The war on terror has received ample coverage on news and media outlets. But in an age when we are questioning or are being encouraged to question our sources of information, we are still forced to tolerate a certain vantage point from which to view world events.
Four years ago award-winning British photographer Tim Hetherington and filmmaker Sebastian Junger independently financed their verity war documentary Restrepo (2010). It offered a perspective of the war on terror previously unseen, as audiences were offered a candid look at the action on the frontline of Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley – the day to day life for the platoon, the patrols, firefights with Taliban fighters and the war within the war to win the hearts and minds of the local populous was seen first-hand. Now Junger, minus Hetherington (who died in April 2011 while covering the Libyan Civil War) returns with the sequel Korengal (2014), comprised of footage from the cutting room floor, and whose marketing ploy exclaims, “This is what war feels like.”
It would do Restrepo a disservice to infer that it failed to capture this sense of what war feels like, because as a sequel Korengal is a reiteration of this feeing. But when considering the bigger picture the unfortunate truth is that it struggles to break new ground. Rather it finds itself treading the familiar ground that was first surveyed four years ago, and therein adds little significance to the portrait of life in the Korengal Valley.
Aside from the question of whether a sequel is warranted, the more pertinent question is can Korengal be judged separately – existing both as a sequel and of itself? Ideally Korengal would function as an extension of Restrepo: the former a documentary of the moment; the latter a reflection of a past chapter. This is an approach HBO’s Band of Brothers (2001) took in concluding its drama, affording it a highly emotional and effective end. But Restrepo’s interviews and the personal everyday conversations with the soldiers make it difficult to execute Korengal as a predominantly retrospective piece, and claim that it treads new ground or finds an identity that connects as well as separates it from its predecessor. From the personal discussions of leave, and how their families relate to the situation, every angle was conscientiously explored within Restrepo’s tightly constructed, well thought out narrative that closed off future avenues for exploration. The only option open to Junger was repetition, and if he were attempting to create an impression of distance between the two, then the inclusion of previously unused footage and similar reflections from members of the platoon was a misstep.
Speaking with documentarian filmmaker Christopher Riley, who’s The Girl Who Talked to Dolphins (2014) recently played at the Sheffield Documentary Festival and aired on BBC Four, told me, “The edit is a gruelling process which is never long enough, and what you leave out is as important as what you put in. You need to make it a compelling story to listen to and watch.”
Restrepo was a compelling and tightly constructed narrative in comparison to Korengal, which feels looser and content to meander between frontline footage and retrospective interviews without a genuine sense of direction. In this regard Korengal represents a tipping point. Whilst Ebert’s seventy year journey from boyhood to death in Life Itself (2014) was told in a succinct 115 minutes, the combined running time for Restrepo and Korengal based on one year on the frontline accompanied by retrospective interviews is 180 minutes. As a combined effort it feels decidedly long and overdrawn; Restrepo perfectly judged at 95 minutes.
Any sequel would have been well placed as a shorter supplementary piece strategically expanding where necessary, such as the hearts and minds campaign that allows the discussion introduced in Restpero to bloom more fully. With only the cutting room floor as an available resource Korengal takes on an identity as a prolonged home entertainment release extra feature – glorified deleted scenes posing as a feature documentary.
The soldiers knowingly and self-admittedly touch upon ideas and impressions that for those unfamiliar with their world offers little else than a disquieting impression. In Korengal we see a seduction of man by violence and circumstance, and how the primitive instincts lurk within us. One might perceive a running commentary on the nonviolent civilised identity of man hanging by a thread from the survival instinct which remains our most fundamental and guiding instinct.
The discussion of the love or addiction of the adrenaline rush of a firefight possibly betrays Junger’s true intentions, and infers that Korengal derives from his need to relive his past adrenaline fuelled experience in the Korengal Valley. Neither made for a broad audience, but rather a project to feed his primal needs leaves one asking was Korengal a filmmaker’s mistake? Whilst he may have been the saviour to material banished to the cutting room floor four years ago, he has struggled to offer anything other than a means to reacquaint ourselves with these characters by an alternative sequel.
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering Myth, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.