20 Questions with Sebastian Junger

Best-selling author, war correspondent and documentary filmmaker Sebastian Junger’s latest project, “Restrepo,” won the Best Domestic Documentary award at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. The 93-minute film, done with co-director Tim Hetherington, follows a 15-man platoon through its deployment in Afghanistan’s volatile Korengal Valley. In a recent promotional stop in Washington, Junger spoke with The Hill about spending 10 months in what has been called “the deadliest place on earth.” He talks about the challenging conditions soldiers encounter as well as the impact he hopes his film will have. “Restrepo” will open July 9 in Washington and July 16 in Arlington.

What inspired you to do “Restrepo”?
I knew I wanted to spend a deployment with one platoon. I was going to write a book, and at the same time wanted to shoot video and decided doing a documentary made sense.

Who do you hope will watch it?
I hope everyone will watch it. But what I’m finding is [“Restrepo”] is very helpful and therapeutic for families and friends of soldiers trying to understand what their loved ones have gone through and what they’re coming from. I also see soldiers finding some kind of validation in watching it, and that’s incredibly gratifying. More broadly, I think the public is very confused about the war and what’s going on, so I wanted to show what the war looks like from the perspective of the soldiers.

Why did you interview only soldiers?
We wanted to make a film that reproduced and gave insight into the life of soldiers in combat. Soldiers don’t have access to diplomats and politicians to interview, so we decided to exclude those type of interviews from our film.

What were the living conditions like?
For the soldiers and us they were the same. There was no running water, so you didn’t really bathe for three or four weeks at a time. There was no cooked food, just [meals ready to eat]. It was incredibly hot and fly-infested in the summer. In the winter it was freezing, sub-zero temperatures. There were days the outpost was attacked two or three times, and it was two hours away from the main base, and air support was about 30 minutes off, so you were very much on your own.

What was it like spending a year in such hostile territory?
We all got very close. That’s what happens in situations like that. It was a very incredible experience. I don’t think I’ll ever surpass it in my career.

How frequently did you feel like your life or the lives of the soldiers you were with were in serious danger?
We were in potentially serious danger at every moment. The attacks came very unexpectedly, so everything you did was done with the underlying notion that it might be the last thing you do. We were in countless firefights. One bullet came within inches of my head, smashing into a sandbag right next to me. A Humvee I was in took a roadside bomb. It was all very dangerous ... It’s just random math, whether you get hit by a bullet. It’s hard to quantify that.

What were some of the ways you and the soldiers coped with long stretches of downtime?
I brought a lot of books up there. We all sat around and talked a lot. We shot tons of video, and that’s where some of the most interesting footage comes from — just watching the guys interact.

What was it like getting so close to these soldiers?
It was very gratifying. In a dangerous situation, it was very reassuring to be a part of that small and trusted band.
What was the most challenging aspect of doing this film?
The editing was very hard. And we self-financed it, so that was a terrifying experience. Also the production was incredibly difficult — all the paperwork, the logistics, the huge amount of equipment we rented and hauled around. That was a nightmare.
What is your strongest memory of your time in Afghanistan?
It was such an intense time; it’s so hard to put a finger on. It’s like apples and oranges, trying to compare the firefights to the very close moments you had with the soldiers. They were very different, memorable experiences.

What is the main lesson you’ll take away from your experiences?
The only thing that makes battle psychologically tolerable is the brotherhood among soldiers. You need each other to get by.

Are you still in touch with any of your subjects from the film?
Yes, absolutely. Most of them.

If a member of Congress were to watch “Restrepo”, what would you hope he or she would take away from it?
I hope that they see that at the outpost the men really don’t make distinctions between conservatives or liberals, or Democrats or Republicans. The only distinctions were they were soldiers and Americans. Congress is in a state right now where they are bitterly divided and not thinking like Americans. They don’t have a unified vision about the war because there’s so much partisan bickering. My hope is that they would take a lesson from these young men and realize they’re all Americans so they can start getting to work on things.

You won Best Domestic Documentary at Sundance. What was it like to screen your film there?
It was very exciting. We didn’t expect to win. It was just incredibly thrilling.

How did your time in Afghanistan differ from the other conflicts you’ve covered?
I’ve never been with a professional army before. It was like covering the police after following street gangs around for years. It was totally different.

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