Tim Hetherington's Legacy - the Craft of Restrepo

Tim Hetherington, combat photographer and co-director of the documentary film Restrepo, was killed by a mortar bomb in Libya yesterday. His partner on that compelling project, Sebastian Junger, wrote that working with Tim was like climbing into a little sports car and driving around really, really fast

Yet in person—at least, when he talked thoughtfully and urgently about the film after a screening just 35 days ago, at the Rhode Island School of Design, and in his film-making--Tim Hetherington also provoked reflection, and perhaps left those of us fortunate enough to meet him, however fleetingly, with clues on how he might want us to remember him.

At its heart, Restrepo is a story of one U.S. army unit’s deployment into the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan, on the border with Pakistan, in 2007-2008.  Parts of the story—including especially Operation Rock Avalanche—have also been told by another embedded journalist.  Junger and Hetherington, though, kept coming back to Battle Company over the full fourteen months of their deployment. They spent much of their time at Camp Restrepo, a spartan firebase named to honor the unit’s medic who was killed early in the deployment.  That commitment of time and attention, and their willingness to take risks in pursuit of their craft, clearly won them respect among the soldiers.

Three moments stuck out for me from the film, each of which showcase the particular power of images to tell stories, and Hetherington’s craft as documentarian.  First was the treatment of the “cow incident.” Both Restrepo and Junger’s War narrate the story of a cow that got trapped in the barbed wire around Restrepo, and was killed and eaten by the soldiers.  Junger calls this a Lord of the Flies turning point, showing how standards had begun to slip.

Restrepo, by contrast, first lets us feel the joy that this illicit meal of “same-day cow” brought soldiers who had been living on MREs for months.  It then, with a light but clinical touch, shows us the larger consequences of the soldiers’ small act of rebellion.  Afghan elders appear at the gate of the camp, and Captain Dan Kearney is initially hopeful—this is the first time civilians have made an overture, and perhaps signals that the U.S. are winning over “hearts and minds.” 

It turns out, though, they are there to seek cash compensation for the lost cow—compensation that the chain of command will not authorize.  So the elders leave disgruntled, even hostile; Kearney recognizes the strategic defeat.  And in this perfectly paced, slyly told story told between the firefights, the film-makers convey the frustrations and contradictions of counter-insurgency warfare—how a seemingly harmless, if not innocent, piece of soldierly initiative can undermine a larger purpose.  And it also poses a larger question—if that larger purpose is so easily undermined, how can one expect ordinary soldiers to invest in it?

The term “hearts and minds” occurs only once in the film, used ironically in a radio conversation in which soldiers compare Afghanistan to a ranch back home—they are both places to shoot at animals.  The second moment that sticks in my memory from the film is where three soldiers turn a hooch into an impromptu disco, bumping against each other to the lyric “I want to touch your body.”

In the RISD Q and A, Tim Hetherington spoke of wanting to portray the experience of not really knowing what was going on.  And so in place of the grand ideological fictions of empire and nation, Hetherington and Junger focus on the intimacies of loyalty among young warriors isolated from everyone except each other. 

The joyous release of the disco scene (though an aggressive edge remains), and the comfort of close quarters, vividly contrasts with the impressive hardware of long distance surveillance and killing at Restrepo—most strikingly the LRAS imaging device through which soldiers can witness the effect of .50 caliber rounds on Taliban fighters—and scenes of tense patrolling, and meetings with hennaed bearded elders speaking an alien language. 

Junger writes, tellingly, “Men form friendships that are not at all sexual but contain much of the devotion and intensity of a romance. Almost every relationship that occurs in human society exists in some compressed form at Restrepo.”  Hetherington knew that too, and showed it with warmth and affection.

What confirms the bond between soldiers and film-makers, and provides the narrative arc of the film, are the individual interviews shot in Italy after the unit’s deployment was complete.  There is a palpable sense of trust as, against a dark background, in measured tones, soldiers-turned-veterans reflect on the trauma and the rush of their combat experience. Hetherington recalled those interviews as a form of group therapy, in which he too struggled to process what they had all experienced together.  

Among the soldiers we hear from is John Clinard, whom the film shows during Operation Rock Avalanche overwhelmed at the death of his squad leader, 25 year old Staff Sergeant Larry Rougle.  In his interview, Clinard recalls that personal loss, and hopes for a future in which it will hurt less.  But in my third key moment in the film, he leaves us with a sentiment that clearly resonated with Hetherington and Junger, who used it at the end of the theatrical trailer, and which seems even more poignant now, with Tim Hetherington’s own tragic death. 

“I still obviously haven’t figured out how to deal with it inside. The only hope I have right now is that eventually I’ll be able to process it differently. I’m never going to forget it. I don’t want to not have that as a memory because that was one of those moments that makes me appreciate everything that I have.”