Yesterday, on April 20th, while Americans took to Twitter to joke about marijuana and Adolf Hitler’s birthday, the news broke that documentarian Tim Hetherington was killed in Libya. Hetherington, along with photographer Chris Hondros, died on the front lines while chronicling the conflict against Muammar Qaddafi’s forces in the city of Misurata. Two other photojournalists were seriously wounded in the same blast.
The British-born, New-York-based Hetherington has had a long and distinguished career documenting modern military conflicts, Afghanistan and Darfur among them. In 2007, he won the World Press Photo Of The Year Award for his work in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. Collaborating with journalist Sebastian Junger, Hethrington’s chronicle of the U.S. Military’s campaign in the Korengal Valley resulted in the unforgettable documentary film Restrepo.
The following is what I posted to my personal website in February in reaction to seeing Restrepo. I hope that you will take a moment to read it, and far more importantly, I hope that these words can convince you to see this crucially necessary film, which will now sadly be re-classified as Tim Hetherington’s legacy, the most prominent piece of a body of work that is now closed.
Restrepo was one of the best things to appear on movie screens all last year, and one of the most important. Co-directors Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington have provided a valiant service by documenting this story. You won’t know the names of any of the stars of this movie, but you should. And you wouldn’t, if this movie were never filmed and released. But the men we meet in Restrepo, thanks to the chance the movie provides, are unforgettable. They are the actual definition of that overused word: heroes.
Firstly, if you’re wondering what the title ‘Restrepo’ means, it’s a guy. An American soldier. His name is unfamiliar. It looks almost imaginary. But he’s a real person, overlooked by a society that rewards television reality stars and basketball players, and virtually ignores the legitimate heroes who risk everything on a daily basis, just so the rest of us don’t have to.
But this documentary isn’t remotely as political a statement as all of the above; in fact it’s not political at all. Restrepo the movie was clearly a daring and risky venture for anyone who was present during filming, but that’s due strictly to the events being documented. It’s an honest, unfiltered, non-biased record of one year spent in the trenches of the Korangal Valley, during the still-raging American adventure in Afghanistan.
Restrepo the movie is first and foremost a tribute to PFC Juan S. Restrepo, who was killed in action during a deployment to Afghanistan. His death occurs in the course of filming, and its circumstances, and its effects on his brothers-in-arms, are part of the central document of the movie. So first we know Restrepo the man. Then Restrepo becomes something else. Restrepo’s name becomes the title of the military outpost that his comrades capture and defend, deep within enemy territory. OP Restrepo is the place and the tribute and the legacy. It’s the main focus of the documentary, a tangible symbol of the platoon’s accomplishments during that year. (This is what makes the end-credits post-script all the more haunting, and if you choose to look at it in the right light, so damning.)
Again, though, Restrepo as a movie is the best kind of objective journalism. Outside of the obvious and very understandable respect for the men that these cameras are observing, there’s no agenda here. The footage speaks for itself. If the creation and the final fate of OP Restrepo is any kind of metaphor, that interpretation is left up to the viewer. For me, however, it’s hard not to view it as such.
A post-script tells us that the army pulled out of the valley later that year, abandoning OP Restrepo, not long after the events of this movie. Rather than receiving a heroes’ welcome on the homefront, the group had few options but to re-enlist. For Junger & Hetherington and for the capable, determined, unpretentious, selflessly patriotic, and brave soldiers of the regiment, the movie is the tribute.
For the rest of us, it’s something to think about, and to think about very hard.
Restrepo is also currently available on Netflix Instant.