Extension of the Combat Zone – The Afghanistan War Documentary RESTREPO

     |    Saturday, der 4. December 2010

RESTREPO is a highly acclaimed, fly on the wall (or more suitably, fly on combat helmet ) documentary following a U.S. army division mission in Afghanistan. Co-directed by seasoned journalist Sebastian Junger and photographer Tim Hetherington, RESTREPO’s candid interviews and  offer unique insights into the war experience for the young men serving in the 173rd Airbourne Division at the (now surrendered) Restrepo outpost – named after the beloved company medic Juan Restrepo who was killed in action – in the heavily contested Korengal Valley near the Pakistan border.

Picture: Sebastian Junger,

photographed by Tim Hetherington

Viewing the film is an amibivalent experience. The directors, who were embedded in the unit they portrayed, gained the extraordinary trust of the soldiers. The young men are shown as neither overglorified heroes nor killing robots. They are human beings, grappling with fear and grief, experiencing adrenalin rushes in extreme situations, pondering the absurdity of the campaign. Privy to experiences and mindsets I had never been exposed to before, I felt both enlightened and disturbed.

The film raises serious questions. Why did the men sign on for this perilous tour of duty? How was such a depersonalized perception of the Taliban adversary created and perpetuated? Is war (and the war experience) so deeply ingrained in our culture that military force will never truly cease to be deployed? Accusations (from audience members in a Q&A session after the film was screened at the One World Berlin human rights film festival) that RESTREPO aestheticizes war aren’t truly founded. The filmmakers made considerable efforts not to fall into that trap. (Although the film does at times evoke combat camaraderie clichés of 1940s Hollywood war films.) However, the power of the cinematic image per se (and RESTREPO’s visceral cinematography and thoughtful, no-nonsense montage make the film a particularly overpowering – for better or worse – film experience) and the properties of the medium do offer a different depiction of war than, say,  a book. That’s why Sebastian Junger’s companion tome WAR is an essential complement to the documentary. Many thanks to a frequent festival collaborator for urgently pressing his copy of the book into my hand.

The printed page (304 of them in this case) offers more space for in-depth portrayal of the young soldiers (including backstories, crosscutting with events on the homefront and flash forwards to life after Korengal valley) as well historical context and valuable psychological insights. For example, Junger cites a study about Israeli soldiers in the Yom Kippur War. Apparently, the occurences of mental breakdowns is related not to the actual danger of the situation, but the sense of control. Troops stationed (and fired at) directly on the frontline experienced less anxiety, if they had a sense of purpose, than the backup forces who were in less immediate peril but felt they were in unbearably tenuous situations.

Not sure in which order to recommend, but definitely seek out both RESTREPO and WAR to try and better understand the incomprehensible Afghanistan war. If only – through knowledge – to feel less powerless and fearful – like the combat study showed.

Watch the film’s trailer below.