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Exit Through The Graft Shop

Maybe reality shows did it for me. Maybe it was Michael Moore (who makes films where I agree with everything he says without believing anything he says). Maybe it was this whole spate of documentaries made by crazy people from the last decade, Loose Change and Zeitgeist: The Movie for example.

Whatever the reason, I just don’t trust documentaries as a medium anymore. Unfortunately, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s Restrepo is a documentary. As Michael C wrote on Monday, a lot of people, knowing I write on a blog about war, have asked me about it. I tell them two things: first, that I liked the book, War, better than the movie. Second, that I think Restrepo, because it is a documentary, sacrifices meaningful context for the sake of their premise.

I could launch a whole “war memoirs”-esque series on “war documentaries”. (Like memoirs, documentaries seem to present unbiased truth. That belief usually doesn’t stand the test of reality, especially since most documentaries now have a “point of view”.) But I’ll spare you any more of my hateration. This post will have to suffice, with Restrepo serving as the sacrificial documentary. (Or you could watch Exit Through the Giftshop, a documentary by Banksy. Or is it a hoax?)


I don’t like Hetherington and Junger’s premise behind Restrepo. “We figured that our viewers were familiar with the discussion about the pros and cons of the war,” Junger told NPR two weeks ago. “And we didn’t want to rehash those. What we wanted to do was be with a platoon and experience what soldiers experience...But their reality--their emotional reality--is not often reported on.”

Except that it is.

Between three 24 hour cable news channels, 5 Pulitzer prizes given to war reporting and an Internet that puts information at our fingertips, the war is getting covered. Frontline, Nightline, 60 Minutes and others have done excellent coverage for years from the point of view of soldiers. The New York Times has two blogs on soldier’s experiences, “At War” and “Home Fires”. PBS had the “Regarding War” blog, Thomas Ricks and FP.com have “The Best Defense”, and Doonesbury started “The Sandbox”. If you need more blogs, milblogging has 2,948 listed. I’ve read fifteen war memoirs written about Iraq or Afghanistan by soldiers or reporters. There are easily 100 more, at least three on the battle for Fallujah, and another three on Operation Red Wings alone. There have been mini-series, TV series and at least 20 fiction films.

Maybe there aren’t enough documentaries. This list has 40 based in Iraq. Six (now seven) war-related documentaries have been nominated for Academy Awards since 9/11. One won.

Soldiers, as I think I just proved, have their story out there.

I think the story of everyday Afghans and Iraqis isn’t out there. There are a handful of (award-winning) documentaries and a few memoirs, but their authors aren’t interviewed on NPR or The Daily Show like war memoir authors. Their books don’t make the best seller lists with the same frequency. I only know of one blog by an Iraqi.

I wish Junger had split his time with soldiers and Afghans. That would be the true story of war.


My bigger issue is with what Restrepo leaves out, especially after reading War.

In Restrepo, there is no narrator, and a sparing amount of explanation. No narrator means no context; no explanation of how OP Restrepo fits into the history of the war and the valley.

There are no civilians, at least not interviewed. Read the passage on the Korengali people I quoted last Tuesday. It’s beautiful, it’s informative, and it’s needed in a documentary. “Since World War I, it’s been civilians who have most often born the disproportionate brunt of modern warfare...” Nick Turse notes in his Huffington Post piece on Restrepo. (Michael C disagrees with this claim, read his comment below.) “In Restrepo such people...are just supporting characters or extras. ‘[W]e did not interview Afghans,’ Junger and Hetherington write in their directors’ statement. These are, however, precisely the people who know the most about war.”

There is missing information. In the movie, a cow gets caught in concertina wire; in the book, the soldier’s chase it into the concertina wire. In the movie, the films opens with an IED explosion and a firefight; in the book, Junger explains that no one was firing back. In the movie, Airborne the puppy runs around in the background; in the book, the next unit kills him.

