Restrepo Directors Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington: The Movieline Interview
24 hours after catching Restrepo at Sundance -- a war documentary that offers an unprecedented glimpse at a full year's deployment in the most dangerous region of Afghanistan -- and I still can't shake its startling, enthralling, and frequently devastating images. If anything, they've only embedded themselves deeper. Yesterday, I had an opportunity to speak at length with the two filmmakers, veteran war correspondents both, responsible for bringing Restrepo to the screen: Sebastian Junger, best-selling author of The Perfect Storm, and award-winning photojournalist, Tim Hetherington. Our conversation follows.
MOVIELINE: How did the two of you come together and find yourselves dispatched on this very deadly assignment?
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: We're both pretty experienced war reporters. I've been working for Vanity Fair for a long time, and we were paired on an assignment that I pitched them in 2007, which was to follow one platoon of American soldiers in a remote outpost for an entire deployment. I'm married, we're both civilians, so we couldn't spend the whole year there. So we went back and forth, did a total of ten trips. Tim obviously is a still photographer, I'm a writer, and we decided to make a documentary, so we both had a video camera that we used continually. Some trips I was there by myself, some trips Tim was.
Had you decided before you had met the platoon that you wanted to make the movie, or was there something about them that made you think, hey, these could make pretty good movie stars?
SJ: I had been with Battle Company in 2005 in Zabul. It was my first experience with the U.S. military. I'd covered a lot of wars, but never with the U.S. military. I didn't know anything about it. I was really amazed by these guys. There are good units and bad units, like in anything, and I thought, if these guys go back to Afghanistan, I want to follow it from the beginning. I wanted to write a book and to make a documentary. I had no idea what that meant, to make a documentary. I mean none. It was a naive thought, and it didn't really take a realistic form until Tim came into the picture, and then the project really took off.
TIM HETHERINGTON: I'm a contributor at Vanity Fair as a photographer, and they teamed us up. So off we went to Afghanistan. In 2007, the world was still very firmly focused on Iraq. And I said, OK, we're going to walk around the mountains, we're going to drink cups of tea with the village elders, and we'll be shot at occasionally and that's it. And when we got there, the six-mile stretch of Korengal Valley was seeing nearly a fifth of all combat in Afghanistan. 75% of the bombs being dropped in that valley. There was just an awful lot of fighting going on.
How many fatalities were there in the period you were there?
SJ: Seven. During that deployment there were seven fatalities.
TH: And a lot of wounded. At one point they were running a 25% casualty rate.
One scene that stuck with me was the one in which the sergeant has to break the news that the platoon one valley over lost nine soldiers at once.
SJ: Chosen Company had a casualty rate -- killed and wounded -- of 80%. That wasn't Battle Company, and there are reasons for that. Ultimately it was a different experience.
TH: So there was an amazing amount of fighting going on, and we were immediately shocked by it. And suddenly we're with these guys, and we realize, wow -- this is incredible. This is an amazing story. I mean, nobody knew this was happening in Afghanistan. I mean, now they do, it's common knowledge.
Would you call this the most dangerous war zone of all you've covered?
TH: Every war zone has its own character, and it's very difficult to compare them. Covering the war in Liberia, there were moments of extreme danger. I lived with a rebel army, who were completely unpredictable, heavily armed and high on drugs. In Afghanistan, the Taliban who were going against the Americans were good. I mean they were good shots. I remember one time, we were coming down the side of a mountain, and we were targeted by a sniper. The first targeting rounds took off some leaves from a branch over our heads. And you realized that they're zeroing in their weapons. They're that good. They're firing their first shot, seeing where that lands, then they zero in on you. You realize that these are good fighters.
SJ: They were really good, and the soldiers knew it. And they talked about it. They were like, thank god we have Apaches, because these guys know what they're doing. I mean not all of them -- you had local kids who were paid a few dollars a day to shoot at the Americans and run back to their farm. There was that too. But the real guys who came into that valley to fight the Americans? I mean look -- they were assaulting fortified American positions and almost overrunning them.