Documentary Filmmaker Interview: Photojournalist Tim Hetherington on “RESTREPO”

Condolences to the family of photojournalist Tim Hetherington. Thank you for taking time out to speak with Knowshi about your film Restrepo when you were here. You are loved. Your professionalism and passion set you miles ahead of the rest. Rest in Peace and Light Tim.

RESTREPO: A Gut-Wrenching Documentary of America’s Longest War

Written By:  Gordon K. Smith

The firing of General Stanley McChrystal by President Obama and his replacement by General David Petraeus has put the focus of a war-weary world back on Afghanistan, America’s longest war, a fact not lost on the makers of a gut-wrenching new war documentary called RESTREPO. It won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival for its director/producer team of Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, two veteran photojournalists funded by Vanity Fair and making their feature film debut.

The 94-minute film is the result of 150 hours of footage shot by the two during a 15-month deployment, starting in 2007, embedded with the Second Platoon of the 173 Airborne in the Korengal Valley, one of the bloodiest theaters of the Afghan war (the Army calls it “The Valley of Death”), plus hours of followup interviews shot with the same soldiers three months later in Italy. The experience is also recorded in Jungar’s accompanying book “War”, and in Hetherington’s photography, which won the 2008 World Press Photo Award. From that Valley base they zeroed in on the outpost of this outpost, dubbed O.P. “Restrepo” by the 15-man team that runs it, after a medic named Juan Restrepo who was the mission’s first KIA (he’s glimpsed in video shot by fellow soldiers).  They had no running water, no internet, and often no electricity.

A U.K. citizen, Hetherington stopped in Dallas in June to promote the film, along with Sergeant Major La Monta Caldwell, one of the “stars” of RESTREPO (recently promoted from the Master Sergeant rank he held during filming), and just the man you’d want covering your back during a walk through The Valley of Death. A massive Facebook campaign by fellow soldiers resulted in this “deployment” for SGM Caldwell.  Unsigned The Magazine had a debriefing with them in an echoey dining room at the Stoneleigh Hotel.

Knowshi:  During the climactic battle of Operation Rock Avalanche, we see one soldier losing it, having a meltdown after a fellow soldier is killed.  Understandable of course, but did he have any conflict about having everyone see him in that condition?

HETHERINGTON:  The important thing is, his reaction is natural, and a couple of minutes later, he’s battle ready again, and doing his job. That’s what I wanted people to see. (You won’t see that in) the typical network news story, which is two to three minutes long…if there’s a war photo on the news tomorrow I can tell you what it will be — a silhouette, a stereotyped image. These young men are human, and this country asks a lot of them…the sharp edge of who conducts foreign policy is not the suits in Washington, it’s these young men  on the side of a mountain.  I want to engage everyone, on the left, on the right (to see RESTREPO).  This country is in a critical period in its thinking about the war.  It’s about the dialogue.

SGM CALDWELL:  I think the film does an outstanding job of depicting the everyday lives of these soldiers.  75% of all fighting is done this way. The testament of an outstanding young soldier is how they go through this and bounce back, and do the mission we ask them to do.

Knowshi:  In the meetings we see with the villagers (regular “town hall” meetings between the outpost command, led by Captain Dan Kearney, and the local Afghan village elders, held inside the compound), many of the villagers have dyed their beards bright red. Is this a status thing?

HETHERINGTON:  Yes, it means they’d gone on a pilgrimage to Mecca, it’s a religious status thing. We’re fighting a wide mix of groups in these villages, including Pakistanis, Arabs, Chechnyans and local Afghan Taliban militia.

Knowshi:  Now that we’re in the ninth year of this war — sixth year when you were filming in ’07 — I have to wonder what these villagers perceive during these documented sessions.  Now they’re seeing American soldiers with guns, followed by more guys with cameras.  What’s their comprehension of all this?

HETHERINGTON:  It’s easy to see these mountain villagers as backwards, but they’re quite savvy about media.  They do trade across borders in other towns where there’s TV, and they understand that.

Knowshi:  Do you think they act any different knowing they’re being filmed, than they would if they weren’t?

HETHERINGTON:  Hard to say, those villagers are intertwined with Taliban.  They’d pretend to be one thing to media, with something else going on in their heads.  There’s a war going on, and they have to survive it too.

SGM CALDWELL:  When you see them in the film, over 50% was playing both ends.  They rub their chins, they gather all the info Captain Kearney is talking about, what and when (something’s ) gonna happen, they go right outside the wire, get on their radios and tell the Taliban.  We hear it, we know what’s going on, there’s nothing we can possibly do.

Knowshi:  …which puts you in a real difficult position as to what you’re going to tell them.

SGM CALDWELL:  Absolutely, and soldiers know it.

HETHERINGTON:  We believe winning the “hearts and minds” is not making them believe you’re their best friends and hugging them.  Hearts and minds is about assuring security to another group.  When NATO went in right after 9/11, it was a just cause.  90% approval by Afghanis then.  When the focus moved to Iraq, 15, 000 (troops) were left in Afghanistan.  These guys in the Korengal Valley know that if they cooperate with Americans, and (the Americans) leave, they’ll get their heads cut off.  What message did we send after 2001 when we left with only about 2000 soldiers there, when there’s 40,000 cops in New York City?  Are you crazy?  We expect to win their hearts and minds by leaving 15,000 soldiers there?  No one wants a foreign force in their country, but if we can persuade them that we have their best interests at heart, to stabilize the situation, they’ll say ‘I don’t like you but I’m ready to work with you’.  That’s how you win.

Knowshi:  We learn at the end of the film that O.P. Restrepo was abandoned by the U.S. in April 2010, after 50 U.S. deaths.  Is it now an insurgent base?

SGM CALDWELL:  I wouldn’t say it was an insurgent base, but if you look at the locals who were playing both sides — look on YouTube, (at videos) from Aljazeera (the Qatar-based Mideast news service) — the same places we were building, they are in there now.  Aljazeera says the Taliban has now taken over this or that, and our soldiers see the same thing.  Those were the same guys who sat right there and talked to us and stuff.  Very demoralizing.

Knowshi:  No kidding.  What equipment did you use?

HETHERINGTON:  We started with two three-chip V1 cameras.   We never intended to have a feature film, just for TV.  After we decided to go with a feature, we upgraded and swapped those for Z-1 HD cameras.

Knowshi:  Did you wear the same body armor as the soldiers?

HETHERINGTON:  Not the regulation stuff they wore, but quite a lot.  We went along on the missions and were right there in the fighting.

Knowshi:  Have any close calls?

HETHERINGTON:  We both did. Sebastian was blown up in the Humvee explosion that killed “Doc” Restrepo (in the startling open to the film; Junger survived the blast).   I broke a leg during one of the missions and had to walk four hours down the mountain on it.  I didn’t want anyone to get killed because Tim wouldn’t walk down the hill.

SGM CALDWELL:  They absolutely earned our trust and respect…I think RESTREPO is the real thing.  Tim and Sebastian made a documentary that portrays the difference between Hollywood and the real thing.

Knowshi:  Speaking of which, THE HURT LOCKER is the lowest-grossing Best Picture winner ever. Films about the Iraq/Afghanistan War have been a real hard sell to the ticket-buying public.

HETHERINGTON:  Hey, if I was in it for the money, I’d be in the fashion business.



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