From May 2007 to July 2008, directors Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger embedded with the men of Second Platoon at Restrepo Outpost in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan. They braved harsh conditions and harsher Taliban forces at what is considered the most dangerous US site in Operation Enduring Freedom. The result is Restrepo , a 94-minute film that captures the life of American soldiers at war. Restrepo plays at the Lensic Performing Arts Center July 30 and is followed by a post-film interview with Hetherington and Captain Daniel Kearney and conducted by Richard B Stolley. We sat down with Hetherington for an interview from his hotel room---
SFR: You arrived in Korengal Valley, camera and gear in hand, and met up with the troops of the Restrepo outpost. What were the soldiers' initial impressions of the camera? Were they hesitant to open up to you?
TH: The press and the military have a prickly relationship, and that's justifiably so. It's important there is a suspicion as they interrogate each other. The troops were different when we first turned up. They kept their distance. They said "no sir." And they weren't really interested in reporters. After a while, we kept on returning and we kept on spending a lot of time with them, and I think by the third trip or so, those kind of barriers began to break down and, by the end, for all intensive purposes, we became part of the platoon. Apart from we never carried a gun and I never pulled guard duty. However, they tried to get some of us to do that in the middle of the night.
You're coming to Santa Fe with Captain Daniel Kearney. Have you maintained contact with any of the other servicemen or their surviving families?
Oh, a lot of them. Absolutely. When we first finished the film%uFFFDwe invited all of the guys from Second Platoon, along with their wives%uFFFDwe brought them down to New York, put them up, and we showed them the film. We wanted them to be the first people to be able to see the film. And we've kept in contact with a lot of them%uFFFDIf you check out the Facebook page, "Restrepo the Movie," you'll see that we have this ongoing conversation going, and I speak to them all regularly. I see them all regularly. In fact, I'm here in Nashville with Lamonte Caldwell who was the first sergeant in the film.
How did the soldiers react to it?
Well, I mean, they reacted very positively to it because I think that they could see their experience in it. I think that it translated their experiences correctly. One of the guiding principles in the editing room when we were working on the film was, is what we're seeing true to our experience out there? That was really the guiding principle. And I think that we managed to make an honest film. We were very embedded with the troops [but] you can still make a very truthful and honest film from a subjective position.
What was also interesting when they came down to New York, they came with their wives. And their wives really responded to the film. They liked the film a lot. You know, soldiers are very good at fighting, but often they're not good at communicating to their loved ones back here in the States what they go through%uFFFDThose families, we give them a keyhole through which to see what happens in their lives.
You said that in the editing room you tried to make it as accurate a representation of the war as possible. Was there anything that you edited out of the film?
Um, no, not really. There [were] things that we had to leave out%uFFFDWhat you see is kind of a really condensed experience. We left out one part, I remember, the Taliban sent women and children to the roof of the house. And the soldiers were kind of seeing them and couldn't shoot back.
But nothing I felt was really crucial to the film.
The other thing I left out, it was a very gruesome shot, so I left that out. In the scene where Larry Rougle gets killed, I left out the very graphic shot with the back of his head blown off. And I left off a picture of a 5-year-old Afghani boy who was killed%uFFFDI deal with this kind of imagery a lot, and I didn't think it would add anything to the film.
Were there any times during the filming that you were asked to turn the camera off?
No, not really. In fact, no. The question of censorship%uFFFD this is my first time working with the American forces and I was expecting to be censored and told when I could film, when I couldn't film, and being asked to look at footage. But in fact that never happened, I was really never told when I could and couldn't film, and I was never asked to shoot material. We were never censored in the editing process.
What about the other side? What about the insurgents? Is there anyone in a position to tell their story in the same way?
It's very difficult for me to be with the insurgent because I'd get my head cut off. And that's basically the short end of the stick. And also I didn't want to pretend to be telling the insurgent's story from being embedded in the US Army. I would distrust any Western reporter embedded in the US Army pretending they could make a film that would tell their side of the story.
You mentioned earlier how the Taliban put women and children on the roof, and the American troops couldn't fire on them due to their rules of engagement. Did you ever feel as though any of these rules were adversely affecting the safety of yourself and the platoon?
I had no idea. I was just focusing on making a film. I have to say that the American troops—I've been with a lot of different troops in my life%uFFFDthe US soldiers are in fact very well-trained and very disciplined. I was quite impressed to be honest. Of all the armies I've been, the American army certainly ranks as one of the most organized.
Having experienced the war on the front lines, what would you say to a young American thinking of enlisting?
You know, I've been in the Korengal Valley, and fighting in the Korengal valley is not representative of fighting in the war. Saying fighting in the Korengal is representative of fighting in the war is like saying that Detroit is representative of America%uFFFDIf I'm talking to a guy who doesn't know what he's doing, and he's going out there, I would say "Are you prepared to be in combat?" But how can one ever be prepared to be in combat? It's tough. I mean there's not much I can say. If somebody is going to do what they want to do, what can I say?
In your time in combat, you sustained several injuries. Could you tell me about them? What kind of insurance did you have?
Start with the injury first. I broke my leg in a rock avalanche, and I was taken to Bagram later, an itty little place in Bagram [Air Base]. So they footed it on, you know the American military footed the plate%uFFFD[In the] States and I underwent rehabilitation on the insurance of Vanity Fair and ABC News. They put their hand in their pockets and paid for me. It's a war zone. It's very hard to get personal insurance for a war zone.
Your film is being released here in Santa Fe on July 30, followed by a post-show interview with yourself and Captain Daniel Kearney. Is there anything you'd like to share with the local residents before the lights go down?
I think a lot of people are currently confused about the war in Afghanistan. And this is a volunteer army. And there's also a disconnect between the nation and what's happening out there. And that's totally understandable. Not everybody can go to Afghanistan and see what's happening%uFFFDBut, this country is engaged in a war in Afghanistan, and we're all concerned about it. And you want to understand that, and you want to see what our soldiers are going through.
As a starting point for a conversation about the war, go see the film. It's going to be totally different than anything you've ever seen before. It's not going to be like a network news piece, it's not going to be a detective political piece. It's going to bring Afghanistan to you; it's going to bring that experience to you. And it will certainly be revealing, and it will perhaps put you in better standing in conversation for understanding what's happening over there.
7 pm Friday, July 30. $10-$15
The Lensic Performing Arts Center
211 W. San Fransisco St.