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‘Korengal’: Inside Sebastian Junger’s Intense, Immersive War Documentary

'Korengal' picks up where the award-winning documentary 'Restrepo' left off, exploring the complicated feelings of soldiers.

Korengal picks up where the award-winning documentary Restrepo (2010) left off. While Restrepo focuses on the war, Korengal explores the complicated feelings of the men who fought it.

In Restrepo, photojournalists Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger embedded with one U.S. Army platoon for an entire deployment in Afghanistan, telling the soldiers’ story in their words. Restrepo follows the Second Platoon of Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade during its 15-month deployment (May 2007 to June 2008) in the remote Korengal Valley of eastern Afghanistan, which saw the bloodiest fighting of the war. The soldiers of Second Platoon built and manned a strategic outpost that they named “Restrepo” in honor of a comrade who was killed in action.

Restrepo is an intense, immersive documentary that puts viewers as close as possible to the soldiers’ experiences. Starting in June 2007, Junger (and later Hetherington) dug in with the men of Second Platoon, making ten trips to the Korengal Valley. They slept alongside the soldiers, ate with them, survived the boredom and the heat and the cold and the flies with them, and went on patrol with them. The pair shot 150 hours of footage at the outpost, and interviewed the soldiers at their headquarters in Italy three months after the end of their deployment. Restrepo was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary and won the 2010 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize for Documentary.

SFC Patterson checking his men at OP. Photo by Outpost Films.

Korengal: This Is What War Feels Like relies on the same 150 hours of footage that Hetherington and Junger shot in 2007-2008, including never-before-seen interviews with the soldiers.

Korengal explores the emotional turmoil of the men who fought at Restrepo. “Tim and I always envisioned this film project to unfold in two parts,” says Junger. “When we were making Restrepo, we were entirely focused on making a film that would allow civilians to indirectly experience combat in a dark room for 90 minutes on that hilltop with those guys. We hadn’t really thought about the next film.”

After National Geographic Channel (which had bought the rights to Restrepo) turned down their proposal for a three-part series, they let the idea drop. Then Hetherington was killed covering the 2011 uprising in Libya. Hetherington’s death had a profound effect on Junger, who had been covering wars and uprisings since Bosnia in the early 1990s. “After Tim was killed, within an hour of finding out, I decided never to cover combat again,” he says.

But Junger’s producing partner, Nick Quested, pushed him to go back to the material. “Sure enough, just as I remembered, there were these amazing scenes that didn’t make it into Restrepo,” he says. Drawing Restrepo editor Michael Levine into the project, they based Korengal’s narrative structure on that of War, Junger’s book about his time with the men of Second Platoon—namely, fear, killing and love.

Junger and Hetherington had completely funded the making of Restrepo, and then sold the rights to National Geographic Channel. For this next film, Junger and Quested wanted to hold on to the rights and launched a Kickstarter campaign. “We figured $75,000 would just squeak us by, with some other financial involvement,” says Junger. “We hit that goal, amazingly, in 48 hours because of the military community, for which Restrepo is a beloved film. When they heard I was making another film and needed help, they couldn’t donate fast enough. I feel honored and grateful.”

When Junger started shooting Restrepo, he did so alone, and with no prior experience making a documentary. Five months into the project he was joined by Hetherington, a seasoned photojournalist. “He told me what a cutaway was, and all of a sudden there are lots of cutaways in my footage,” Junger says. “I was doing shutter speed adjustments because I thought it was cool looking, but Tim told me to stop the shutter speed trick, although we used it in one scene that was really dark.”

Since Restrepo, Junger also directed Which Way to the Front Line from Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington and The Last Patrol, both for HBO.

Sebastian Junger. Photo by Tim Hetherington.

To shoot the footage that would become Restrepo and Korengal, Hetherington and Junger were limited to the technology available in 2007. Hetherington had a Sony HVR-Z1, a small broadcast-quality HDV camcorder that records in 1080i. Junger carried a Sony HVR-V1, a 1080p HDV camcorder, as well as a Sony HVR-A1, also an HDV camera. A backup consumer camera was damaged during a firefight by an ejecting shell casing.

“The important thing was that the gear needed to be light,” says Junger. “We were making a film at 10,000 feet of altitude in rugged terrain. We had to carry in all our gear, water, MREs, vests, helmets, plus the cameras and batteries.”

