Russia 2010, 116 min | USA 2010, 94 min
THE SUBJECT OF WAR has often captured the attention of artists, photographers and filmmakers. Francisco Goya’s (1746-1828) stark nineteenth century prints The Disasters of War still remain shocking today; and Robert Capa (1913-1954) famously documented several wars and co-founded Magnum Photos.
In this century, two directing duos, tackle the topic employing entirely different approaches in their respective films, which screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival in May.
When the 2008 conflict between Russia and Georgia escalated, Andrei Nekrasov and Olga Konskaya traveled to the front to find out what was happening and interview people along the way. Throughout the film, they appear on camera and offer their opinions, creating a personal film that critically questions the Russian government’s involvement in the Caucasus region.
Embedded with a U.S. Army platoon in Afghanistan, directors Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger create a disturbing and visceral portrait of the everyday life of soldiers deployed in the Korengal Valley. They juxtapose moments of boredom, anxiety, and intense ghting with personal interviews conducted with the soldiers a er their tour of duty was over.
IN RUSSIAN LESSONS, Andrei Nekrasov (Rebellion: The Litvinenko Case, 2007) and Olga Konskaya created a very personal and political film that examines the intense 2008 conflict between Russia and Georgia. They take a highly critical look at the Russian government’s portrayal of the war, exposing then-President Putin’s role in escalating the conflict. The filmmakers’ voices provide the documentary’s narration, often presenting their own questions and opinions about what they see and experience in their journey. Russian state television presented the Georgians as the aggressors. Nekrasov and Konskaya wanted to find out whether that was true.
They traveled separately to the front – Konskaya approaching from the north and Nekrasov from the opposite direction – to see what was really happening on the ground, capturing the immediate aftermath of the bombing, shooting, and looting. They often appear on camera as they drive through various towns, sift through the rubble of bombed apartment buildings and bullet-ridden homes, and interview many people along the way. Konskaya traveled through particularly dangerous areas and somehow was able to hide her video camera during a particularly tense encounter with a soldier who declared that if he found a camera, he would shoot it. The filmmakers’ sympathies are clearly with the Georgians. In one early scene, Nekrasov says to Georgians whose homes have been destroyed by the Russian army, “what can I say? Forgive us if you can.”
THIS AMBITIOUS 116-minute documentary also scrutinizes the relationships between the various regions in the Caucasus and Russia. It delves briefly into the news media’s startling misrepresentation of events, for example showing footage claiming that the Georgian army attacked South Ossetian civilians – when it was the Russian army attacking Georgian civilians. Russian Lessons is loaded with information, which is both its strength and its weakness. The directors clearly are at pains to provide context for the complicated histories of this little-known region. They challenge the viewer to pay attention to the many details and stick with it to the end. Throughout the film, there are moments of quiet contemplation – a curtain fluttering in the open window of a deserted, partially destroyed apartment, sheep grazing in an open field, a view of majestic mountains – which provide brief, sometimes poetic respite from the bleak interviews and scenes of destruction.
The last third of the film seems to veer off in a completely different direction by unexpectedly jumping back to the early 1990s, exploring the years when the region of Abkhazia (located near the Black Sea) forcibly removed 300,000 ethnic Georgians. However, this section serves as an important part of the filmmakers’ argument that Russia played a key role in destroying the relationship between South Ossetia and Georgia in 2008, much like it did to Abkhazia and Georgia in the 1990s.
Though this eye-opening film is aimed at Russians, other audiences will find much to appreciate politically and artistically.
IN RESTREPO, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance earlier this year, directors Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington consciously try to avoid politics. They never attempt to justify or present argum. Unlike Russian Lessons, the film does not provide any political or historical context and the directors remain firmly behind the camera. Instead, the filmmakers focus their attention on the everyday life of a single US army platoon stationed in the Korengal Valley, an area near the Pakistani border known to be one of the most dangerous places to serve in Afghanistan.
From May 2007 to July 2008, the directors each made five trips to the valley, sometimes separately, sometimes overlapping, living with the soldiers of Second Platoon, observing them as they joked around with each other, following them on patrol and even capturing footage of the soldiers being attacked by the Taliban. They were on assignment for Vanity Fair magazine and ABC News Nightline, shooting on a threechip camera. But eventually they realized that they were in a unique position to document the intensity of the fighting and began shooting in high definition with the goal of making a film.
Junger, a writer by trade, penned the bestselling nonfiction book The Perfect Storm, which was made into the 2000 Hollywood film of the same name. Hetherington, a photojournalist, has directed short documentaries and worked as a cameraman on Liberia: An Uncivil War. Though Restrepo is the filmmakers’ first featurelength film, they have each covered wars for more than ten years, Junger as a journalist and Hetherington as a photographer.
An unforgettable scene at the beginning of the film was shot by the soldiers on their flight to Afghanistan. The platoon’s combat medic Juan Restrepo says to the handheld video camera, with a smile on his face, “We’re goin’ to war… We’re goin’ to war.” Viewers soon discover he was killed just a few months into deployment; his fellow soldiers named a remote outpost after him. The film takes its title from that outpost.
IN ADDITION TO the many scenes shot in Afghanistan, the filmmakers insert personal interviews with some of the Second Platoon soldiers who recall what happened when they were in the Korengal Valley. A few of them mention an operation called Rock Avalanche. Viewers witness what happened. Hetherington shot remarkable footage of that operation, in which the men met heavy gunfire, took casualties, and one soldier breaks down sobbing after learning that a sergeant had been killed in the firefight. These riveting scenes provide a dramatic high point. Restrepo also shows the soldiers interacting with the village locals, attending a weekly ”shura”, a meeting with the elders. The captain awkwardly tries to convey what they are doing in the valley and how rooting out the Taliban will mean a better life for the villagers.
Occasional facts appear as text on-screen, e.g. 70 percent of US ordinance was dropped on Korengal. These facts, combined with the footage shot by the filmmakers and the soldiers’ description of the valley, make it quite clear how easy it is for the Taliban to defend their positions in the mountainous terrain and how the Americans are constantly exposed to attack at any moment. One soldier says that for the Taliban, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. The idea of “winning” in the valley seems utterly impossible. Yet the platoon does its job, follows orders and waits for the day when their tour will be over.
Though the filmmakers did not set out to make a political film, they do expose the absurdity of any attempt to gain a foothold in the Korengal Valley. Restrepo is direct, visceral and emotional, taking an intimate look at soldiers as they face combat, fear, and boredom.
THE DISASTERS OF WAR were never published during Goya’s lifetime, presumably because the images were an indictment of war. Unfortunately that attitude still persists today. Much to Nekrasov’s regret, few Russians will have the opportunity to see Russian Lessons because his work is unofficially banned in Russia.
It was only last year that the US government lifted the restriction against the news media photographing coffins of war dead from Afghanistan and Iraq. Restrepo faced no restrictions during production. The film opens in U.S. theaters this summer and will premiere worldwide on the National Geographic channel this fall.