Film Club: ‘Restrepo’
Filmmakers Spend a Year Embedded with Unit in Afghanistan
Friday, July 16, 2010
Host Maureen Cavanaugh discusses "Restrepo" with critics Beth Accomando, Scott Marks, and Anders Wright on the KPBS Film Club.
Back in June 2007, Sebatian Junger and Tim Hetherington began making trips to Afghanistan with the Second Platoon, Battle Company, 173rd Airborne Brigade, who were stationed in Afghanistan's treacherous Korengal Valley. The documentary "Restrepo" (opening July 16 at Landmark's La Jolla Village Theaters) is the resulting film. Listen to our KPBS Film Club discussion.
The filmmakers made ten trips and gained remarkable access, essentially doing everything with the soldiers except actually engaging in battles with the Taliban fighters. The film takes its name from one of the platoon's first casualties and a name the platoon gave to the mountain outpost in honor of their fallen comrade. While the fighting in Iraq has gotten quite a bit of coverage in fiction and narrative films, the war in Afghanistan has received far less attention. So the filmmakers deserve credit for focusing their attention on fighting that the media has shown less interest in.
So while their access allows the filmmakers to get some amazing footage -- tense scenes of fights with unseen enemies as well as the boredom between the fighting as the soldiers try to relax --the filmmakers don't know quite how to craft their footage into a narrative. They intercut the Afghanistan footage with interviews shot later. The sit down interviews are shot so tightly at times that we can see every blemish on the youthful faces. But the physical closeness to the subjects doesn't necessarily lead to real insights. The back and forth cutting seems primarily concerned with creating a linear chronicle of the events. Maybe that's because these young soldiers have neither the maturity nor the distance to be able place their experiences in perspective and make an evaluation. So while the film offers a rare window into events in Afghanistan, the filmmakers lack the creative vision to make their film a truly memorable work of art. Maybe that's due in part to their background as journalists and their attempt to maintain that journalistic sense of objectivity. But as filmmakers it can be good to have a point of view and a sense of how your piece of the puzzle may fit into the bigger picture. But they do convey the notion that ideals and causes are not what this war is about. The film is not political yet it's hard to walk away with a positive view of the situation.
"Restrepo" (rated R for language throughout including some descriptions of violence) can't help but be compelling based on its subject matter, and it is a film worth seeing despite some artistic shortcomings precisely because it gives us an insider's view of a war that has been kept on the periphery of the public's attention.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (host): Welcome back. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. This is the KPBS Film Club of the Air. My guests are Beth Accomando Scott Marks and Anders Wright. And we move on to a very different kind of movie. “Restrepo” is a documentary by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington about the war in Afghanistan. It focuses on one platoon trying to establish an outpost in the notoriously dangerous Korengal Valley. The outpost is named Restrepo after a medic who died early in the deployment. The filmmakers follow the patrol on everything from weekly sitdowns with tribal chiefs to deadly firefights. In this scene, we hear from two of the soldiers as they recall the worst episode of the deployment where several comrades were injured and a popular sergeant was killed.
(audio clip from the documentary “Restrepo”)
CAVANAUGH: That’s a clip from the documentary “Restrepo.” And, Anders, give us some background on the two filmmakers.
ANDERS WRIGHT (film critic, City Beat): Well, they’re both journalists and they were embedded with this platoon for a solid year in this really – in these really harsh conditions. The one who’s perhaps more familiar to people is going to be Sebastian Junger, who wrote the book “The Perfect Storm,” which was turned into a perfectly middling movie. But he’s a very good writer and has spent a lot of time in some hard places. And basically they spent an entire year with these guys and that meant basically to – once they established this outpost in this –which had no running water, no electricity, no nothing for a long time, these guys would be flown into this valley in the middle of the day and spend two hours hiking into this outpost from where they were fired upon usually several times a day and apparently these guys, the journalists, basically did everything but shoot back. But they were with these young soldiers through everything else.
CAVANAUGH: And I’m wondering, Scott, what did you think of this documentary?
