Restrepo's Sebastian Junger Will Head Back to Afghanistan After the Oscars
Last year at this time, journalist Sebastian Junger and war photographer Tim Hetherington were on their way to seeing Restrepo win Best Documentary from the jury at Sundance. Today, the pair are Oscar nominees for their searing and critically acclaimed film about the war in Afghanistan. Which doesn't mean the story is complete, of course: Junger and Hetherington will head back to Afghanistan in April.
Junger -- who also wrote the book War based on his experiences in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley -- called Movieline earlier to discuss life as a first-time Oscar nominee and what he hopes viewers take away from Restrepo.
Congratulations, Sebastian! How excited were you when you got the call about being nominated?
You have no idea. We're giddy. This wasn't what was in our minds when we started out on this long project.
Yeah, it doesn't seem like you were thinking about tuxedo options when you spent a year in Korengal Valley.
When I think back to that place -- there was no electricity, there were three or four firefights per day, we were eating dust and gunsmoke all day long. It was so strange that that place was converted into an Oscar nomination. It's a huge honor for us, but I think the nomination really honors the men we were with: The soldiers.
Did this come as a surprise to you?
I thought we had an OK chance, but I don't think anything could prepare you for it -- particularly for a story that was this weird. We were on Mars out there. I don't think anything can prepare you for the phone call.
How important is this nomination to the film itself? Obviously it was a high profile and much-discussed documentary, but you have to assume many more people will seek it not now that it has been labeled as an Oscar nominee.
I'm new to this business, but we made the film because the country is at war. Bottom line. That's why we made this film. It's a situation that's on going. We wanted to make a politically neutral film, so we could emotionally reach everyone across the entire political spectrum, and generate some kind of national conversation about the war. The nation does need to have a conversation that departs from the usual partisan rhetoric. We're hoping the movie does that, and what we wanted to do was bring the war into everyone's living rooms and grapple with it emotionally.
There is a bit of happy coincidence, if you would, about your nomination coming on the same day as Barack Obama's State of the Union address. Do you think he'll address the war very much?
You know, I hadn't even thought of that. It's wonderful timing. I don't know if he's going to focus on Afghanistan or not. But clearly it's one of the most important struggles that this country is facing right now, is what to do over there. My fear is that if we just pull out, the country will implode on itself and the suffering will be absolutely astronomic. I think the world needs to make this work, I just don't know how that's going to be done.
If the troops are pulled out on schedule, would you think this war was just done in vain?
I don't know. Those are hard calculations to make. But I started going to Afghanistan in 1996. I know what it was like there; I know the level of bloodshed and chaos and suffering before NATO stabilized the country. As bad as it looks, this is the lowest level of civilian death in thirty years in Afghanistan. 400,000 Afghan civilians were killed during the 1990s, and the highest estimates are 30,000 have been killed since NATO got there. In terms of the Afghans, my fear is that if NATO pulls out, they will go back to the 1990s.
Do you plan on attending the Oscars?
Oh, yes. Tim and I are going back on assignment to Afghanistan to cover the war in April, but if we were going to go in February, with this honor, I think we would probably have changed the trip. But, thankfully, the trip is scheduled in April.
Have you given any thought to an acceptance speech yet?
I'm going to give some very serious thought to what I would say, if we're so lucky. Look, it's a story -- people are dying every day. This is a story that's going on right now. It's costing lives. I've got some very serious things to say about it.