Restrepo, a film by the late Tim Hetherington and author Sebastian Junger, was the right film at the right time.
In 2010, America had been at war for almost 10 years. But for all this time, much of the public was at the mall. Very few really knew what was going on “over there,” and despite the attacks on 9/11, the war was heavily politicized, stymieing any exchange. But things were changing amongst the parents, veterans, and others who make up what could be called, “the war community.” There was a vow never to let another generation of veterans be maligned or forgotten. This generation wasn’t going to be invisible.
For the first time since World War II, a massive outreach to active duty and current war vets had grown. Starting in garages, home offices, and organizing via the internet, there were thousands of groups in towns across America. In a spin off of the late WWII journalist Ernie Pyle, service members found their voices through blogging. Suddenly, America had a less-filtered perspective from boots-on-the-ground, as well as insight from Household Six. On a personal note, a family member of mine had been deployed twice. Not only was war part of my lexicon, the community around me was ready and accessible.
So the time was right for Restrepo. There was a need for a film that showed what combat looked like, and more than that –what soldiers thought, and said. With this documentary, America would now a front row seat into the world of combat.
Once Restrepo won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, we knew that the outreach efforts were just beginning. While the critics loved our film, we knew that for the life of the film, it was important that the community from whence it sprang, embraced it as theirs.
Outreach included jumping through the final hoop through the U.S. Army’s motion picture and television public affairs office, OCPA-West. For good measure, we showed it to the Marines too. Restrepo brought together the milbloggers, non-profit organizations, families, private, and government entities. We phoned, we wrote, we even found volunteers to knock on businesses that worked with or hired vets. We had to explain what the movie was about, over and over again. We sent out posters, and postcards to groups all over the U.S. The film screened on bases, in Washington DC, in museums, and film festivals. It also played for the Iowa National Guard, umpteen times for the Red Bulls, pre-deployment. We reached out to organizations of all sizes. From those that ran on a shoestring, to others that had generous budgets. From quilters to snipers, from yogis to milbloggers, and veterans from all wars, the outreach on Restrepo was broad. People who saw it related to the guys on the screen. It became their story, their mission to get the film seen.
And we did. In addition to national press, Tim and Sebastian both went on tours. East coast, West coast, all points in between. Plane, train, automobile –usually a small Toyota. There was good times –with Tim and Sergeant-Major Caldwell in Nashville and Ft Campbell. Sebastian and Tim together in Santa Barbara. When they weren’t screening a film, they were stuck in the hotel room on the phone doing interviews with the press. Sebastian had the double duty of promoting his book WAR at the same time. There were many sleepless nights, and thousands of miles logged as Tim and Sebastian poured their heart into meeting the audiences they wanted to reach. The theaters were packed, and several managers did a lot to welcome Sebastian and Tim, as well as the other soldiers who showed up to share the stage, and answer questions. Audiences packed the house, and veterans from all wars came. Our Facebook page grew, and engagement ran high. We were galloping fast, and our growing posse rode beside us.
Restrepo was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary. Our supporters watched as Sebastian, Tim and Sergeants Aron Hijar and Misha Pemble-Belkin went to the Oscars. Facebook fans created a tribute, “Restrepo in 3 words.”
Unfortunately, we didn’t win. Tim wrote: “Well – we didn’t get to take the little gold man home but we definitely ran the ball pretty damn far down field, taking the war to the red carpet and connecting people to what is happening in Afghanistan. Thanks to everyone for their support during this incredible journey.”
As if making a quilt, we provided the pieces –outreach, communication, and a sense of belonging. The military and veteran supporters did the sewing. In the end, our outreach was successful. Restrepo wasn’t only a film, it became a rallying point for the community.
But then, sometimes, good things do come to an end.
Sadly, as everyone knows, a month later Tim was killed as he was covering the war in Libya. This was devastating, to our team and to the military community who accepted him as one of their own.
At his funeral, American flags that had flown over the US Capitol were presented to his family, and to his girlfriend by four members of Battle Company. But Tim would always stay with us. Sebastian’s next three films, would have a lot to do with Tim. In addition, organizations were started. RISC –which has trained over 200 freelance journalists in advanced first aid was started by Sebastian. The Bronx Documentary Center, which showcases art, photography, and film for the local community was started by his friend Mike Kamber. Tim’s Trust was started by the Hetherington Family.
What our outreach on Restrepo did was to bolster the community already there, bring the wars to the attention of a wider group of people, and build a foundation for all of our other films that would follow.