MARKS: I don’t know that this is necessarily what I would consider a heroic portrait. I think that every parent who has a child old enough to go and fight the war should see this movie. And then lock your kids up. Because so many films take the position, hate the war, love the soldiers. I don’t think that this film paints a very positive picture of the soldiers. You have this one guy, Captain Dan Kearny, when he – they make a raid on Yakha Chena where they slaughter a couple of members of the Taliban but they also slaughter children, too. And, I mean, you see this in closeup. You see the bodies right there. And when they ask him about it later on, he was a little miffed that he didn’t make a good first impression. This is what’s fighting the war. I find this film very, very disturbing but I don’t know if it’s for the reasons that the filmmakers wanted me to be disturbed.
CAVANAUGH: Beth, what’s your take?
BETH ACCOMANDO (film critic, KPBS): I had really mixed feelings about it. I mean, the access they had and the perspective we get is really compelling and fascinating but there’s also like this weird part of me that you have this kind of weird voyeuristic feeling where you’re wondering are – you know, how much are you really going to see? Are you going to see some of these guys that you’ve gotten to know killed on camera? And if you do, like if they – these filmmakers get that, is that something they’re actually going to show you? So there’s this weird – there’s almost like a perverse fascination that you start to get with it. But, I mean, I think that it creates a portrait that needs to be seen. I think, you know, it gives a window to the fighting there that people need to see. And I think it does avoid being political. But it did stir some contrasting – I mean, some conflicting emotions for me in terms of, you know, how it was put together.
CAVANAUGH: Well, you know, Scott, I think, makes a very interesting point here because if you follow the line of where these documentaries are supposed to take you, you’re supposed to bond with the people that you see in closeup, stating, you know, doing the narration, so to speak, talking about the events you’re seeing in the afterglow, as it were, when they’re back in Italy talking about what’s happened. And yet, you don’t really feel that much of a bond with these people in the documentary. Am I right, Anders?
WRIGHT: Well, I feel like you get to know who they are but you don’t necessarily – I don’t – if that makes sense, but you don’t necessarily bond with them. I mean, I feel one of the guys in the clip that we just heard spends the entire time talking about these horrible things with this enormous grin…
ACCOMANDO: That’s true.
WRIGHT: …on his face. It’s really, really distressing. But what I do feel like you get just in some of the footage is you do get a sense that there’s a real bond between all of them and there’s a real bond between the filmmakers and the soldiers as well. You know, some of the scenes, there are some combat sequences that are really, really extraordinary. The footage they’ve got is amazing. But in a lot of ways, the – for me, the footage that was more interesting is the stuff where they’re not in combat at all, where they’re sitting around sort of playing guitar or talking about their friends or even like dancing to bad pop music. I mean, you get a real sense that, you know, these guys are 19, 20 years old, so many of them, and…
ACCOMANDO: I would’ve liked to have seen more of them interacting with some of the Afghanis…
SCOTT MARKS (film critic, Emulsion Compulion): Umm-hmm.
ACCOMANDO: …something. I mean, one of the scenes, which is a tiny, tiny little moment in the film, there’s a point at which they’re talking with some of the villagers and you see this old man with it’s not a juice box but one of those juice bags?
WRIGHT: Yeah, like a Capri Sun or something.
ACCOMANDO: And he’s trying to figure – He pulls the straw out and the guy’s talking to him about what they’re trying to do in the village and you get this impression that this guy is looking at this juice bag thing and really kind of trying to figure out what are the Americans doing here? Where do I put the straw?
ACCOMANDO: And it – But I wanted to kind of see more of that, more of their interaction, more of how those local villagers were viewing them. I don’t think we actually got like any – I’m trying to remember. I don’t think there were any actual interviews with any of the villagers.
WRIGHT: No, but I think…
ACCOMANDO: I mean, you see them…
ACCOMANDO: …but I don’t think there was any attempt by the filmmakers to like…
WRIGHT: You know what, though, I mean, I feel as though the interactions they showed between the soldiers and the Afghanis were all pretty much the same. I mean, that was sort of the idea, I think, was that this is, in many ways, futile, that the, you know, the soldiers that are there were working towards certain causes and objectives that basically just weren’t shared by the people who actually live there.
