Filmmaker's Goal: To See Combat Through GIs' Eyes In 2007, British photographer Tim Hetherington and American journalist Sebastian Junger traveled to Afghanistan to make a documentary. The resulting film, Restrepo, is an unflinching look at war through the eyes of the soldiers fighting it -- just life in combat, no talking heads allowed.

Filmmaker's Goal: To See Combat Through GIs' Eyes

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Robert Siegel.


And Im Michele Norris.

A beautiful place with towering mountains and lush, green pines - that was filmmaker Tim Hetheringtons first impression of the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan. But not long after he arrived on a U.S. military helicopter, he realized he was in a strange place, a strange and terrible place.

(Soundbite of film, "Restrepo")

(Soundbite of rapid gunfire)

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah.

Unidentified Man #2: A direct hit on that dude.

Unidentified Man #3: Woo-hoo.

NORRIS: That scene comes from a new documentary called "Restrepo," co-directed by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger.

What you just heard were U.S. soldiers firing on Taliban fighters. They were members of Second Platoon Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. Hetherington and Junger embedded with the men of Battle Company as they defended a vulnerable outpost overlooking the Korengal Valley.

The film is a raw and intimate account of the life of a soldier. There's camaraderie and boredom, but you also experience the soldier's terror, grief and fury. Tim Hetherington spent the past decade as a still photographer documenting war zones, but he says he had no idea what he was in for this time.

Mr. TIM HETHERINGTON (Co-Director, "Restrepo"): The world was very much focused on Iraq and I thought that we would be walking around the mountains, we would be drinking cups of tea with elders, we'd occasionally get shot at, and it'd be pretty uneventful. But it was completely the opposite. And by the end of the first couple of months we were there, 18 percent of all combat happening in the whole of the country was happening in that six mile long valley.

Seventy percent of American bombs being dropped were being dropped in the Korengal Valley. And Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne, the guys we were with, were sustaining a casualty rate of killed or wounded at 25 percent.

NORRIS: Describe for us the place for which this film is named, Restrepo, this forward operating base.

Mr. HETHERINGTON: Restrepo is an outpost that clung to the side of a mountain. It was built by hand by the men of Battle Company. And it was kind of ramshackle place. You know, it was definitely kind of, you know, bits of kind of wire and sandbags and camouflage, you know, gun emplacements.

But because it was so high up, it was incredibly peaceful when there was no fighting. In fact, there was one little area where we'd sunbathe. And, you know, we used to joke that if there was a really good kind of sniper on the other side of the valley, he could probably take us out. But, you know, we'd say, oh, what the hell and we'd go sunbathing out there. And it was really nice on those summers days, just lying out there sunbathing.

NORRIS: Do you remember that moment when you realized that the men the Second Platoon had actually accepted you as one of their own?

Mr. HETHERINGTON: For me, there was complicated set of circumstances where I kind of came to understand that I was accepted, and they came out of very tragic events. In October 2007, I went with the men of Second Platoon on a combat operation called Rock Avalanche. And during that operation the American lines were overrun by the insurgents, and people were killed at pretty close range and wounded.

And I was with the men during that occasion and filmed. Moments after, one of the guys, Larry Rougle(ph) was killed. And the men from his unit ran up and were completely distraught.

And following that, I went down to a small village in the middle of the night and broke my leg - I didnt know it at the time. And the medic says to me, you know, oh, it's just twisted, you know. Cause we had to get off the mountainside before light, and so basically I needed to walk down the mountain, which I did do.


Mr. HETHERINGTON: And I was later got out and had surgery in Bagram and came back. And I came back to the unit, from then on was the guys kind of - I had that kind of bond, I think. I think they saw that I was willing to go the whole way with them.

NORRIS: Tim, I want to take you back, if I can, to ask you about that absolutely harrowing moment when the platoon is pinned down and when Larry is killed. Before we go on, do you mind if we actually just listened to this. Because it's one thing to see it but it's actually quite powerful...


NORRIS: ...just in the listening. So why dont we just take a moment and just hear some of this?

(Soundbite of film, "Restrepo")

Unidentified Man #4: Oh, my God. Come help him.

(Soundbite of weeping)

Unidentified Man #5: Calm down, there's still guys out here. Okay?

(Soundbite of weeping)

Unidentified Man #6: It's all right (unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #7: Hes gonna make it, dude.

(Soundbite of weeping)

NORRIS: Tim, as we listen to this, you hear a number of things. You hear someone in just deep, deep anguish and you realize how young so many of these men are. And you hear someone saying: Dont look, dont look. And in that moment, you're holding a camera. You continue looking. You continue filming and the platoon let you continue filming.

Help me understand where you were in that moment, a moment where many people would want to look away.

Mr. HETHERINGTON: I was in a state of shock, to be quite honest. You know, my default is to just to film. Thats what Im doing, it's my job. And I remember at one point, the Afghan army tried to drag away Larry's body. And one of his friends, a guy called Rayon(ph) started shouting at them, like: You can't drag off his body, you can't do that. Im not seeing them - you drag his body off like that. And...

(Soundbite of weeping)

NORRIS: You okay?

(Soundbite of weeping)

NORRIS: Tim, if you need a moment, thats all right.

Mr. HETHERINGTON: Yeah, I just do.

You know, those were very traumatic events for me. And, you know, you try to kind of digest them but it takes time to work over them, you know.

NORRIS: Did anyone in that moment turn to you or indicate in any way that they were uncomfortable or even aware that you were filming and that the camera would be rolling?

Mr. HETHERINGTON: Shortly after, I mean, moments after Larry had been killed, there was a traumatic scene in the film on the hilltop. And as I was filming that and the Afghan army came along and started to pull away Larry's body by his legs. And one of the soldiers, Rayon, ran up and started shouting at them. He was completely distraught that they were trying - he's saying, you know, you can't drag away his body like this.

And in that moment, he was very upset and angry and he saw me filming and he said, you know, switch off the camera, switch off the camera.

You know, I dont know how much longer I was with Rayon again in another place, and I was filming again and Rayon apologized to me. And he said, listen, Im really sorry. We know why you're here and we really appreciate what you're doing.

And I just said listen, Im really sorry. Im just in default. Im in shock. I just go into default mode, which is just to carry on filming, almost like the camera protects me.

And in some ways it's the same thing as soldiers. I think you're in a state of shock and that you can't react - you know, you bury these things deep inside of yourself that - and one day later, you have to kind of face up to those events.

NORRIS: What kind of role do you want this film to have in the larger public discussion about the war?

Mr. HETHERINGTON: Sebastian and I set out to make a film from the kind of soldier's view level of the war. So regardless of your politics, whether you agree with the war or not, you will come to the film and see and digest what these men go through, and to understand that experience as a starting point for a discussion about the war.

We hope that the film is keyhole through which this country can start to understand what is happening out there.

NORRIS: Tim, it's been a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you so much.

Mr. HETHERINGTON: Thanks very much.

NORRIS: That's Tim Hetherintgon. He co-directed the film "Restrepo," along with Sebastian Junger.

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