In Restrepo, the Sundance-winning documentary that debuted in South Florida this weekend, director Sebastian Junger tackled the toughest questions about the war in Afghanistan by ignoring the politics and immersing himself in the day-to-day fight for survival in the country's toughest valley.
The film is named for Spc. Juan Restrepo, a 20-year-old medic from Pembroke Pines, who died weeks after deploying to the Korengal Valley. His unit spent most of their 15-month deployment defending a remote outpost named after Restrepo from a constant Taliban barrage.
Click through for a Q&A with Junger and Maj. Dan Kearney, the platoon's commander, about the film, the war, and Juan Restrepo's sacrifice.
Maj. Dan Kearney led Restrepo's unit, the Second Platoon, B Company of the 503rd Infantry Regiment. Kearney talks about how Junger fit in with his unit, Restrepo's personality, and what the group accomplished in Afghanistan.
New Times: How did this project come about? Did you have any hesitation over Sebastian having so much access to your platoon?
Kearney: I found out he was coming before I deployed to Afghanistan. Sebastian had already done a piece on the boys there for Vanity Fair, so some of them knew him already. He already had some credibility in the unit.
Having him stay there that many months to film, it wasn't an issue because we saw right away he could handle it. He instantly came under fire and he demonstrated he had the mentality to deal with it and he knew his role was to not be in the way, to lay low and film. And he physically could handle it, too, all that walking up and down the mountains.
That was the truest test. And then when the article came out in Vanity Fair, they saw he was painting a very true and fond depiction of what the boys were going through. He wasn't someone there to further an agenda. He had so much respect from the guys that he had a lot of freedom.
Specialist Misha Pemble-Belkin (l.) and fellow soldiers from Battle Company, 173rd US Airborne during a firefight at Outpost Restrepo during combat in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley.
So you didn't know from the outset this was going to turn into a feature length film?
No, not at all. When they first came down, he said this is for Vanity Fair and I'm bringing the cameras because ABC thought there would be some good shots they could use. It ended up a two part series on Frontline called "The Forgotten War." He showed the pieces to ABC and I guess they said, "Hey, you've really got something great here."
When did you first meet Juan Restrepo? And what was he like as a soldier?
I met Juan shortly after taking command of the company in 2006. As a soldier, he was a standup guy. He didn't cause any waves. The things the boys saw and I saw was that he had a big heart.
He was an amazing guitar player, and a musician and artist. His family is from Colombia so when we were in Italy, he could speak Spanish and it was such a similar language he could kind of help keep the boys out of trouble.
He was the guy all the boys were friends with. Losing him, as soon as we did, it had a big impact. He is the guy they called to, the medic, looking for comfort and if they have any problems. He took on that role hand and foot. He went above and beyond.
Specialist Misha Pemble-Belkin and Ross Murphy of Battle Company, 173rd US Airborne relax at Outpost Restrepo.
Was it your decision to name the operating post after Restrepo?
It actually wasn't. At first the post was called OP Atlanta because at the time we were naming them all after cities in the U.S. A colonel said to me that you might want to name it after Juan so the boys have something to rally behind.
Not all of them were too inclined to name it after Restrepo. But by the end of the deployment, Restrepo meant something. It was this legacy they were leaving behind. He was kind of still protecting them, and OP Restrepo did a lot. It kept the enemy off balance.
What did you think of Sebastian's film once you had a chance to watch it?
I actually just watched it last week for the first time, and it absolutely floored me. I didn't really know what to look for. In some ways I was scared. Anything could have come out of the guys' mouths. He could have caught any number of little things that people would scrutinize.
But what I took away was a deep respect for the men. They didn't put any agenda on the film. They didn't take snippets out of context and put political ties on them. They just said, 'Here's the facts on the ground.' This is it. That is what was awesome for me.
My parents and wife had seen it before me. My mom has all these questions about war that I feel like I can never talk to her about. But now I feel like the film answers all the questions about it without me having to do.