MARKS: And there’s also a certain sense of gung-ho-ness to this film. When these kids are sitting and what do they do in their down time when they’re not killing the Taliban? They sit and they play violent video games where they sit and shoot and shoot and shoot. I mean, I found that fascinating but I don’t know that that’s necessarily a flattering comment on these people.
WRIGHT: But isn’t that – I mean, that’s sort of behavior of any 19, 20, 21 year old. That’s not unusual.
MARKS: I would think the last thing I want to do when I’m killing people in real life all day is sit and shoot more at night. But that’s just me…
ACCOMANDO: Except where.
MARKS: …because I would never do this.
ACCOMANDO: But if it were also coming to a point in warfare where, you know, the war itself and the way it’s being fought with smart bombs and computers and not seeing the enemy. I mean, I think the people fighting war now are so distanced from who it is that they’re actually fighting and, I mean, one of the kids even said something about how I wish I could’ve seen the people I was killing as if he – like there’s no connection. There’s a real disconnect.
CAVANAUGH: After seeing the documentary “Restrepo,” did you feel as if there was – that there is this sense of futility about the war in Afghanistan? It felt during this whole movie that there was – even though there were some good efforts by the Americans, there was no connection being made between the Americans and the actual lives of the Afghans.
MARKS: I think a lot of people can watch this film and take the exact opposite approach that we are and look at this as something noble and heroic and a cause worth fighting for.
WRIGHT: I, you know, but I don’t even think that – I don’t know if causes really come into it. I mean, that’s just it. There’s less – It’s really just they put up the cameras and showed what these guys are going through in the course of a year in this valley.
MARKS: And that’s fascinating.
MARKS: That you can take a video camera and make a movie. Anybody can make a movie. That’s another thing…
MARKS: …that was reinforced by watching this film. Anybody can make a movie. But, moms and dads, don’t send your – don’t send a salami to your boy in the Army, send him a tripod. This thing is just – It’s like there’s mortar shells going off at the most mundane moments. I can’t fault them for that. I mean, this was obviously shot on the fly. It’s a very disturbing film…
MARKS: …but I don’t think it disturbed me in the way that the filmmakers intended it to do.
WRIGHT: Well, I guess what I – I don’t know that the filmmakers are trying to say that there’s anything noble or heroic or the opposite, they’re just showing what it’s like and they’re showing who is there.
ACCOMANDO: Well, I think they’re trying to because both of them come from journalistic backgrounds, I think they’re trying to maintain objectivity. The only problem is is that objectivity is a myth. I mean, they are embedded with these guys…
WRIGHT: Sure, yeah.
ACCOMANDO: …and the pretense, like we don’t get to see who the filmmakers are, we don’t – we rarely hear them asking questions except towards the end. In a sense, I would’ve preferred seeing more of them engaged with them because to pretend that this is completely objective is just an illusion. And, I mean, they obviously get attached to these guys.
ACCOMANDO: They’re hanging out with them. They care about what happens to these guys. I think they like all these guys. And that affects what they’re showing. So I think, Scott, what you’re saying about how, you know, it’s kind of disturbing or horrifying in a certain way but maybe not in the way the filmmakers intended is, in part, because the filmmakers don’t want to really be critical of these people…
ACCOMANDO: …because they are quite close to them.
CAVANAUGH: And they’ve been with them for a whole year. Yeah.
MARKS: But don’t you think by the mere fact they point the camera at them and show them doing what they’re doing that that’s not critical?
ACCOMANDO: I don’t think – No. I don’t think necessarily.
MARKS: Do you think most of these guys come off okay?
ACCOMANDO: I think that most of those guys can look at this film and see themselves as coming out – off okay.
MARKS: Where are the parents of the one fresh-faced kid who were hippies that wouldn’t even let kid use a squirt gun…
MARKS: They wouldn’t even let the kid use a squirt gun and now he’s sitting and fighting. Where are the parents?
WRIGHT: They’re in Oregon.
CAVANAUGH: “Restrepo,” I want to tell everybody, “Restrepo” is a documentary about the Afghan – war in Afghanistan. It starts on Friday at La Jolla Village Cinemas. Now, the movie that Scott’s been waiting for.
