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9/11 Film Series: Restrepo

Tonight’s installment of the 9/11 Film Series was Restrepo, a documentary about soldiers stationed in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan.

Restrepo was co-directed by Sebastian Junger and Tim Heatherington. Junger is a correspondent for Vanity Fair magazine and he collected his observations in the book War, which was released simultaneously with this film. Heatherington was a cinematographer and photojournalist and he had cooperated with Junger on a forthcoming book called Infidel. Sadly, Tim Heatherington was recently killed while reporting on the recent uprising in Libya.

In documentary filmmaking, the style is often described in one of two ways: objective and subjective. Subjective documentaries are told from a clear point of view and often employ narration and other techniques to present the subject from a specific perspective. The films of Michael Moore such as Sicko and Roger and Me are popular examples of subjective documentaries. These are pictures with a clear thesis that is usually stated early on in the picture.

Objective documentaries are generally told with a more ambiguous perspective. They often employ a cinema verite style, presenting the subject with a minimal amount of editorial intrusion. Vernon, Florida, directed by Errol Morris, and Hearts and Minds, directed by Peter Davis, are examples. Like subjective documentaries, these films do seek to present a truth about their subject but the truth of an objective documentary film tends to unfold over the course of the film’s running time; the truth or message of an objective documentary is found in the sum of its parts rather than in a specific thesis elucidated in the opening.

Restrepo is told in an objective documentary style. And like many films that use this approach, Restrepo can be confusing or overwhelming. Much of today’s cinema–both dramatic and documentary–mico-manage the viewer’s experience with voice overs that tells us exactly how to think and music cues and editing choices that tell us how to feel. The absence of that kind of direction can be challenging to an audience that is accustomed to it. This is a film that requires a viewer to engage with the piece, to think about the content and how images and sounds are juxtaposed together.

Restrepo is bookended by testimonies of the soldiers in charge at the post. In the pre-title sequence, Captain Dan Kearney admits that he did not do any research on the Korengal Valley before arriving there but that he was determined to go into the area and, in his words, “fix it.” In the film’s final sequence, as the soldier’s vacate the valley, First Sergeant LaMonta Caldwell says “We’ve done our job. We did what we were supposed to be doing. And we’re out of here.” It is in the juxtaposition of those statements with what happens in between them that Restrepo is most revealing.

War is often described as long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of terror. That cliche fits the portrayal of war in Restrepo; although the film is not boring it does have a cyclical construction. The middle of the film is a repetition of patrols and occasional firefights, the establishment and reinforcement of the operating post, and the meetings with the Afghan elders. What is most apparent by the end is that, despite the effort, the sacrifice, and the casualties, nothing has been accomplished. That point is punctuated by the text displayed before the end credits, informing the viewer that the Korengal Valley was later abandoned by the United States military.

Restrepo was released in 2010, which is curious because that year had one of the highest casualty rates for US forces in Afghanistan since we entered the country after the 9/11 attack but the year 2010 also featured the least amount of coverage of the war from the mainstream press. And, among the film’s other attributes, that is part of what makes Restrepo extraordinary and exceptional. Despite all of the time and resources dedicated to Afghanistan and in spite of the extent to which daily life around the world is documented and disseminated, this film is one of the only significant pieces of documentary cinema to come out of the conflict.

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