After watching Life & Times a few weeks ago, I thought I’d give the documentary that started it all a watch. It didn’t disappoint.
Condensing the events of one year’s deployment into a tense 93 minutes, the film charts the lives of a platoon of US soldiers in the “deadliest place on Earth”, the Korangal Valley in northeastern Afghanistan. Its title comes from the name of the base camp that they established, which is itself named in honour of Juan ‘Doc’ Restrepo, a private killed in action early in the campaign.
The film follows the lives of the soldiers throughout their tour of duty – the action flips between intensive skirmishes with bullets ricocheting in all directions, and the long periods of downtime. The camera captures everything – whether the men are engaging in a spot of wrestling or bad karaoke, sunbathing on the roof or sharing life stories over their radios, or (more predictably) cleaning their weapons or gathering dirt to shore up defences.
While avoiding an overtly political stance, the directors (Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington) demonstrate the inherent difficulties in a so-called ‘hearts and minds’ mission when the soldiers are unable to put themselves into the mindset of those they are meant to be protecting. One notable exchange involves a village elder demanding recompense for his dead cow (it got caught in the barbed wire and the soldiers put it out of its misery). He wants cash (which could buy him another cow and thereby restore his status), not its value in food. The footage does ultimately come to demonstrate the futility of war and the disconnect between the lives of those on the ground (whether soldier or civilian) who are just trying to survive each day, and the bigger picture or strategic gains. We as the audience are firmly on the side of the former.
With the up-front-and-personal nature of the footage, there is always a risk that the filmmakers may have endangered soldiers’ lives (as well as their own) for the sake of good reportage, but they make an effort to be as unobtrusive as possible. Indeed, sometimes it’s only the shaky camera work as they beat a hasty retreat that reminds you that there’s a war going on all around them. The next base may be only 700-800m away, but it might as well be a different planet…
93 minutes | 18 | October 8 2010
Watched: November 21 2013, iTunes rental