In July, Guernica ran a piece by Nick Turse that criticized the recent war documentary Restrepo for featuring the stories of American soldiers, rather than Afghan civilians:
“Restrepo’s repeated tight shots on the faces of earnest young American soldiers are the perfect metaphor for what’s lacking in the film and what makes it almost useless for telling us anything of note about the real war in Afghanistan.”
Several readers commented on the post with their own take on Restrepo and Turse’s critique, including the film’s co-director Tim Hetherington. In response to Turse’s harsh review, Hetherington wrote,
“[W]e do see things from the soldier’s perspective—but we provide a warts and all view of the war from this perspective We hope that our strict focus on the soldiers becomes part of a wider conversation on the entire war. Judging by this article and the conversation, it has.”
In an effort to expand this conversation even further, Hetherington agreed to answer a series of questions about his experiences in Afghanistan and the process of creating a war documentary.
—Rebecca Bates for Guernica
Guernica: In his critique of Restrepo, Nick Turse claimed the film doesn’t accurately expose the “true face of war.” In your response, you say you chose to film from only one perspective. Do you think it’s possible to give a full representation of war’s “true face,” or is it an amalgam of many experiences?
Tim Hetherington: Just because a story is told from one perspective doesn’t mean it can’t be honest or truthful. In the documentary Restrepo, I told my story from the perspective of the soldiers I was embedded with. To make the film, co-director Sebastian Junger and I spent a total of ten months living with a platoon of soldiers at a remote outpost in Afghanistan. I am not aware of any other film maker who has spent an equivalent amount of time embedded with an army unit—reason enough to believe the work has validity if we want to understand the soldiers’ experience.
Afghanistan is perhaps the most complicated foreign policy problem the United States has ever faced and its solution defies partisan ideology and facile truths.
Understanding what motivates soldiers and how they are likely to act in a war, will inevitably help us determine what we can and cannot reasonably expect from them in a given situation. Whatever your perspective on this war—whether it be to implement peace-building initiatives in Afghanistan, or simply bring the war to a close, or even to extend the war beyond the current timeline laid out by the current administration—such an understanding will be useful.
This is not to say that the film is limited to the soldiers. Included in the film are many illuminating situations with local Afghans—including rare footage that reveals the killing and wounding (close-ups included) of innocent civilians by a U.S. air strike.
Guernica: The boys of O.P. Restrepo find themselves in the severest of landscapes, sometimes almost completely surrounded by the Taliban as they endlessly volley bullets back and forth. The recent release of classified reports on WikiLeaks indicates the war in Afghanistan seems more and more fruitless. You say that you didn’t intend for your own reportage to “demand moral outrage,” but by showing the futile nature of the American position in Afghanistan, what sort of response were you expecting?
Tim Hetherington: While moral outrage may motivate me, I think demanding moral outrage is actually counter-productive because people tend to switch off. We need to build bridges to the public and get them to think about the war in Afghanistan. We need to co-opt them and get them to ask questions, we need to get their attention through persuasion rather than shouting at them or deriding them. Sure, the face of the U.S. soldier is the “easiest entrée into the Afghan war zone” but it has allowed me to touch many people at home with rare close-up footage of injured and dead Afghan civilians (as well as a young U.S. soldier having a breakdown following the death of his best friend). Perhaps these moments represent the true face of war rather than the facts and figures of political analyses or the black and white newsprint of leaked documents.
I haven’t read all the ninety-thousand-odd WikiLeaks documents—just the ones that pertain to Kunar as well as the ones more widely circulated—but as far as I am aware, the only new and pertinent information they reveal is the extent to which the Pakistani Intelligence, the ISI has been supporting the Taliban, as well as apparent limited use of surface to air missiles by the Taliban. Does this mean the war is fruitless? I’m not sure we can draw such conclusions. Similarly, it’s hard to draw conclusions about the state of the war from a movie that takes place in a valley where a fifth of all fighting occurred—it’s like saying Detroit is representative of the U.S. However, you could easily see our movie as a testimony to the previous administration’s terrible decision to under-man and under-fund the war back in 2001-4 when we enjoyed widespread support for having toppled a regime they hated.
Guernica: You say in your response to Turse’s article that your “strict focus on the soldiers,” rather than a focus on Afghan storylines, was a journalistic choice. Were there things you witnessed that you had to swallow for the sake of unbiased reporting? What’s the difference between being a journalist with an objective story to tell and a human being with subjective connections to the people who are your subjects?
Tim Hetherington:We shot and directed the film, and wanted to ensure it was true to our experience. There were some tough choices in the edit to bring two hundred hours down to ninety-three minutes, but I think the film is a good representation of our experience in the Korengal.
I make long-term documentary projects which go beyond the normal parameters of objective journalism and where I am “embedded” in my subject matter for long periods of time. Restrepo and my forthcoming book Infidel are the result of my experiences with U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. Prior to this I lived and worked for eight years in West Africa—first of all in Freetown, Sierra Leone at the tail end of a very brutal war, and then in Monrovia, Liberia. I have spent a large chunk of my life in countries affected by war, and for the last ten years have focused my work on young men and conflict. In his article, Nick Turse was particularly wrong with the implication that I am out of touch with the suffering of civilians in conflict (what he calls ’the true face of war’). Anybody who really knows me and is familiar with my work will know this to be a gross-distortion. I’ve seen some pretty unpleasant things, lost friends, and been worried about the future of loved ones. But the difference is, I chose to be there because I think it’s important to try and connect my audience in the west with the rest of the world.
