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Posts Tagged ‘documentaries’

Update at bottom

After hearing about Tim Hetherington’s death in Libya yesterday, I decided to push his documentary “Restrepo” to the top of my long to-do list, to experience the power of this Oscar-nominated documentary for myself.

And powerful it is. “Restrepo” chronicles the experience of a U.S. Army platoon in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, a site of continual battle with the Taliban. Many articles have focused on the film’s intensely visceral perspective (see David Carr at The New York Times), and I have to agree. But it’s also more.

The film is a character study, in which Hetherington and Sebastian Junger (who wrote of his experience in the book “War”), are fully present with the soldiers yet allow viewers to draw their own conclusions.

While undeniably sympathetic to the troops, “Restrepo” also challenges us to reflect on the full range of the troops life in war. We see clowning around in down time. We see intense grief over the death of one of their own. We see the terrible consequences when U.S. fire injures civilians, including children. And we are left to wrestle with what this all means.

By the end of the film it’s difficult to offer a definitive answer, and even in post-deployment interviews the soldiers wrestle their experience and what they accomplished. However, it is tough to read in the closing credits that in April 2010 (just before the release of “Restrepo”) the United States withdrew all troops from the valley.

What’s important about Hetherington (and photographer Chris Hondros, who also died yesterday) was not just that he sought to bear witness, but how he pursued this task.  As Jon Lee Anderson noted in The New Yorker:

I think it’s safe for me to say that what Tim was trying to do by going to war was to look into the souls of men, whose truths are perhaps more exposed in that environment than in any other—and to show the rest of us what he saw. He gave us a legacy in the important work he left behind, and, for those of us who had the honor to know Tim as a friend, a cherished memory of a man whose own soul was very intact.

This is true regardless of the medium: with film, as was the case in “Restrepo,” or with still photography, as shown in his book “Infidel,” which Hetherington discusses in the clip at the top of this post — displaying a bit of his own soul along the way.

Amid the extreme inhumanity of war, Hetherington extended grace to his subjects by never losing sight of their humanity. Just as important, he also refused to apply the false gloss of manufactured glory. In doing so, he honored all his subjects.

The New York Times’ Lens blog has a very nice overview of Hetherington’s work. They offer the same with Hondros’ astounding photography, which you’ve likely seen even if you don’t recognize his name. And below, you can watch the trailer for “Restrepo.”

Update: Junger has posted a tribute at Vanity Fair. He concludes:

Before this last trip you told me that you wanted to make a film about the relationship between young men and violence. You had this idea that young men in combat act in ways that emulate images they’ve seen—movies, photographs—of other men in other wars, other battles. You had this idea of a feedback loop between the world of images and the world of men that continually reinforced and altered itself as one war inevitably replaced another in the long tragic grind of human affairs.

That was a fine idea, Tim—one of your very best. It was an idea that our world very much needs to understand. I don’t know if it was worth dying for—what is?—but it was certainly an idea worth devoting one’s life to. Which is what you did. What a vision you had, my friend. What a goddamned terrible, beautiful vision of things.

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The best journalism does much more than dispense information; it transports us into the world of others.

That’s exactly what Laura Poitras has accomplished with her exceptional documentary, “The Oath.” Poitras takes us back and forth between Yemen and Guantanamo Bay, exploring the stories of two men connected both by family ties and their association with Osama bin Laden.

We meet Abu Jandal at his home in Yemen, tending to his young son and driving his taxi cab in the city of Sana’a. At one time, Jandal was also bin Laden’s bodyguard and “emir of hospitality,” overseeing prospective jihadists as they arrived at Al Qaeda’s camps in Afghanistan. Though he met nearly all the 9/11 hijackers at one point or another, he had left Al Qaeda and was imprisoned in Yemen when those airliners rocketed into our buildings and transformed our lives.

Jandal was not the original focus of the film; Poitras started out trying to examine the life of someone held at Guantanamo. She pursued Salim Hamden (of the Supreme Court ruling in Hamden v. Rumsfeld), but she could not gain his cooperation. Hamden remains a presence in the film, and we learn of him through his letters, brief encounters with his wife and children, comments from his attorneys during proceedings at Guantanamo, and finally from Jandal himself.

That’s because Jandal is Hamden’s brother-in-law, and he recruited Hamden to join Al Qaeda — a point over which Jandal expresses remorse.

So it is Jandal who is the complicated, contradictory center of the film. On one hand he seems charismatic, if not outright likeable. On the other hand we see him show off a photo of his son as a newborn — lying on a blanket, with hand grenades one each side and an AK-47 resting above his head.

We see him barter with customers over cab fares in a manner that can prompt a laugh, and we see him holding court with prospective jihadists at his home.

And we see him explain that he rejected attacks on civilians, preferring to meet Western infidels on “the battlefield,” but when an Arab TV interview asks if Jandal has renounced his oath to bin Laden, he sidesteps the question.

Poitras presents all these threads of Jandal’s life, but she avoids a heavy-handed presentation — instead she leaves it for viewers to wrestle with all the contradictions. It is quite a balancing act, to view Jandal as a full, complex human being while not glossing over his life as a terrorist. As Poitras says in notes included with the DVD:

To acknowledge that humanity is not a justification of their acts, but rather an acceptance of an uncomfortable reality.

In an interview earlier this year with The New York Times, Poitras recognized the difficulty of her task:

You have to show the charisma to understand how this organization (Al Qaeda) works. But it also feels like you’re playing with fire because you don’t want to be a mouthpiece for him. …

He’s a complicated protagonist and, in a sense, he’s irreconcilable. The film was very much about constructing a mystery around who this guy is. There’s a constant questioning about his motivations.

But it’s in this choice, to treat Jandal as a complicated human and not a cardboard cut-out, that is the film’s triumph. As we sift through today’s news reports of bombs targeting the United States, “The Oath” challenges us to examine the origins of terrorism more fully. It is difficult to grapple with the humanity of those who commit inhuman acts. But if the West is to wise, and not just strong, we must have the courage to see.

Poitras has that kind of courage, as illustrated in an interview earlier this year with The Seattle Times, when she discussed a scene in which Jandal instructs his 5-year-old son in the way of Jihad:

I was very interested in that relationship, in both its extremes. This is indoctrination, but then there was the tenderness … It’s sort of the beauty of humans: that they surprise you, that they confound you, that they undo your preconceptions. That’s why I love doing this kind of work. You’re not recapping past events but you’re in the moment as people are making choices. To me that’s sort of the heart of drama.

Even when the drama is all too real.

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