Documentary Review – Korengal: This is What War Feels Like
“…Restrepo was intended to be a way for civilians to experience what combat feels like; Korengal is very different. It tries for understanding rather than experience…” – Sebastian Junger, about Korengal
This is a film I that was very eager to watch. Having watched and reviewed its predecessor Restrepo, when I saw this movie on Netflix, I jumped at the chance to watch another piece by these filmmakers. Restrepo was my first exposure to the cinema verite, or observational style of filmmaking, and it really opened my eyes to what the reality of combat, which is what the film was intended to do. This film, however, is something entirely different.
Like Restrepo, Korengal is a combination of footage from their time in the Korengal Valley, and interviews with the unit as they are preparing to cycle out of deployment and back to America. Unlike Restrepo, Korengal doesn’t address the what of war, but the who and the why. Each member of Battalion 2, Battle Company 2/503 that was stationed in the valley between 2007 and 2008 has a unique story and perspective that accompanies their experiences in war. They’ve each loved and lost, fought and struggled, survived and lived completely different experiences, but they did it all together. For a year and a half they lived, fought, struggled, and survived together. One person’s reaction to a circumstance is totally different from another’s in peace, and in war, and this film does an excellent job of showing different emotional responses to situations as trivial as having a generator at their outpost, to encounters as life changing as almost dying from a bullet to the head. Each person’s intrinsic reaction is different, and Junger did an excellent job of portraying that. For example:
Brendan O’Byrne and Kyle Steiner, Taken by Tim Hetherington
Private First Class Kyle Steiner was out on patrol one day and he took a bullet to the helmet. If it had deviated even half an inch off it’s course, it would have killed him. In a TED Talk Sebastian Junger gave about his time in the Korengal Valley, he described it as a situation where one of the team leaders in the platoon, Brendan O’Byrne, saw Steiner fall back, and thought it had killed him. “He’s been shot in the head, Steiner is down,” they were saying over the radio, but he comes back to consciousness, sits up, shouts into the radio that he’s not dead, and gets up and engages the enemy again. In the film, PFC Steiner said he had never been so scared in his life, but he knew that he was still alive, and guessed that he probably wouldn’t be for long if he stayed where he was, so he got up and did what he thought made sense — shoot the guy who shot at him. O’Byrne described it as the worst day of deployment because he came to the hard realization that he couldn’t protect his men all the time. He wasn’t there for his guy, and that hurt him more than anything.
That’s the dichotomy. People think that soldiers are hardened people who don’t care about other people and aren’t affected by killing, but they are because the bond of brotherhood that comes from fighting for your life beside someone everyday causes those emotions. One person may experience something that others will respond to, but that doesn’t change the experience. One person may react to something that others may not care about, but it doesn’t change the reaction, and Sebastian Junger did something that not very many war correspondents and embedded journalists in today’s mainstream can do well — he told the story. Not a story with spin to make the war look good or bad, but the real story that made war look like what it is: scary, dangerous, sometimes boring, other times not, and utterly terrifying for all involved. The film made you feel it.
In western culture, we tend to glorify war and turn it into something that it isn’t. It isn’t easy, it isn’t fun, and this movie, these men prove that. They aren’t hardened killers who want to kill anyone who crosses their path. They’re people who feel pain and joy and sadness and grief the same way that we do. I’m going to be honest with you — this movie made me cry. Not in the cheesy “I’m watching a Hollywood war movie” kind of way, but genuine tears that came from a place of feeling that I haven’t really felt watching a film in a while. Maybe that’s because I watch documentaries all the time, but that’s neither here nor there.
The fact of the matter is, just like Restrepo, Korengal pulls you in and engrosses you in the story of these men who risked everything for our country. Yes, there is a lot of swearing, and a lot of things that most people in America today would find shocking, but let’s face it, war is a shocking thing. It doesn’t fit in a nice box, and it certainly isn’t pretty. There’s no Hollywood editing to make it seem less scary for the people who lived it in this film. It’s real, and by real, I mean scary real, and I wanted to say thank you to Junger and the whole production team for making the decision to show the world what war really looks like in spite of how it shatters our preconceived notions about war. These two films really opened my eyes to the stark reality that our men and women in combat face on a regular basis.
If you want more information about the film, go to korengalthemovie.com. You don’t necessarily have to watch Restrepo in order to understand this movie, but I highly encourage you to watch both films. They really changed my perspective on what war looks like, and how it impacts people. I can only hope to make films that impact hearts and minds the way this film impacted mine. Also watch the Ted Talk I referenced earlier below. You’ll (hopefully) learn a lot from the talk. I know that I did.
Kendall is a 20-year-old aspiring documentary filmmaker from Park City, Utah, who is attending the Christian film school, Center for Creative Media. After film, some of her chief loves are those of coffee, dogs, and snow. Every week, she takes a look at the odd, uncommon, particularly interesting, and outright obscure ways that people produce creative visual art for the world to see.