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Misha Pemble is startled by the sound of gunfire during a firefight across the valley with insurgents.Tim Hetherington


Directed by Tim Hetherington

and Sebastian Junger

Classification: 14A

The information most of us get about the war in Afghanistan comes via regular media reports on policy and casualties and occasional pundit debates. Rarely do we get a sense of what the war really means on the ground for fighting soldiers.

Restrepo, an intimate and riveting new feature documentary shot and directed by award-winning photojournalist Tim Hetherington and writer Sebastian Junger (best known for the bestseller The Perfect Storm), deposits us for 90 minutes in Afghanistan's remote Korengal Valley where we follow the 15-month deployment of a platoon of U.S. soldiers as they build a Spartan strategic outpost they christen Restrepo, after a fallen comrade, and engage in a dangerous assignment called Operation Rock Avalanche.

The valley, a strategic hot-spot near the Pakistan border that was considered one of the most dangerous postings until U.S. forces withdrew earlier this year, is a beautiful, sparsely populated 10-kilometre stretch of steep, rugged ridges and clusters of forest. The soldiers were literally surrounded - "fish in a barrel," one sergeant says - by Taliban fighters better acquainted with the terrain. Early in the film, we get a taste of their regular "engagements," firefights often involving close encounters.

But Restrepo, which won the Sundance Film Festival's top-doc award earlier this year, is more interested in how the soldiers cope with the adrenalin rush of combat and the stretches of boredom, and it shows the soldiers' interactions with each other and with locals, who are trying to build a new road. Scenes of the weekly "shuras" - consultations that the platoon's Captain Dan Kearney holds with the village elders - provide moments of light humour, but more importantly, they sharply illustrate what seems like a losing battle to win the valley residents' "hearts and minds."

While watching Restrepo I was reminded of Yoav Shamir's multiple award-winning Checkpoint (2003), which eschews interviews and narration, and instead weaves together daily interactions between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian civilians at numerous border checkpoints. Neither film offers context of the larger political picture, although Restrepo uses interviews with some of the soldiers, shot immediately after their deployment, to lend emotional context to their experiences in the field. In both films, the tight focus on the everyday allows for a much deeper understanding of the complexities of the conflict to emerge.

Restrepo goes right to the heart of a war that is abstract for most of us, and makes it real. (For those interested in the Canadian experience, check out Mike Sheerin's excellent Bravo Company: Kandahar, a 2007 doc made for History Television, following 19 days with Canada's soldiers in Afghanistan.)

Special to The Globe and Mail