Watching it brought me closer to those men and those brothers. Watching them hack away at the ground, it was really awesome to look back at it and see how much the boys put into building Restrepo and what they accomplished.
The film does end with some ambiguity, though, when you learn that the U.S. abandoned the valley soon after you guys left. Do you have any doubts about whether all the sacrifice was worth it?
No, we went there knowing we're not here to change the valley in the short term. We were there to change the valley for the bigger picture, to allow them to develop on their own two feet. We achieved what we were supposed to do. You always want to think, could you do more for the valley? But I can walk away knowing we had an impact.
I also just want audiences to know that the young service members of this country are our most sacred, most precious resource. We can throw money at our problems all day long, but finding young men and women to go out and do what Juan did isn't easy. I can honestly walk away from Afghanistan knowing that Restrepo and the rest of us made an impact there.
Specialist Kyle Steiner of Second Platoon, Battle Company, 173rd US Airborne at Outpost Restrepo.
Sebastian Junger and Tim Heatherington, his cinematographer, spent 15 months in Korengal Valley -- perhaps the deadliest place in Afghanistan -- with Restrepo's platoon. Junger talks about the challenge of filming in such a hostile location and the decision to keep Restrepo apolitical.
I understand that Maj. Kearney just watched the film for the first time. How has the platoon responded to your work so far?
The first people we showed it to were members of the Second Platoon. We showed them a rough cut, and they loved it. It allowed the wives and girlfriends to understand the reality of life there.
Did you go into this film intending to make an apolitical, fly-on-the-wall piece?
Yeah, Tim and I understand that war happens in an apolitical vacuum. The politics and the moral context should be argued at home. Soldiers don't think in those terms of the larger political spectrum while they're fighting on the ground, just like police and firemen don't consider the wider conversations in their work. We wanted to capture that reality.
How did you get such full access with the unit?
In 2005, I was with the battle company for a story with Vanity Fair. I didn't want to cover Iraq, but I want to follow the platoon for a book. So the VF piece was the means to an end. I was very lucky because very few magazines would have underwritten a project of this scope.
Then, I thought as long as I'm spending this time with the company, I may as well get some video footage. In my naive fantasy, I would use that to make a film that would play across the country. It wouldn't have happened on second trip without Tim Hetherington, who is an amazing cinematographer. From that point on, we worked together.
Why did you decide to name the film after Juan Restrepo?
We wanted a title that didn't carry any political baggage. We wanted a title that carried something more universal. "Outpost Afghanistan" was our first idea, but that would have been too specific.
Doc Restrepo was the platoon medic. He was beloved by the platoon, and they named this outpost after him that they hacked out of the rock by hand, just alternating working and fighting. And that was where we spent most of our time. We ran into resistance at home about naming it Restrepo, because they felt you can't name a movie with no clues for the public that it's a war film. You have to get "Afghanistan" or "war" in the title. Obviously, you don't, because we stuck by our guns.
How did you film so much battle engagement without getting injured or getting in the way?
It's not that hard to stay out of the way. It's pretty clear where to be during a fight. The first thing every one does is find cover. Otherwise you do exactly what the soldiers are doing. If they're not talking, you don't talk. If they're holding still, you hold still. You have to be an expert at mimicry. The camera was my psychological refuse during combat. If I had nothing to do, I would have been terrified. It was a huge relief to have something to focus on.
How would you compare your film to Michale Hasting's piece in Rolling Stone about Stanley McChrystal?
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He was with the general, not the troops. His focus was on the larger strategic and political issues surrounding the war, whereas my book and the movie I made with Tim are about the fight on the ground. It was a completely immersive, experiential work. They're very, very different.
What do you hope viewers take away from the film?
There's a big debate on immigration right now, and it should be noted that Juan Restrepo was born in a foreign country, was welcomed here and then died fighting for this county. That's an important note. Restrepo and the other soldiers there didn't have to join the Army, they chose to serve. That's a choice they make and should be respected regardless of your feelings on the war. There's strong feelings out there and there should be, but these soldiers should be honored for their heroism and their sacrifices.