LIFE IN THE TRENCHES: Interview with Restrepo co-director Tim Hetherington

The following interview was published in the July 2010 issue of Film Monitor. Restrepo has since been nominated for Best Documentary in the upcoming Academy Awards.

RESTREPO directors Sebastian Junger (left) and Tim Hetherington (right) at the Restrepo outpost in the Korengal Valley.Few documentary filmmakers have gone to greater lengths than Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger for their documentary  Restrepo. They followed a platoon from the beginning to the end of its deployment in the Korengal Valley, one of the most dangerous territories in Afghanistan. The filmmakers captured extraordinarily vivid and intense images of the war by following the troops into combat and living in the same bunkers the soldiers were stationed. The namesake of the film is an outpost which was named after a medic who was killed in combat as the American troops attempted to put a foothold in the chaotic region.

After I told co-director Tim Hetherington that I had seen his film before the interview, he asked me if I had seen it in the theaters or from a DVD screener. He stated it would make quite a difference because, with its experiential quality, Restrepo is made for the big screen. Hetherington, whose background is in still photography, has also worked as a cameraman in movies over the years. He started his collaboration with Sebastian Junger when he was a contributing photographer for Vanity Fair.

Film Monitor: When I watched the film, I got a sense you two are trying to preserve the reality without manipulating the footages.

Tim Hetherington: Absolutely. We wanted to bring the viewers that reality as close as possible in this 90-minute documentary war film. You can make still images or write articles about the war, but nothing can immerse you into the reality except for broadcast; when the image is contextualized with sound. You can look at a photograph, but when it comes to movement, it doesn’t bring it home as close to the situation like film would do. Especially for combat, film brings out the nuances and the many layers to it.

Your film puts the audience right into the action.

Yes. The idea was to make a special war film. At the time, there were a lot of great reporters out there making various commentaries on the war. A lot have been written. But we haven’t really experienced the war. We are kind of disconnected from the actual war on the ground. We see crafted, three-minute news pieces that are formatted in a way that doesn’t allow the viewers to fully engage with the situation. The format is for a news slot, a time cruncher that has to fit with the program. We thought that we want to make is a very strong and massive film that gives you a soldier’s perspective on war. It is a good starting point for discussion on the war.

The film gives an impression that you two have a great rapport with your subjects—the soldiers.

We are reporters, so our job is to report. At the same time, we are physically embedded in the American army. But this doesn’t mean that we are emotionally embedded. I think it is very difficult to obtain objectivity in a war when people are trying to kill you. There were many times we were in situations that we could have been killed. To try to report on the people who tried to kill us, or be objective about that, is very difficult. So we were actually seeking complete subjective. Even that you are subjective, it doesn’t mean that you can’t be honest or truthful. To be subjective and truthful at the same time seemed like the most honest path to tell the story.

You’ve covered different armed conflict around the world for the past decade. What interests you in the topic?

I never intended to become a war photographer or war journalist. If you asked me ten years ago if I would be doing this job, I would have laughed at you. I was working in the UK and I became interested in the subject of young men in conflicts. In 1999, someone asked me to go to Liberia by chance. I’d never been to the African continent before then. I ended up staying in West Africa for seven years. If you were in West Africa in the late 1990’s, there were a number of conflicts. People ended up asking me to cover the conflicts. This just led me to this road to become an image-maker covering the conflicts. In 2003, I covered the war in Liberia. I was the cameraman on a film about it. The film is very much inside the war machine in Liberia, just as this film [Restrepo] is pretty much in the American war machine in Afghanistan.

How do you think your approach as a still photographer is different from your approach as a filmmaker?

I think that coming from a stills background is very beneficial to working in the movie image because being a still photographer means that you’re very incisive about what images you’re choosing. I’m always looking for telling objects and details all the time. I bring in a photographer’s eye for detail. That is very useful. In the film, you see moments like the ammunition casings drops into a soldier’s shoe, or when the smoke is rising from the cigarette. Those are the kind of photographic moments I noticed because I’m a photographer.

Besides the two of you, were there any other crew members during the shooting of the film?

No. We had a camera operator in Italy [for the soldiers’ interviews after their deployment]. But in terms of Afghanistan, it was just Sebastian and I. We also financed the film ourselves and National Geographic came on at the end and bought the finished film.

How difficult was the financing?

I lived in apartment with a bed and two broken shelves for a year with nothing else in it. I couldn’t afford to ship any of my furniture to my apartment. Basically, we were broke and it was really hard. We had to dig into our pockets to pay for the editing. Looking back, it was a crazy thing to do. We took a big chance.

What do you make of the comparisons to The Hurt Locker?

I really like The Hurt Locker. It is a great fictional war film. The main difference is that our film is non-fiction. This is the real hurt locker. I like The Hurt Locker but there are fictional elements in there. Soldiers that I’ve spoken to pointed out how certain things wouldn’t exist in real life. That’s Hollywood. I think our film really presents the real thing and that’s what makes it really powerful.

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