MARKS: Oh, my.
CAVANAUGH: The 87-year-old French director of such New Wave classics as “Hiroshima Mon Amour” and the “Last Year at Marienbad” is out with a new film. Alain Resnais directs “Wild Grass,” a comedy about crazy love. A woman named Marguerite has her wallet stolen while she’s out shopping. A man named Georges finds the wallet. From that point, the two embark on a strange courtship involving desire, stalking, flirting, police warnings, and Marguerite changing her mind. This movie is in French so we don’t have a sound clip but I think we should tell our listeners first about the director. Scott, tell us about the career of Alain Resnais.
MARKS: He’s like one of the founders of the French New Wave. He started out making documentaries. And if you haven’t seen “Night and Fog,” hands down the single greatest document about the Holocaust. I’ve never seen anything that even comes close. This film should be shown in every school room in the world. He makes films that are – I’ve had more problems with Alain Resnais than I think I have with Godard. This guy really at times – there are times when I’ve walked out of Resnais films feeling a whole hell of a lot dumber than when I walked in. But that’s why I keep going back. I mean, real quick, I remember the first time I saw “Last Year at Marienbad.” It was about 15 minutes into the film and it’s like, oh, please, God, just get me out of here. I was with cinefile friends. I was young. I couldn’t walk out. What would they say? You know, Scott Marks can’t walk out on an art film. And I’m saying let something happen, don’t give the projectionist a heart attack but just let something happen. And at the reel change, the subtitles appear on top of the screen backwards and they refunded our money. It was the one time the gods of cinema have answered my call. But I’ve since gone back and watched the film and it still frustrates the hell out of me. And I like that because I seem to remember that that’s one of the reasons I started loving movies to begin with, the challenge. And now in an era where everything is just spoon fed and handed to you, it’s so nice to see someone this – in this control of the medium.
CAVANAUGH: Beth, what do you think about his films?
ACCOMANDO: Oh, I love them. And, I mean, I think the thing about these New Wave directors is, is in their eighties – in their seventies and eighties, they are making films that I think are more fresh and daring and unconventional than filmmakers half or a third of their age, and I think that’s pretty amazing. And I don’t know if that says something about, you know, the group of them and what generated, you know, their interest in film and the way they made film but, you know, I think it’s interesting that people like Resnais started out making these films that were, you know, fragmenting the narrative and, you know, giving you these stories that jumped around and, you know, challenging the way conventional stories were being told back then. And now when that seems to be more commonplace, they’re going back to telling stories in a much more linear fashion. I mean…
MARKS: But that’s what’s great about them…
MARKS: …as soon as they came up with these ideas…
ACCOMANDO: No, I…
MARKS: As soon as Godard invented the jump cut…
ACCOMANDO: They just go – Yeah.
MARKS: That’s it, I did it, goodbye.
ACCOMANDO: Then when – Well, he did it for a rea – I mean, I think he did it because it was an act of rebellion. It’s saying like, look, you’re shooting these films this way, you’re making these films this way, I’m not going to make them that way. And then when people started copying him and doing it, it’s like, fine, you’re doing it this way, I’m going to go do it another way.
CAVANAUGH: I’ll do something else.
ACCOMANDO: And, I mean, I think the other thing that’s interesting about Resnais’ films recently is, you know, his earlier films like “Hiroshima Mon Amour” and “Last Year at Marienbad” and others, you know, you can’t – He was focusing on these kind of ill-fated lovers and giving us this – the narrative in a very non-linear sort of way and fragmenting it up so that we were kind of having to piece things together as we were going along. And with this one and the, I think, the one right before this was – or, no, a couple films back was “Same Old Song,” you know, he seems to be taking a slightly more optimistic look towards the lovers and dealing more with kind of playing with a more linear, conventional approach but like, I mean, in “Same Old Song,” he’s kind of playing with pop songs as the way into this kind of romantic obsession. And in this film, I think he’s playing a bit with cinematic conventions as his way…
CAVANAUGH: Right, right. That’s what I meant about calling it a cliché in the begin – cinematic conventions, I should’ve said, Scott, to make you feel better.
