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Sebastian Junger’s Documentary Korengal Is “For the Soldiers”

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An image from the documentary 'Korengal.' (Photo: Outpost Films)

An image from the documentary Korengal. (Photo: © Outpost Films)

Maybe it’s just me. But when I read about the recent release of American soldier Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, I wondered, “What does Sebastian Junger think of all this?”

Junger is the author of The Perfect Storm, a war journalist, and the co-director of the Academy Award-nominated documentary Restrepo, an immersive depiction of combat in Afghanistan. Junger hasn’t covered the Bergdahl incident, but his keen, unflinching perspective on war is the sort I’ve come to respect. His latest documentary, Korengal, a deeply affecting look at the same company of soldiers in Restrepo, has started its theatrical run in New York.

“Obviously the kid suffered and I am moved by his suffering,” Junger says of Bergdahl. “But it seems he deserted his post. And to walk off your base and to compromise your brothers is a tremendous betrayal and tremendously selfish.”

Junger believes Obama did the right thing in trading for Bergdahl. But that wasn’t the reason we were talking. Junger is promoting Korengal, a film that was made from footage already shot for Restrepo.

Restrepo was for the civilians back home to experience war in a visceral way,” he says. “Korengal is for the soldiers. It’s trying to unpack and to understand the experience of war and its impact on young men.”

Junger structures the film as a meditation on questions such as what courage means, the function of fear, and why soldiers miss war when they are back home.

In Korengal, the soldiers are so bracingly honest that the film keeps hacking closer and closer to the complicated, dark heart of war. We hear about the tension between a platoon leader and the soldiers whose lives he puts on the line, the soldiers’ thrill of killing and their nihilistic despair in that “s—- valley” of Korengal.

Junger has gone to some dark places, but he’s also self aware — he jokes that he’ll be working on an upcoming cooking show.

I couldn’t resist asking what Junger thought of The Perfect Storm star Mark Wahlberg’s thrilling Hollywood feature, Lone Survivor, which is based on a disastrous U.S. engagement in Afghanistan. “I didn’t see it,” he says. “The soldiers I was with really hated that book. So I was predisposed to be against it. It’s a Hollywood film that has very little to do with the reality of war.”  He declines comparisons to his two documentaries noting that “in a documentary the dead don’t get up and walk away after the scene is over.”

As I’ve written here before, his friend and Restrepo co-director Tim Hetherington died in Libya, so revisiting the footage for Korengal was particularly emotional for Junger.

Immediately after Hetherington was killed, he decided not to cover war any more. “I miss those days,” Junger says. “But I am also relieved I am not doing it any more.”

Korengal is now playing in New York City, soon in Los Angeles, then in select cities across the country. For show times, visit korengalthemovie.com.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki