The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Battle Company: Korengal

Written by Emma Varnam.

Photo from the article “This is what war feels like”

Battle Company: Korengal presents a vivid insight into the horrors of war, dealing with how combat passes the boundaries of the known and into dark territories. Forget the polished video footage of the usual televised fly-on-the-wall war documentary that shows us the horrors of the front line from the safe constraints of Camp Bastion. This looks deeper - far deeper - into a barren place where a group of men are alone against skilled fighters. The Taliban are represented as an irreverent force, skilled in their manoeuvring of heavy artillery and knowledge of the land. They move quickly and precisely, creating a force far greater than expected. Battle Company: Korengal is Sebastian Junger’s (author of The Perfect Storm: A True Story oo Men Against the sea and 2010’s War) follow-on from his Oscar nominated documentary Restrepo (2010). Following a platoon for several months on a tour at Outpost Restrepo, it paints a clear picture of the effects of war - both physically and mentally.

Junger presents a verité documentary that hides nothing and bares all but in an interesting way. Instead of presenting the stereotypical war report with long shots of firefights and shaky handheld footage, Junger presents a heart-to-heart experience. The soldiers belonging to the platoon pour their hearts out on all matter of topics but mainly on the struggles of leaving the camp and engaging with the enemy. The pure visceral power of battle is prevalent in the accounts shared by the soldiers but gory footage does not follow. Footage of gun fights followed by expressions of exhilaration are shown which clearly changes our expectations - “I’m on fire” shouts a member of the platoon. What we must remember is our own experiences are purely made from what is (re)presented to us in whatever way the director intends. We place our trust in the hands of the people that create such documentaries and to some extent base our opinions of events on how narratives are presented to us through the media.

One of the most notable scenes is where one member of the platoon discusses people’s reaction to being at war and his disgust when someone states, “You did what you had to do”. This particular soldier explains his thoughts into the choices of signing up for the military and his path of choice whilst in combat: “You do terrible things then you have to live with them afterwards”. Documentary style is an interesting concept: we are consistently exposed to documentary footage via the news but perhaps sub-consciously accept the facts. However, this footage is a hard-hitting and vivid attempt to deal with the intimate approaches to coping with war’s trauma. It is a first-hand account of the attitudes that we do not hear, those from the soldiers rather than the military or government.

Trauma is a feeling that everyone experiences throughout their lives - some more than others. Our reactions to trauma might be different but it all points towards the notion of losing something that we love most. Julia Kristeva’s idea of abjection links well with this idea - her discussion of what threatens from the inside out highlights the issues in coping with trauma:

“There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark re- volts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable.” (Kristeva, 1982)

Trauma is presented in a number of ways throughout the documentary but not quite as expected with a war documentary. There are no close-ups of spewing blood nor limbs hanging off. Instead there is a focus on loss of brothers, loss of friendship and loss of a connection with the outside world. Their very identity as people and as soldiers is put on the line and redesigned through their experiences. Dealing with trauma on the battlefield in fact consists of expelling what threatens us. At times, these are the demons that lie on the inside and that threaten the outside world.

There is no true voice or political stance from the director throughout the documentary. Instead, the audience are allowed to interact with the platoon. This enjoyable touch makes it clear that Junger’s intentions were to present the realities of war and the psychological effects of loss. Junger’s footage is also aided with footage shot by the late Tim Hetherington. It is this element that makes the piece such a touching watch - particularly when the credits are interjected with poignant photography taken throughout the filmmakers’ tour.

Authenticity is an important element of a successful war documentary particularly when dealing with the soldiers themselves. A number of polished documentaries present the political side of the post-9/11 landscape, perhaps at times overlooking the true horror of not just combat but loss. When exploring the theme of loss within this documentary, death is discussed but other kinds of loss are given just as much attention. Soldiers talk openly about coming to terms with losing their friends but also the loss of leaving the camp and returning on their rest and recovery periods. Unlike Restrepo (2010), which deals more with the engagement of the enemy, we are allowed to explore the ‘safe’ haven of the camp and the soldiers’ inner thoughts.

A scene that captured my attention was when the platoon visit the local village to discuss the troubles with the village and their elders. A menacing atmosphere soon follows, featuring raised voices and close-ups of angered village elders. Suspicion surrounds the meeting and tension is built when villagers are asked to report Taliban dealings. This summons a number of questions within the audience, particularly with regard to ideas of trust and vulnerability out on the battlefield.

The documentary strangely presents a mixture of shocking moments, where moments during which soldiers describe graphic encounters with the enemy and the loss of soldiers are placed against a backdrop of childish humour and discussions of what celebrities would win in a fight. Strangely, bravery is a topic avoided - one that doesn’t appear to exist. One soldier admits, “I’m not doing this for recognition for my country” but that he is doing it for the soldiers within his platoon.

Morally, the film encourages us to question the Taliban’s influence on village elders, the US military’s rules of engagement and the aims of military operations. Was it worth it? Restrepo is the place that nightmares are made of - no toilets, no running water and Taliban hot on your tail. Forget about running - the only option is to face reality head on. It is a place that perhaps did not have an awful lot of coverage throughout the ‘War on Terror’ - and following watching this documentary it is clear why. Following 173rd Airborne Brigade’s tour at Outpost Restrepo, troops were soon withdrawn from the post and the mission aborted.

A vulnerable spot where lives were lost, friendships built and maybe truths revealed. The aim of all documentary films is to report the outside world to those without access - it enables us to form our own opinion and present evidence of events to us. This reconstruction of the real world perhaps enables its audience to create a sense of meaning and deal with the realities of what the post 9/11 landscape really looks like.

“You hear the snap of a bullet shoot past your head, there’s nothing else like it”

Not only is Battle Company: Korengal a vivid insight into the trauma of war; it is also a beautiful, cinematic masterpiece, presenting one of the most beautiful places on Earth and juxtaposing it with perhaps one its most turbulent fighting grounds. It will be one of the most touching, apolitically motivated documentaries involving the US military that you will ever watch - its careful documentary storytelling ensures that we are steered towards a ‘truth’ shared by the soldiers themselves.

This Alternate Take was published on September 07, 2014.

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