MARKS: I snapped at Maureen when I came in and I’m sorry but, boy, I’m using the word clich – a lot of Resnais, if the word cliché doesn’t apply to anyone it’s Alain Resnais.
ACCOMANDO: Because he flips them…
CAVANAUGH: …Anders, let me ask you, I’ve heard that you can watch this film just for the style of it even if you don’t go along with the story of it too well.
WRIGHT: Oh, I think that’s absolutely true. And style might not be the right word. Sort of it’s more like the quality of filmmaking. I mean, it looks beautiful. The use of color is really extraordinary. And, honestly, there’s some of – I had some problems with some of the things that happened in the film itself. And, to be honest, the, you know, we’re talking about music, but the sort of like weird kind of soft jazz soundtrack that he used in parts of it just grated on me wrong. That that’s – I hate that stuff and it – and I – and it turned me – I mean, for a little while I was like, okay, I get it, this is going on, it’s a family scene, that’s great. Okay, you can stop. You can stop with that music. Now, that’s a personal…
WRIGHT: …esthetic choice right there. That music just – Yeah, there’s a long story behind that, too, that we don’t need to get into now. But in general, I mean, it’s – you know, he is a masterful filmmaker and you see that in there, even though I have some problems with the way some of the characters interact. I mean, the character of Georges is, you know, he’s a screwed up guy and it was hard for me to really accept the fact that all of these women would become so attracted to him or intertwined with him. But at the same time, you want to just sit and watch and look at this movie because it’s so gorgeous.
MARKS: See, and if Christopher Nolan uses too much exposition, Resnais uses none.
MARKS: Did he kill his first wife?
ACCOMANDO: We don’t – Oh, we don’t know.
MARKS: Was he married? We don’t know. Is his wife having an affair? There’s a scene where you see the wife at the piano store, we assume she sells pianos, maybe I’m wrong, I don’t know. She’s talking on the phone to her husband, somebody walks in, and if it’s a customer you would figure the wife would say, excuse me, I’ll be right with you. She puts her hand over the phone and nods to him. And that’s all we know. So we don’t know anything more than what we can surmise about these characters’ back stories and this is also—of course I love it because it’s a love letter to cinema—when you see the red – the yellow purse flying through the air in the beginning, this is “Marnie,” this is Hitchcock’s “Marnie.”
MARKS: The way you have at the end a thin credit come up and you hear the 20th Century Fox logo during a closing credit to a Paramount film. I don’t know what the hell’s going on here, and I don’t know a lot of what’s going on in this film and I can’t pretend to say that I do but I don’t care. I had so much fun watching this movie. When you look at the way he uses primary colors to define characters, where the girlfriend is red, he’s green, and the wife is blue. And these colors are constantly there. When he’s taking her the red pocketbook that he found at the station at the beginning and he’s walking upstairs, you see the green light from the library lamp in his room on the red pocketbook, and it’s almost like he’s being drawn to this green light. And this happens throughout the entire film.
ACCOMANDO: A stoplight, too, changing and…
MARKS: I mean, when have you seen a film – and, again, this is just me. I know most people aren’t going to get off on this. There’s a scene when the family’s having dinner at dusk and the father gets up to flip the light switch on. The lighting, the timing of this shot, is just astounding. I’ve seen the film three times and I have a DVD copy of it. I look at that shot over and over again. It’s like the shower in “Psycho.” How the hell did you put the camera there without getting the camera wet? It’s amazing. How did you do this? I want to know more about this than how they made Joseph Gordon-Levitt weightless in “Inception.”
CAVANAUGH: We have to take a short break.
MARKS: Nah, aww…
CAVANAUGH: When we return…
MARKS: …I’m on a roll now.
CAVANAUGH: I understand. You can keep rolling on, Scott…
CAVANAUGH: …because we’ll continue to talk about “Wild Grass” when we return.
MARKS: Oh, good.
CAVANAUGH: We’re – You’re listening to the KPBS Film Club of the Air.
Companion viewing: "The Hurt Locker," "Taxi to the Dark Side," "The Control Room," "Turtles Can Fly"