Could the difference be more stark? I like context. I like knowing the what, where, when and how. I like to know more. If your goal is to understand the plight of the American soldier, knowing the larger battalion mission matters. Knowing about the people matters. Knowing context matters. The soldier on the ground knows the context; so should you.

And it is in War. It isn’t in Restrepo.

eight comments

I think a major reason we don’t see the same style documentaries with Afghan and Iraqi people is because Americans have a very limited emotional investment in a culture not their own. Every American has a family member or friend in or retired from the military. How many have family or friends who are civilians in Iraq of Afghanistan?

The specific line that upsets me is “disproportionately” born the brunt of war. In Sex, Drugs and Body Counts they disprove this idea. Don’t get me wrong, in war, civilians suffer. Combatants suffer. Societies suffer. But it isn’t disproportionate. In fact, most research shows that combatants and military age males endure far and away the most casualties in warfare.

But yes everyone suffers in war, and civilians in the Korengal still suffered, despite our efforts.

@ Matty p – Two thoughts: 1. Does that make it okay?

2. I guess I’m cyncial, but looking at “Restrepo”‘s numbers, the avg. person still isn’t seeing, caring abotu either war. I’ve read studies that unless there is a political debate—surge vs. pull-out—in congress people ignore the wars.

There are, of course, documentaries about Iraqi and Afghan people, both ordinary and not so ordinary, as Meeting Resistance shows.

The problem for MR was not that the American people were not interested in Iraqis but that television corporations were unwilling to give them the opportunity to see it.

Touring the film around theaters in the US (we screened in about 80 cities) we filled the house virtually everywhere. The great disappointment was LA……

Two notable Iraqi blogs are “Raed in the Middle” and Baghdad Burning.

@ Steve – There are more documentaries from the civilian perspective or the other side, but there definitely isn’t the news coverage or books or distribution that soldiers books get.

You should have your doc stream on Netflix, but I’ll get to it soon.

Eric, I agree wholeheartedly. You may also recall the Vietnam era film by Peter Davies, “Hearts and Minds”. That has still not shown on American television despite having initially been commissioned by CBS.

There is a fundamental problem for broadcasters here (and, though to a lesser extent, in the UK)in that they are often the primary conduit for the “sale” of a war to the public and for transmitting the necessary information that allows for a state of war to be maintained. The re-humanization process that inevitably follows from showing films about the people of the enemy is one that most tv execs would prefer to avoid.

To bring a documentary to the public eye independently is expensive and fraught with difficulty. This I know:)

Sorry about the lack of streaming – I’ll see if I can get that fixed. The film does stream on iTunes but you have to pay for that:)

Eric, I thought Restrepo was a terrific documentary, despite its limitations. It has a power that is not just about filming reality. Like a piece of art, it conveys more than the sum of its facts; there is a sense of mystery to motivations, characters, etc. That said, I agree with you completely that “War” presents a much more complex and contextualized picture. In fact, I think Restrepo works beautifully as a supplement to War. War is an astonishing and important book. I hope it is widely read.

Eric, I have not yet read War so I can’t comment. I showed a class of undergraduate students with some vets the documentary Restrepo. One of the college students – not vet- said, “I’ve never seen anything like this.” He was totally astonished. I don’t think there is very much on our current wars either from the soldiers’ or civilians’ perspectives. The news coverage sucks compared to Vietnam. We don’t see bodies of soldiers and usually not of civilians in contrast to the late 60’s and early 70’s. The war had been cleansed. Restrepo is the first widely available documentary that I have seen that gives the viewer a little sense of the violence, grief, and rage. I don’t think you’ve yet reviewed my favorite book on the war in Iraq – that takes the perspective of the soldiers and begins to illuminate their transformation from idealist to cynics who hate the local population. The Good Soldiers. I respect and agree with the limitations you suggest in Restrepo but I still think it’s a lot better than most of what’s out there. A year or so ago, they did an excellent documentary on MYLAI but that is Vietnam.