US soldiers welcome film showing Afghanistan war through their eyes, not as strategy debate

By Kristin M. Hall, AP
Friday, August 6, 2010

War film documents grim Afghan reality for troops

FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. — An award-winning documentary about the war in Afghanistan is refocusing attention from the generals leading the war to the soldiers on the front lines.

Military members and independent film fans are filling up screenings and calling theaters to ask for “Restrepo,” which follows the deployment of an Army platoon at an isolated outpost in the deadly Korengal Valley.

Chris Fay, a 25-year-old Army veteran who twice deployed to Iraq, saw the movie at Fort Campbell, Ky., where he was once stationed. He said he’s glad the documentary chose to focus on the troops and not the politics behind the war.

“When the bullets start flying and the IEDs start going off, politics is not going to save your life,” Fay said. “It’s the guy to the right or left.”

The film that won the top documentary prize at January’s Sundance Film Festival opened in June around the same time that the U.S. general in charge of Afghanistan was fired for speaking ill of his civilian bosses, prompting debate about American strategy in the nearly nine-year war.

National Geographic has been promoting the film to troops and their families by holding screenings at military installations with the filmmakers and soldiers from the unit.

“Part of that conversation is the upper level policy decisions, but the real part of it is what’s happening on the ground? What are our soldiers doing over there?” said Lisa Truitt, the president of National Geographic Cinema Ventures.

Cpl. David James Kelso, who was with the platoon during filming and is currently finishing another deployment in Afghanistan, said he’s been surprised by the success of the film.

“It’s a gratifying feeling,” he said. “The only thing we want people to know is what we went through and what actually happened.”

Fay says Hollywood movies, even those like the Academy Award winner “The Hurt Locker” that was praised for its realism, portray soldiers as action heroes. But this documentary shows the very real consequences for deployed soldiers during combat, he said.

“I think this is something that America needs to see. I think people need to see this to really understand what the soldiers are going through in Iraq and Afghanistan, to understand the stresses on them and their families throughout their deployment and military career.”

The film was directed by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, two acclaimed wartime journalists, and named after the outpost and a medic, Pfc. Juan Restrepo, who was killed in action early in the deployment. There are no talking-head experts or generals analyzing military strategy, just 20-something infantrymen wondering nervously when the next attack will come.

“We set out to make a film that doesn’t bring our own political opinions into play, doesn’t draw out an obvious political narrative,” Hetherington said during a recent screening at Fort Campbell, Ky., on the Tennessee line. “We can reach both to the left and the right.”

In a matter of weeks, the film has gone from playing in New York and Los Angeles to showing in 50 theaters around the country, including near Fort Benning, Ga., Fort Bliss, Texas, and Fort Bragg, N.C., with dozens more theaters scheduled to show the documentary this summer.

“We’ve had two different theater chains say to us, whatever it is you’re doing, it’s working,” said Truitt. “Some of them said they have never gotten this many requests from communities for a film.”

Mitchell Block, an independent film distributor with California-based Direct Cinema Limited Inc., said “Restrepo” is a character-driven film that’s drawing a lot of fans.

“Here is a terrifically powerful, intimate portrait of American servicemen serving in this godforsaken outpost and it’s evident that what we are seeing is real,” he said.

What the film does convey is the grim realities for today’s warriors: hardened soldiers sobbing at the sight of a fallen friend and the aftermath of an air strike that kills and injures Afghan villagers.

The soldiers narrate the story themselves through emotional post-deployment interviews that speak volumes about the stress soldiers feel. The outpost was in an isolated region on the mountainous border with Pakistan that was the scene of near-daily firefights between U.S. troops and insurgents. Nearly 50 American soldiers died in the valley before the military pulled troops out earlier this year.

Hetherington said many families say after seeing the film that they understand better why some soldiers struggle to discuss their wartime experiences.

“Soldiers may be good at fighting but they are not very good at communicating about what goes on over there,” Hetherington said.

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