Sebastian Junger Visits J-school at Columbia University to Talk About Oscar-Nominated Film Restrepo

February 23rd, 2011

The Record– News and Ideas for the Columbia Community

Sebastian Junger Visits J-school to Talk About Oscar-Nominated Film Restrepo
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by Adam Piore

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One of the primary reasons magazine journalist and author Sebastian Junger began carrying a camera into combat was to keep himself calm when the shooting started.

“No one takes notes in combat,” Junger told a packed crowd at the journalism school Feb. 3. “And if you’re a writer stuck behind a rock with nothing to do, it can be terrifying.”

Junger, the best-selling author of The Perfect Storm and a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, turned the footage he shot over the course of a year in Afghanistan into the 2010 film Restrepo, which has been nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary.

Junger was on campus with co-director Tim Hetherington for a screening and discussion of the movie, which documented the harrowing experiences of a platoon of soldiers posted in 2007 and 2008 to a remote hilltop base in Afghanistan’s notorious Korengal Valley.

“We wanted to provide the feeling that you were there, that you’re in danger, and you’re feeling everything they are feeling,” Junger said. “Then when soldiers come home, you can have a sense of what they went through.”

The project grew out of a series of articles Junger wrote and Hetherington photographed for Vanity Fair. Junger’s experiences at the isolated outpost, named for an Army medic Juan Restrepo who was killed in action, are also the basis of his best-selling book War.

The idea for the documentary “really crystallized when Tim came on,” Junger said. Both wanted to explore similar themes: masculinity, comradeship, violence and fear. And both were far more interested in capturing the experiences of the young men fighting than any geopolitical implications of the conflict.

In the end, there was no place in their movie for armchair interviews with generals, diplomats—or even shots of families at home. They didn’t want anything that would take viewers outside the claustrophobic confines of the mountaintop base, except the dangerous missions of the soldiers themselves.The result is a heart-stopping, immersive trip to the remote and barren hills of a violent patch of Afghanistan, where the possibility of sudden bursts of gunfire or explosions keeps the soldiers—and the audience—constantly on edge. The camera stays on during attacks, ambushes—and even the detonation of an improvised explosive device.

The New York Times called Restrepo one of the essential 21st-century combat movies, along with The Hurt Locker and Gunner Palace.

During the J-school discussion, Junger and Hetherington discussed their reasons for taking such a dangerous assignment—at one point Taliban rebels detonated an IED (improvised explosive device) under the humvee Junger was travelling in, and the two journalists came under fire more times than they could count.

Both said they were drawn by a deep desire to explore human themes that had long fascinated them. Junger divided his book into three sections: fear, killing and love. For both men, the boundaries that traditionally separate journalist and subject melted away, and they became part of the story.

“I wanted to be emotionally embedded,” Hetherington said. “I wanted to document the emotional terrain of war. …After a while, there was [both] a lot of fighting and [times when] things got boring. I realized what was really interesting was my relationship to [the soldiers] and their relationship to each other.”

Junger began his career in journalism “out of desperation,” he recalled. He was 30, working as an arborist for a tree company, and his post-college ambition to become a writer seemed a distant dream. So Junger quit his job and moved to Bosnia in the middle of the Balkan Wars, hoping to “figure it out.”

“I became sort of intoxicated by it,” he said. “For the first time in my life, I was participating in something bigger than my own life. I was in the middle of history, reporting on it for the people back home who needed to know about it.

“I felt this sense of purpose,” he said. “It was very interesting to see young soldiers who would come back from combat and missed it. At the end of the day, I think they missed being necessary, having a clear sense of purpose. The purpose was to defend the comrades around you and I think they missed that sense of brotherhood.”

For the soldiers, coming home is “incredibly confusing,” Junger added. “That group dispersed and they can’t find it anywhere else, and I think they’re more scared than they were when they were out there.”