Into the Valley of Death, and Back Out Again

Filmmaker and war photographer Tim Hetherington talks about his yearlong embed in Afghanistan

Tim Hetherington (r) with <i>Restrepo</i> co-director Sebastian Junger
Tim Hetherington (r) with Restrepo co-director Sebastian Junger

When Sebastian Junger and Tim Hether-ington's remarkably immersive and gritty-intimate Afghan war documentary Restrepo won a Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival this year, it was as much a victory for the extraordinarily ordinary fighting men of Battle Company, with whom the filmmakers spent the better part of a year's time atop the blighted, craggy peaks of the Korengal Valley in Kunar Province in eastern Afghanistan, aka "the valley of death."

Battle Company is no longer in the Korengal, the U.S. military having ceded that virtually intractable, improbably beautiful hellscape to its former Taliban-controlled devices, but as Restrepo makes abundantly, painfully clear, the Korengal will forever be with the men of Battle Company. (The film's title is an homage to PFC Juan "Doc" Restrepo, who was killed in action early on in Battle Company's grueling efforts to secure a lonely outpost in the middle of, literally, nowhere.)

We are at war, and therefore we are often confronted with films – narrative, documentary, raw footage uploaded to military blogs and YouTube – by our side, their side, and every side in between. What's missing from so much of this media onslaught of slaughter, and what Restrepo eloquently and importantly provides, is a firsthand, ricochet-close portrait of the individual men – volunteers all – who lost the cosmic crapshoot and ended up posted in, as CNN put it, "the most dangerous place on earth."

If Restrepo recalls anything of past wartime reportage, it just might be Pulitzer Prize-winning World War II cartoonist Bill Mauldin's war-weary but wholly human dogface GIs Willie and Joe, who, like the men of Battle Company, were far from home and even further afield from their commanders and the obscure strategic rationale of their mission. Reading Mauldin's single-panel, pen-and-ink snapshots of GI life slogging through shell-shocked Sicily brought home the boots-on-the-ground (and in the mud) humanity of individuals caught up in those most inhuman of circumstances.

Almost seven decades later, Restrepo – harrowing, intense, but not without its moments of caustic combat humor and awash in testosterone-fueled, cordite-born camaraderie – offers another much-needed and achingly intimate look at new boots treading across a new battleground. But ultimately it seems, for the men doing the fighting and dying, it's always the same old war.

The Austin Chronicle spoke to co-director and longtime Vanity Fair contributor/conflict cameraman Tim Hetherington about his experiences in the Kornegal and his life and work documenting the worst humanity has to offer.

Austin Chronicle: What were your first impressions of the Korengal Valley?

Tim Hetherington: When we got there we were absolutely astounded. People didn't really know that the Afghan war had kind of spiraled out as we now know to be true. Sebastian arrived in June of 2007, I arrived in September, and by the end of October there was something like a fifth of all fighting in that country was taking place in that valley. Seventy percent of all U.S. bombs were being dropped in that area of operation, and Battle Company was sustaining a killed or wounded rate of 25 percent. It was immediately clear that this was an incredible story.

AC: Obviously both Sebastian Junger and yourself are seasoned conflict journalists, but did you have any second thoughts once you arrived in the Korengal and realized just how deadly the situation had become?

TH: No, completely the opposite. We went to the valley because we wanted to be with the soldiers who were taking the brunt of the fighting. We're reporters, and that kind of fighting is indicative of what's really going on in the war as a whole.

AC: How did your experiences in the Korengal Valley differ from the other conflicts you've covered as a cameraman for The Devil Came on Horseback (about Darfur) and Liberia: An Uncivil War?

TH: A lot of my reporting over the years has focused on the civilian cost of war. I come from a kind of liberal-leaning journalistic tradition, and in fact, there was some guy complaining on the website the other day that I hadn't done enough to cover the civilian deaths that were part of the Afghan war. Which was odd because we definitely show that in [Restrepo].

I'm quick to remind people that in, for example, in The Devil Came on Horseback, I was there filming civilian massacres by the Janjaweed on the border of southern Darfur. In Liberia, I photographed civilians who had been executed with their hands tied behind their backs, you know? This has been in the heart of my reporting. Mainly because I've actually been on the ground and recorded these things, I also understand how the challenges are to bring the material back home, to get people to engage and think about these things and relate to them. That's the big thing.

For me, moral outrage really is a personal motivation. It's not something I'm interested in ramming down people's throats. I think if we asked everybody, "Should there be war in the world?" then everyone would put up their hand and say, "No, there shouldn't be," you know? We get that. The question is, how do we get people to engage with ideas of conflict? How do we get people to think about Afghanistan. Because we've got some pretty important questions to answer. But I think moral outrage just isn't going to do it. It just bores people after a while. That's the truth of it. The strategy of getting people to think about Afghanistan and the experience of being there and what's happening there was really to focus on the soldiers. People tend to demonize the soldiers in a way that's not really useful to the conversation. These guys are individuals; these are kids that we send out there but they're pretty professional, too. They do their job, and they try hard, and because of the way this war has become polarized, these soldiers are frequently used as symbols instead of being recognized as three-dimensional people with varying degrees of complexity.

AC: Can you speak a little about the physical and mental pressures of shooting footage while under near-constant attack?

TH: [laughing] Yeah, sure, where do you want to start? I guess I've always had a bit of an on/off light switch in my head, and I can kind of switch off the part of my brain where the fear might otherwise stop me from doing whatever it is that I need to do. I don't totally disengage. Fear is good. Fear keeps you alive. But it can also shut you down. It can stop you from operating. And I just have the ability to switch that off and not freeze up in those situations. I think it's a fairly rational impulse that I've followed and developed and which has now become this kind of weird skill set. I remember when I went to film that massacre on the Chad-Darfur border, and that was deep inside Janjaweed territory. We knew that when we got the car in there, we were in their territory shooting something they didn't want us to shoot, and if they had found us they probably would kill our local drivers and interpreters and just as likely do the same to us. At the end of the day you have a job to do, and you just focus on the job. If I didn't have the camera, I'd probably freeze up.

AC: How has the experience of covering these conflicts, with of all their attendant atrocities and horrors, affected you as both a journalist and, beyond that, a human being?

TH: I have no regrets, you know? If anything underpins my work, it's that we share this world with all these other people and we're all somehow connected. My work is about trying to get us to understand that we are connected and trying to build bridges and understanding between people. At the end of the day, I think that that's the reality of life. Grappling with it is sometimes tricky, but it's also deeply more satisfying than any episode of, you know, cable TV will be.

On the surface, certainly, it's unsettling to deal with, but ultimately I think it's given me a better grip in dealing with and understanding what living is really about. It helps me keep things in perspective. And I think I'm lucky in that regard. People always say, "Wow, you've got to deal with all this really heavy stuff," but the truth is I'm not just mediating it, I'm also living it. It's frightening to me that, these days, so much of life is mediated. We think we've experienced something in some way – via television or the Internet or whatever – but we haven't, not really. I have. But still, the mediated version that we've brought back from Afghanistan is fairly honest and fairly true.

Restrepo opens in Austin on July 30. See Film Listings for review.

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