Valley of death

Boredom, fear and bloodshed: Duncan Wu on a provocatively frank view of the war in Afghanistan

August 5, 2010


Now on general release in the US; released 15 October 2010 in the UK

Directed by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger.

"Fuck you bitches!" says one soldier, having ascertained that a Taliban fighter at the end of the last round of fire has been killed. "Next time you see that dude, take his head off," says another, pointing into the undergrowth. These are real profanities spoken by real soldiers: a platoon assigned to the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan during 2007-08. Restrepo documents their deployment to an outpost named after the first of their number to die in action, Private First Class Juan Restrepo.

Life is first boredom, then fear, wrote Philip Larkin; if so, Restrepo's untweaked, powerful images, shot in currente calamo, suggest that life on the battlefield is a sort of regression - for its soldiers' lives seem to consist almost entirely of both. The film is especially good on the day-to-day grind. We watch the platoon's members as they play computer games, read magazines, wrestle - anything to help time pass. And we see them on patrol, getting injured or killed. "We're fish in a barrel," one of them says. The film's makers, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, lived and worked among those through whose eyes we bear witness to the random terrors of modern warfare, and the result is as close as most of us will ever get to a conflict being waged in our name.

Distilled from more than 150 hours of footage, this 94-minute film represents a tightly edited account of a year in the platoon's life. And the film-makers have opted to tell its story without narration or the observations of commanders, politicians or "experts". The only voices we hear are those of the soldiers.

The "deadliest place on Earth", the Korengal Valley was, in 2007, the front line in the Afghanistan war. The troops were stationed in its southernmost part, home to 70 per cent of the civilians who live in the valley, and the location of 90 per cent of the conflict; outpost Restrepo receives incoming fire three or four times a day. In addition to that, we see soldiers dealing with the aftermath of their own offensive in which five civilians, including children, were mistakenly killed. It is a provocative, hellish vision that takes us closer to the reality than any fictionalised account could do.

"What are you doing here?" asks their commander at one point. "Fighting for my country, sir," comes the reply. Yet it is hard not to wonder, having seen this film, what the British and American forces really are doing there. After all, the US is not in imminent danger of attack from Afghanistan. Nor can the purpose of the war any longer be to find al-Qaeda, which has largely disappeared over the border to Pakistan. The film-makers leave us to draw our own conclusions; instead, they preserve the essential quality of war - its tedium, confusion and inevitable bloodshed.

"The fear is always there. Especially at night when you can't see what's coming at you," one of the soldiers says. It is one of the most haunting remarks of the film, and draws our attention to the cost of war - for the soldiers are as marked by their experience as any of the civilians of the Korengal. Looking back on the death of a comrade, one soldier remarks on its continuing effect: "I still obviously haven't worked out how to deal with it inside. Perhaps one day I'll be able to process it."

This is one of the most unsettling elements of the film, not least because it cuts across more patriotic views of war. This is especially important in the US, where at the start of the war body bags returned home untelevised, unphotographed, and therefore unseen. Although that policy has been overturned by the Obama Administration, the US remains a country where what has become known in Britain as the "Wootton Bassett effect" is still unknown, something that has enabled the slaughter to continue in a country that few Americans could find on a map, for a cause many would be hard put to identify.

For that reason I was pleased, on the day the film opened in Washington DC, to find every seat in the cinema occupied - surely a rare thing for a documentary. And as the days have passed, Restrepo continues to attract large audiences. It seems to me that there is something quietly subversive about this. The usual fare of the US multiplex (comedies, romances, thrillers and action films) is, by its very unreality, a means by which those subject to it remain in denial about the realities of the world. Cinema conventionally encourages its viewers to hibernate. Even such recent films as The Hurt Locker, excellent as they may be, indulge our romantic tendencies by explaining away what we see as a work of the imagination.

It is a tribute to the film and its makers that Restrepo has the potential to awaken us.

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