Q&A With Sebastian Junger, Creator of Oscar-Nominated Documentary Restrepo

Q&A With Sebastian Junger, Creator of Oscar-Nominated Documentary Restrepo

Restrepo is war in the raw. Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington crafted an Oscar-nominated film that ignores domestic politics and views the war in Afghanistan from one of the most dangerous and deadly areas, the Korengal Valley. It's graphic, it's anxiety-ridden, and it's shocking, but most strikingly and simply, it's human. Stripped of political context, the emotional effects of constant danger and instantaneous loss of young lives absorb more deeply. The film presents a view of the war through a window instead of a prism in a depiction that refuses to be padded in rhetoric.

The 90-minute documentary is named after the Korengal Valley outpost where Junger and Hetherington lived and filmed for monthlong periods for over a year -- but the name Restrepo has even deeper roots. The outpost borrowed its name from Juan S. Restrepo, a young Pembroke Pines man who lost his life on patrol in the Korengal Valley. The film opens with a home video of Restrepo, a medic in the war, smiling and joking with the other soldiers.

"Tune in next time, where we're still going to be lovin' life and getting ready for war," Restrepo says. Then, in an instant, this light statement crumbles under flying bullets, roadside bombs, and danger so thick, it's throat-tightening. Sobering reality takes hold. The film's namesake soldier is fatally shot on patrol only a couple of months after the footage was shot for the initial scene.

Junger, a best-selling author, contributing editor to Vanity Fair and contributor to ABC News, also wrote The Perfect Storm, A Death in Belmont and Fire. The Juice caught up with him about making Restrepo and its recent Oscar nomination for feature documentary.

The Juice: Why was it important to avoid politics in Restrepo?
Sebastian Junger: Well, I'm a journalist. And I don't work for Fox News... I think journalists, our job is to present reality in an honest way, and adults can come to responsible decisions about that reality, but it's not up to you to tell them how to think. It's just not what journalism is. 

Why do you generally gravitate to covering stories of war and suffering?
My first story I ever did was about tugboats in Boston. In my 20s... I was waiting tables, and I had various jobs. I felt like I had to kind of jump-start [my career], and there was a war in Bosnia, and I just went to Bosnia and figured out how to be a freelance reporter from a war zone, effectively a freelance foreign correspondent. And I just really fell in love with it... It was just everything I wanted to be doing, and so I just kept doing it. Foreign reporting since '93 has been a constant part of my life.

What do you think Restrepo shows that news stories might miss?
The topic of war is so politically loaded for both conservatives and liberals. I think for both of those groups, what drops out is the experience of the soldiers who are fighting the war and the emotional consequences for them... If a war is a bad idea, it's bad regardless of the consequences for the troops, and if it's a good idea, it needs to be done regardless of the consequences for the troops. So what we wanted to do is really just show -- this is what it means when you say we are a nation at war; this is what that sentence means for the young men who fight it... without that being any comment on whether we should be or shouldn't be.

In Afghanistan, did you feel like you were in constant danger, or did you have peace of mind?
No, we were in tremendous danger. We were in the same danger the soldiers were in. I mean, if you're in a firefight, it doesn't matter if you're holding a camera or a gun -- you're still getting shot at. 

When your Humvee was blown up [shown in Restrepo], that looked like an extremely close call. Did that ever make you rethink the project or change your thoughts toward the war?
No, towards the war, no. The war is either a good or a bad idea independent of what happens to me. In terms of the project, I mean, it affected me emotionally -- it affected me psychologically. I don't think it occurred to me to pull the plug on the project.

You mentioned that you were injured in Afghanistan. What happened?
I ruptured my Achilles on a steep hill... carrying a lot of weight, and it just ripped... It was a partial rupture. So I really kind of limped and crawled around for the next few weeks. And then the following trip was Operation Rock Avalanche. Tim took that. Tim broke his leg on that. And so then I took the following trip. That was when my Humvee got blown up, so Tim took the next trip. That trip was all right.