Hetherington and Junger traveled to the Korengal Valley ten times over 15 months, each trip for a stretch of several weeks. There was no electricity when they first arrived in Restrepo, so the filmmakers also had to carry in ten fully charged batteries. Carrying in lighting fixtures or sound recording gear was out of the question; everything was shot with available light and recorded with onboard sound. “We had shotgun mics on the cameras,” says Junger. “If audio was a problem, we just got closer with the mic.”

Stuck with the soldiers in this embattled outpost, Hetherington and Junger shared the danger and the monotony. “We just shot everything we could that seemed remotely interesting,” Junger recalls. “We weren’t even making calculations about what kind of footage we had. I felt I was there almost as an anthropologist: here’s a weird tribe with strange customs that lives in a strange place. I’m going to document this situation and these men as thoroughly as possible.”

Three months after Second Platoon’s deployment ended, Hetherington and Junger traveled to Vicenza, Italy, where the soldiers were stationed, and conducted one-on-one interviews. Shot with a Panasonic VariCam, the interviews dig into each man’s personal story, his feelings about killing, fear of death, the addiction to the adrenaline of firefights, and the moral reckoning that comes with fighting a war. “I felt enormous kinship with these men,” says Junger, who did everything the soldiers did during deployment except pull guard duty and shoot back during firefights. “It’s a very different matter to have a weapon and be defending myself and others. I’m a passive observer, but there’s still an amazing amount of psychic voltage that goes through the experience of combat, and you can absolutely grow to like it.”

These powerful testimonies—together with footage not seen in Restrepo—make up the core of Korengal. Going carefully through all the footage Junger shot and experienced with Hetherington wasn’t an easy task. “It’s like looking through the photos in your wedding album after the divorce,” says Junger. “You think, that was a happy time. But things changed. Life does that to all of us in many ways and this is my version of it.”

Michael Levine, who has edited all of Junger’s projects, edited Korengal on an Apple Final Cut Pro system in New York City. Hetherington and Junger sought him out after watching a cinema vérité documentary, Billy the Kid, that Levine had shot. “He’s a genius with film, and we have an extremely tight working relationship,” says Junger. “He thinks about film in ways I don’t and can’t, and I think about story and structure in ways he doesn’t. We’re a great team. I went through a bit of withdrawal after that intense process of making Korengal.”

Tim Hetherington films a helicopter supply at OP Restrepo. Photo by Outpost Films.

Coming home from war is one of the potent themes explored in Korengal, especially in the post-deployment interviews. Sergeant Brendan O’Byrne sums up his inner torment eloquently. “That’s the terrible thing about war: you do terrible things. Then you have to live with them afterwards. But you’d do them the same way if you had to go back.”

“Brendan misses the war tremendously,” says Junger. “He’s also very damaged by it. He’s stuck with that complexity, the moral confusion of war, for his entire life. The fact that he’s articulating that problem and people watching my film are listening to it, that process is beneficial to both parties.”

Junger just finished The Last Patrol, a documentary about the process of coming home from war that will air on HBO in November. In The Last Patrol, Junger, Sgt. O’Byrne, photojournalist Guillermo Cervera (who was with Hetherington when he died) and Staff Sergeant Dave Roels walked 400 miles along railroad lines from Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh, avoiding the police, sleeping under bridges and in abandoned houses, bathing in rivers and asking Americans what they think about their country.

“We had a 400-mile conversation about war and why it’s so hard to give it up and come home,” says Junger. “We managed to reproduce the thing that’s so poignant about combat: this incredible closeness in a certain amount of edginess. If vets can learn to do that, then they can begin a process of coming back. I’m hoping the film will serve as a creative example of how to have some of what you have in combat but back home in a healthy way.”

Although he has vowed he will not go into a combat zone again, Junger stressed the importance of journalism on the front lines. “War needs to be documented. Any free society depends on the free press, and journalism is a crucial part of that. Otherwise you have to trust the military or government to tell you accurately what’s going on, and I’m not sure they will.

“The fact that I’ve helped people is really moving to me, and I’m honored by it,” he adds. “I feel like we all need to contribute to this nation one way or another. My contribution was as a journalist, and if it helped soldiers or civilians, then I feel like I did my job.”