Before we talk about tonight’s heart-stopping documentary, KORENGAL, we need to discuss RESTREPO, an equally important and directly related work that came before it.
RESTREPO, the 2010 American documentary film about the Afghanistan war was directed by American journalist Sebastian Junger and the late British/American photojournalist Tim Hetherington. The film explores the year that Junger and Hetherington spent in Afghanistan on assignment for Vanity Fair magazine, where they were embedded with the Second Platoon, B Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team of the U.S. Army in the notorious Korengal Valley.
Nestled between high mountains on the Afghan side of the border with Pakistan, the Korengal Valley has easily been one of the hardest fought over patches of ground in the War on Terror. As far as I can tell 54 Americans have been killed (although the number could be higher) and four Medals of Honor were earned in the valley.
Today, the American military rarely moves into the valley, but handpicked Afghan commandos (some trained by the CIA), are still fighting constantly with militants there. The Afghan government maintains offices at the Pech River Valley, the entryway to Korengal. Their police execute raids and patrols in a continuing attempt to shut down or limit the shadow government operating there, but by all accounts it remains truly terrifying territory. As it is located on the border with Pakistan in steep mountains and thick forests, it has served as a major conduit for smugglers for decades, especially during Soviet occupation. The Pakistan side of the border is in the tribal region, which has historically served as a recruiting and training ground for terrorists. The valley itself is so inaccessible that the Afghan government temporarily gave up on trying to control it, even before the people began a strong resistance.
There are many reasons why Korengal Valley is one of the most dangerous places in Afghanistan, not least the nightmare-ish terrain. Steep mountains, loose shale, thick forests and open patches of land make the area a nightmare for an occupying force. Combat outposts were built in relatively open areas so that defenders could see approaching militants. However, this meant patrols returning to the base had to cross the open ground, sometimes under heavy small arms fire from nearby wooded areas and houses. Korengal’s steep hillsides allowed snipers to climb above outposts and fire into the bases as soldiers slept.
So on to RESTREPO, which received the Grand Jury Prize for best documentary at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. The film also received a certified fresh rating of 96 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes, with the consensus stating: "Forsaking narrative structure for pure visceral power, RESTREPO plunges viewers into the experiences of soldiers on the front lines of the Afghan War." Additionally, numerous critics and publications included it in their annual top film selections and the National Board of Review named it as one of the top documentary films of 2010.
KORENGAL picks up where RESTREPO left off. Same valley, same men. And with all of the above in terms of accolades in mind, it had a wee bit of pressure to perform! It was also a project that Junger ended up taking on alone after Hetherington was tragically killed in Libya covering the civil war. The film’s maker also opted for a slightly different tack this time, as in the same general territory but a very different look at the experience of war. KORENGAL not only shows what war looks like, but how war works and what it means to the young people who fight it. While one soldier may cheer when he kills the enemy, another asks if God will ever forgive him for the killing he has participated in. As one soldier grieves the loss of a friend, another explains why he misses the war now that his deployment has ended, and admits he would go back to the front line in a heartbeat. Breathtaking and heartbreaking in turn.
It takes the viewer so close to the minds and the motivations of the ordinary young people that fight every day around the world in service to their countries, and is a sobering watch especially in light of last week’s US Presidential election and its inevitable global fallout.
KORENGAL doesn’t have the immediacy of its predecessor but it’s equally as affecting, and a reminder of how young and innocent the people many nations send to defend them really are.
Director’s Statement: to the men of Battle Company, 2/503…
Many ago, you welcomed my colleague, Tim Hetherington, and me onto your bases in the Korengal valley. We spent a year, off and on, at the KOP and at Restrepo; we went on innumerable patrols and were in countless TICs. You helped us keep safe and you answered our questions and mostly, you gave us your friendship and your trust…and the result was our film, Restrepo. We wanted to make a completely non-political film that would help civilians back home understand what you were doing for them, and we could not have done it without you guys.
Tim and I often talked about making a follow-up to Restrepo, but after Tim passed away I was left on my own with the project. I enlisted the other two members of our old Restrepo team and we went back to work. The result, Korengal, is another feature-length film and like with Restrepo, we paid for the entire production ourselves, which gave us complete control of what the film would be. Restrepo was intended to be a way for civilians to experience what combat feels like; Korengal is very different. It tries for understanding rather than experience. How does fear work? Courage? What is it like to come home from war? Why do so many soldiers miss the war they were in?
I think that many of the questions that you have been asked by civilians over the years, are answered in this film. I’m incredibly proud of it; it truly does pick up where Restrepo left off. I hope you get a chance to see it, I hope you like it and - above all - I hope you are doing well out there in the world. If you come through New York, please let me know. And if you would like to help bring attention to this film, we would be thrilled to have you on the team.
KORENGAL, premieres on Thursday 17th November at 8.30pm on Rialto Channel