How did you and Tim work together?
I went there first, before I knew Tim. I went there first in June '07 to start this project, and I wanted to write a book and make a documentary. I know how to write books; I never made a documentary. It wasn't a realistic idea until I met Tim... We went over together in September '07.

Did you find any common threads as to why people become soldiers?
There was a variety of motivations for joining up. Some of the guys were quite upset by 9/11 and wanted to serve their country and defend their country. And some guys joined up because their dad was in Vietnam, and their grandfather was in WWII, and they were just from families where that's what young men did. And quite a few guys, I think, some of the guys were lost. One guy said, "Oh, I was living with my mom, and I was partying a lot, and I just wanted some direction in my life." And there were guys who very literally were like "I wanted some excitement. I wanted to know what combat was like. I wanted to test myself." And they're young men; they're risk-takers, and they define themselves by doing things that are physically difficult and dangerous. 

Your work reveals a certain soldiers' mindset that many civilians can't quite grasp. Why do they like combat? Why do they go to war?
It's so politically incorrect that there would be anything about combat that would be attractive to young men, but the reality is that after a very difficult deployment, only one guy in the entire platoon decided to get out of the Army. Everyone else decided to stay in and do another tour in Afghanistan... It's a really common thing. Men's reactions -- and I keep saying men because it was all men in that unit -- men's reactions to combat I don't think have changed much since the siege of Troy. It's a really, really ancient thing. It's timeless too because they're there without any internet, without any kind of connection, and it really is just the same thing repeated.

That was one of the reasons I wanted to be with a unit like; that was precisely because I wanted a situation that felt sort of universal and ancient rather than some sort of big superbase in Iraq where it's essentially an American city, except every time you leave... you might get blown up. That didn't interest me very much. 

What was your impression of Juan Restrepo through your conversations with the other soldiers?
They were really fond of him. He was just a really generous guy -- generous in the sense if you didn't feel well, he'd take your guard shift. He just took care of people. He was the medic, and he had a very deep sense of taking care of people -- of his men. You know, he played guitar, he liked to go have a drink and talk to girls -- you know, he was just a fun guy. And he was really loved and respected, and when he died, everyone was just wiped out.

It would be like the most popular kid in high school dying in a car accident. He was just one of those good people that people like. So it was very hard on them. 

How did you feel when the U.S. pulled out of the Korengal Valley [in 2010]?
It was kind of shocking, but I kind of got it. It wasn't a piece of terrain that was important anymore, and people were dying there, including a lot of Afghan citizens. You know, it seemed -- rationally, intellectually, I understood it; emotionally, it was a little bit of a shock.

[The soldiers] understood it too, I think, intellectually, but I think emotionally it was very hard for them. But that's war. There's no war where positions that were fought over don't just get abandoned. That's just what war is. That's why it feels pointless sometimes; that's why it's tragic.

I mean, most people die on patrols that didn't need to happen. They die on hilltops that didn't actually need to be held. This is just, you know, if I had gotten killed by that IED (the roadside bomb that hit the Humvee), was my life worth the movie and the book? No, of course not, but that's not really what's at issue. It's only at issue when someone gets killed, but you don't know that that's going to happen, so you take a gamble. That's just what war is, you know; that's just what journalism is. 

What was it like to receive the Oscar nomination?
I was thrilled. This was all new to me, and I was absolutely thrilled. I think Tim and I did a good job and made a really good movie, but it also I feel reflects our subjects. I mean, we were with incredible guys. The platoon, we had an amazing platoon. Not all platoons, not all companies are the same, and we were just very lucky to have really extrordinary men around us and in front of our camera. 

What projects do you have coming up next?
We're going to Afghanistan in April on assignment to cover the war -- continue covering the war. My first trip there was in 1996. I've been going to that country for a very long time. 

Where in Afghanistan are you going this time?
You know, I don't know yet. We're going to do a broader piece about the overall war. We won't be focused in the same minute way as we were for Restrepo; we're going to talk about how the war is going in a very real sense.

Follow The Juice on Twitter: @TheJuiceBPB.

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