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"Restrepo filmmakers Sebastian Junger (left) and Tim Hetherington in Afghanistan. Hetherington , a photojournalist, was killed in April in Libya. Copyright Tim Hetherington


Documentary reminds us that it’s not just life that’s risked when we wage war

By Cory Ruf

Directed by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger
(Outpost Films)

The 2010 documentary Restrepo introduces viewers to the Korengal Valley, a bucolic parcel of land near Afghanistan’s northeastern border with Pakistan. In spite of the locale’s rustic beauty, the documentary dubs it “the deadliest place on Earth,” ground zero for some of the most intense fighting in the Afghanistan war. The soldiers stationed at OP Korengal, the American outpost in the valley, live in constant fear of enemy fire that could rain down at any time from the craggy hilltops.

The filmmakers spend a year with a platoon of affable, cherubic-faced soldiers who have the look and demeanour of a third-tier college football team. In studio interviews and in-the-field clips, the soldiers make little mention of why they are fighting or whom they are trying to protect. Rather, they muse about the back-and-forth battle strategy, friends they have lost, life back home and their uncertainty about the future. These are sobering reminders that it is not just life that is risked when we wage war but also the innocence of those who survive.

As the film progresses, the Americans forge further into Taliban territory, setting up an outpost, OP Restrepo, named after a fallen comrade. But at this precarious perch, the soldiers face four to five firefights a day, and become punchy because of the cramped quarters and their close proximity to their unseen attackers.

Tim Hetherington, a renowned British photojournalist who was killed this year while on assignment in Libya, co-directed Restrepo, which may well be remembered as his magnum opus. Filmed in a vérité style, it puts a photojournalist’s eye for detail and juxtaposition on constant display. The viewer’s gaze is directed to an Afghan elder, who, while in a meeting with American troops, struggles to open a space-age juice box he’s been given to drink. Another shot features a soldier peppering the hillsides with machine gun rounds. The camera tilts down to reveal shell casings dropping near his feet — curiously, clad in preppy boat shoes.

Restrepo is a harrowing, unromantic look at combat in Afghanistan. It examines the lives of soldiers through a critical yet compassionate lens but lets viewers decide whether they believe the soldiers’ sacrifices are worthwhile, futile or somewhere in between.

Cory Ruf is a Toronto writer.

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