I’ve been waiting for months to review Scott Kesterson and David Leeson’s film, “At War.” I finally received a copy for review purposes and took awhile this afternoon to sit down and screen it all by myself.
I’m glad that I was alone.
I have permission to share it with family, which I will do, at least with my immediate family and my older children. I am still glad that the first time I saw it, I saw it alone. I’ve read that when it was screened at the Milblogging Conference, many Afghan vets were deeply affected by the film. I was immediately engaged by “At War,” but about a third of the way through it, I was wondering what was different about me that it wasn’t affecting me so deeply.
At the end of it, I sat there stunned; a tear rolling slowly down my left cheek, glad to be alone. It’s that good, that powerful.
It wasn’t a single moment that took me there. It was the entirety of it. There was so much of my experience in it. Scott Kesterson and his collaborators have captured the unique experience of what was like to be there, especially as an ETT or PMT. The only thing missing was the gritty taste of the Afghan dust and the distinct smell of cooking fires in the villages.
Kesterson’s ground-level visuals are more than just documentary. He captures the impressions. He captures those moments that I think that all of us who have served as advisors have had. He captures the simple truths about working with Afghans. He captures the frustration and even the humor of dealing with the Afghan personality as advisors work to convert the raw warrior into a soldier. He captures the drawbacks and the small joys; finding your influence making little differences in the way that these men, whose fierceness cannot be denied but whose disorganization is just as marked, do their jobs.
“At War” also captures the sense of caring that develops between an advisor and his charges. You can see the duality of the cat herder and the brother-at-arms who speaks only a few words of his brother’s language yet gets the intent of so many communications. As one advisor goes “grocery shopping” for hamburger on the hoof for his men, you see the paternal aspect of the mentor.
The soundtrack is unique and, I thought, very well done. This is not a soundtrack done twenty years later, seeking to evoke a sense of period via aural memories; it is a distinct soundtrack made for this movie. At times folksy, at times the edgy metallic background that draws one more deeply into the tension of the moments when death can suddenly materialize like an entity in your midst, this soundtrack adds shading to the color. It is not an attempt to shoehorn popular culture into what is not a popular experience. It is seasoning, adding to a flavor so few have tasted. It gives this film a flavor as distinctly different from the standard American experience as kabuli pilau is different from McDonalds.
Kesterson captures the Canadians doing a fantastic job as well. He captures Canadians advising and as maneuver forces, showing that the Afghan experience is the Afghan experience, not just an American Afghan experience. The Canadians do themselves proud, and Scott Kesterson’s videography captures it.
Kesterson’s triumph transcends the excellent capture of the moments that bring the Afghan experience home. It’s also what this film is missing. While the editing carries the veteran viewer like the current of the deployment, you cannot edit some things in or out. Kesterson is a participant, and he’s accepted. He’s just like another rifleman, grenadier, or gunner… except his weapon system is a camera. There is no friction between the journalist and those he is with. You can just tell that he is accepted as a professional in a soldierly sense. It’s hard to explain how you can accept someone as a professional and still feel burdened by them when you have to carry them along with you operationally. There is no sense that Kesterson is viewed in this light by those with whom he embeds. He’s another combat system operator. This comes out not only in the way that he operates around teams of men under fire, but also in the way that they speak as if they are not talking to a camera. They aren’t. They are speaking to Scott Kesterson, a guy they know and accept, who just happens to have a camera on.
It’s hard to explain how rare, and therefore how brilliant, that is.
“At War” is a film that I can point to and say, “That’s it. That’s what it was like. That’s a sample of my experience in Afghanistan.” There is a total lack of judgment in “At War.” It’s not a morality play or a political message; it’s an experience captured.
Afghan veterans, beware; this film may kick your ass. For those who want to get a sense of what it’s like, “At War” is the best you can do without deploying.