Guernica:On some level, every person featured in Restrepo is haunted by those who have come before. Doc Restrepo’s ghost is a tangible presence for the soldiers, while the memory of Captain Kearney’s predecessor becomes an obstacle as the commander attempts to build an honest relationship with the valley elders. You say your film is an effort to “connect a distant western audience to the war in Afghanistan.” In doing so, are you actually showing us anything new, anything that hasn’t been reported before? Or do you mean to put a human face to the soldiers’ experiences?
Tim Hetherington:We wanted to bring an audience as closely as possible to the reality of the soldier’s experience—in documentary form rather than the Hollywood version. There are a number of things that have been rarely, if ever, filmed before—like the view from inside a Humvee when it hits an IED, or some of the scenes in Operation Rock Avalanche. But I think the most important thing we present is an intimate portrayal of soldiers. As a photographer, I’m aware how the media uses images of missiles or Apache gunships or some kind of hardware to illustrate the ’war machine’ (think back to the first Gulf war). However, I think what we show in Restrepo is more accurate—take a group of young men, train them together, stick them on the side of a mountain, and they will kill and be killed for one another. It’s that brotherhood which lies at the heart of the war machine—something profoundly human that we prefer to obscure in our desire to sanitize war.
I’ve seen some pretty unpleasant things, lost friends, and been worried about the future of loved ones. But the difference is, I chose to be there because I think it’s important to try and connect my audience in the west with the rest of the world.
Guernica:As someone known for still photography, what were the challenges you faced when making a film, which requires a synthesizing of many moments, rather than capturing a single instant?
Tim Hetherington: Making Restrepo was not my first foray into the moving image—I’ve been working with the medium for over ten years. I was cameraman for Liberia: An Uncivil War, where, alongside my colleague James Brabazon, I lived with a rebel group as it tried to overthrow Charles Taylor from power. We were the only journalists to live behind rebel lines, and were subject to an execution order by Taylor. We recorded the only images of the mortaring of Monrovia by rebel forces with U.S.-manufactured munitions, and my work was later cited in the Liberia Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as well as the current trial of former president Taylor at The Hague. I’ve never been particularly interested in the still image as an isolated experience because of the problems of de-contextualization. Instead, I always prefer to work with groups of images, editing them into some kind of narrative form, and re-working them to present across a range of visual mediums that include books, films, mixed-media art installations, fly-poster exhibits, hand-held devices, and magazines. Since each form of communication has both limits and possibilities, I’m interested in reaching as wide audience as possible through experimenting with multiple forms. In this way, I wouldn’t classify myself strictly as a photographer or even a journalist, even though my work does use these platforms.
Guernica: You briefly mention that the film shows “illuminating situations with local Afghans.” Part of Nick Turse’s reaction to the film was a perceived lack of the Korengal Valley locals from the overall narrative of the film. How can Americans and Westerners know the moral weight of their policies and wars if they consistently shut out the voices of those who most feel the impact of those policies and wars: namely, their victims overseas? And how do you feel Restrepo gives a voice to these victims in these “illuminating situations”?
Tim Hetherington: I think his opinion of what needs to be said about the war has clouded his viewing of the film. In fact, there are numerous scenes where the viewer “encounters” local people—again, remember the aftermath of the US bombing of innocent civilians, the numerous “Shura” meetings, or the “cow” incident. I don’t need to spell out why these are illuminating—watch the film and make up your own mind. I accept that those wishing to find a moral condemnation of the war are perhaps angry or disappointed that I have not given them what they want, and instead make them encounter this from the perspective of U.S. soldiers. I guess this really irks them. But as film makers, Sebastian and I thought the public needed to see, digest, and understand what these young men go through as a starting point for a discussion about the war—that’s why we made the most visceral and experiential movie we could, and didn’t allow our personal politics to cloud the information.
The far right would have us believe it’s unpatriotic to examine the rationale for the war, while the far left suggests you’re a coward if you don’t morally condemn the war. However, Afghanistan is perhaps the most complicated foreign policy problem the United States has ever faced and its solution defies partisan ideology and facile truths. As for the larger question as to whether we can ever fully understand the victims of our wars if we shut off their voices? Of course not—but perhaps by first connecting people at home to the war in Afghanistan, we may help reach a deeper level of understanding for those affected by it. Do I want a more moral and just world? Absolutely. Do I think my work is flawless? Absolutely not—but navigating the limitations, I’m just trying to do my best in keeping the ”real world on the agenda,” as opposed to a fantasy world that advertisers would have us believe in.
Tim Hetherington is a photographer and film maker who made his directorial debut with Restrepo. He is the author of Long Story Bit by Bit: Liberia Retold (2009 Umbrage Editions) and a forthcoming book about U.S. soldiers, Infidel (2010 Chris Boot Ltd). A native of the UK, he now lives in New York. Visit his website here.
Rebecca Bates is a blog editor at Guernica. Read her latest recommendation “here”:https://guernicamag.com/blog/1989/rec_room_rebecca_bates_lucinel/. Read her Q&A with author Bill Clegg “here”:https://guernicamag.com/blog/1860/qa_with_bill_clegg_author_of_p_1/.