Fri July 4, 2014

'Korengal,' A Retread Whose Subject Matter Still Grips

The new documentary Korengal shows American soldiers in Afghanistan, yet the footage is less new; it’s made from material not used in an earlier film by the same directors.

In 2010, Sebastian Junger and Timothy Hetherington released the magnificent documentary Restrepo which observed an infantry unit in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan over the course of a year. The film was blunt and immediate and raw. The film was combat footage filmed up close, conversations among the soldiers, and interviews conducted in Italy after the soldiers had been relieved. Restrepo deserved the praise it got. The two filmmakers were primarily journalists who covered wars, and not much later, Hetherington was killed while he and Junger were reporting on the fighting in Libya that ousted Moammar Gadhafy.

Now Junger has put together Korengal, which uses more of the footage the two men shot for Restrepo, again mixed in with interviews with the soldiers. The new film adds context and some analysis. Many of the conversations with the soldiers refer back to their time in Afghanistan. It's a valuable film; it’s important to hear what these young men have to say. At the same time, though, Korengal feels overcooked instead of raw.

One of the hardest things to talk about in the world of documentary film is the value of the subject as opposed to the value of the film itself. At last count, there were probably four gazillion documentaries made on interesting and important subjects, but probably only five or six of them are good as films. That’s especially the case with documentaries that take stands on public issues, like food safety, the environment, education, financial misdeeds or war. When people care about the issue at hand, and the film is on their side, they mostly don’t care if the film is any good – so long as it makes the point they want.

But the quality of the documentary expression does matter.

Is a film open to the world or closed? Does the movie bully an audience into agreement? Films can do that – a hit of sentimentality here, a pathetic image there, a dab of melodrama at the right time, and the audience is overwhelmed. Sometimes the subject has enough grab that a mediocre film gets along by being an ally of the subject.

That’s Korengal. You can’t turn away from the young soldiers in the film; it feels disloyal and callous to dismiss images of these guys at war. Whether you want this country to be fighting in Afghanistan or not, the plight of the young soldiers matters. We owe it to them to understand what happens to them as a result of their service. And all that comes about in the earlier film Restrepo. That was the film Junger and Hetherington sculpted out of the hours and hours of footage they shot in Afghanistan. That was the remarkable film experience those two men created. That was the important work of art, that digs into our psyches and makes us see, in a deep sense, things we’ve not seen before.

Korengal feels second hand.

I don’t think this film makes enough sense unless you first see Restrepo, and once you’ve seen Restrepo, Korengal seems like a re-run. As potent as the war footage in Korengal may be, these images did not make the cut for Restrepo. These images don’t have the poignancy of Restrepo.

It’s a funny thing about raw material. Once you’ve made the pot or the dress or the painting, the leftover clay, cloth or paint are just trimmings. You may make a great hash from leftover food, but it’s still hash. Charlie Chaplin cut brilliant material out of his films and left it behind. He didn’t reuse it because it’s purpose had already been served.

Korengal has no new or urgent purpose behind it. It’s just more of the same of Restrepo, but Restrepo is complete; it doesn’t need more. This footage has historical value; it should be in an archive, but it doesn’t demand another film.


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