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About Utah: Team of journalists gives a rare look at life on battle front

Published: Saturday, Jan. 30 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington spent the better part of 10 months in what may be the world's most dangerous place — the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan, crossroads where the Taliban, al-Qaida and America's War on Terror intersect.

They got shot at. A lot. But they never shot back.

Who are these guys? Quakers? Masochists? Lunatics?

Nope. Journalists.

Junger, who you may remember as the man who wrote the bestseller "The Perfect Storm," and Hetherington, a decorated news photographer and reporter, went to Afghanistan to chronicle exactly what it's like to be on the front lines, or "the tip of the spear," as the Korengal Valley has been called.

From much of May of 2007 to July of 2008, they de facto joined the U.S. Army, settling in alongside the infantrymen of 2nd Platoon.

In all, they shot 150 hours of frontline life, capturing hours of boredom interspersed by moments of terror.

They distilled it down to 94 minutes and brought it to Sundance in the form of the documentary "Restrepo," named after Juan Restrepo, a 2nd Platoon medic who never made it home.

You could call it just another war documentary, but that would be discounting the fact that there's never been a war documentary quite like this.

"The more we got into it, the more we began to recognize this is something that hasn't been done before," said Hetherington as he and Junger ran from one media appearance to another at Sundance.

This isn't a reenactment, or an as-told-to, or a narrative.

This is a fly-on-the-wall who had a camera.

I asked the two journalists if it was tough getting accepted by 2nd Platoon.

"At first it was yes sir, no sir, they were very cautious," Hetherington said. "But when they realized we were in every firefight, every patrol, that we did everything they did except guard duty and shooting, they opened up."

On his third "deployment" with the platoon, Hetherington broke his leg during a patrol and had to hike on it through the night carrying a 70-pound pack while the Taliban circled. On his second trip to the Korengal, Junger was almost blown up by a roadside bomb.

"Oh, we could have died," said Junger in answer to the question everyone asks.

The most dramatic, and traumatic, of their footage is a firefight where an American soldier is killed.

The film is so unique and compelling that even before Sundance, National Geographic bought the TV rights.

All the attention has kept Junger and Hetherington in high demand at Sundance. For 10 days, they have been making appearances and granting interviews practically nonstop, hoping to attract further interest from distributors and film festivals.

In some ways, said Junger, it's not that different than being on the front lines.

"It's similar in that you're not in the real world in both places," he said. "That was a stressful environment but this is, too. People have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars and here is where you see if it's going to happen or not. Being at war is simpler. It's black and white.

There are no phones, no e-mail. In a way that was easier."

Although, to be fair, no one's shooting at them here.

Lee Benson's column runs daily during the Sundance Film Festival. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com.

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