it fine, thank goodness. I don't think I slept for the year he was over there. And he loves the movie also. He said it's very realistic. And like I said, it was just a great opportunity to really understand what his experience was and for the two of us to be able to talk about it.
CONAN: Rebecca, we wish your son continued good luck.
REBECCA: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Next posting should be better than Washington. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Brandon, Brandon with us from Kalamazoo.
BRANDON (Caller): Hey, how are you?
CONAN: Very well. Thanks.
BRANDON: Good. Good. I was actually in the Korengal Valley in 2006 for the initial push into the valley to set up the operating base there. Once the Marines were relieved by the Army, pretty much most of the construction had already started there. But from around May and June, I was out there, 2006.
CONAN: And how did you find the film?
BRANDON: You know what, I really struggled at first whether or not I wanted to watch it. You know, it brings back such incredible memories, you know, some of the most frightening and exciting times of my life. And, you know, I decided, okay, I'll sit down and watch. And naturally, it brought a lot of emotion back to it. You know, even the sight, the smell and everything - the sounds of that valley. And a lot of people don't realize it, it's an incredibly beautiful place, but it's filled with so much violence.
CONAN: And there is the message, Brandon, at the end of the film that in 2010, after 50 Americans were killed in the Korengal Valley and who knows however many Afghans, the United States decided to pull out.
BRANDON: Yup. My initial thoughts on that was a lot of frustration, you know? There's a lot of sweat, blood and tears that went in to defending that valley and try to aid the people there, you know, and that it was all just given up. And the reality of that environment over there is those fighters are going to somewhere else, whether it be to Asadabad or Camp Blessing or over the Sherak Valley or Pech River Valley. The reality is a fighter is going to be there no matter what. And I felt that I left a lot of my heart and soul in the Korengal Valley. You know, it was such a incredible place. And to pull out and give up on it, you know, it's a little frustrating.
CONAN: Brandon, thanks very much for your time today.
BRANDON: Yup. Thanks.
CONAN: Appreciate the phone call.
Gentlemen, we just have a few seconds left. You're up for an Academy award. We wish you the best of luck. And what is that experience like? It must be very strange.
Mr. HETHERINGTON: It's incredibly strange. I mean, our foremost thought when we started this project wasn't winning an Academy award, it was not getting killed making this movie. And we succeeded in doing that -barely, I think. But it's absolutely thrilling to be with other such great filmmakers. And it's a really once-in-a-lifetime experience, I think.
CONAN: Well, again, good luck to you both. And we'll look forward to the award on Oscar night.
Mr. HETHERINGTON: Thank you.
Mr. JUNGER: Thank you.
CONAN: Co-directors Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington. "Restrepo" is now out on DVD. You can view the trailer in our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Tomorrow, the second in our series on Oscar-nominated documentaries, "Inside Job." Plus, should the government have a role in funding public broadcasting? Join us for that.
This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.