A few quotes from the makers:
On the best advice for a documentary filmmaker: “Do not, under and circumstances, cede editorial control of the film to anyone else.” They did not and financed the shoot themselves.
On not including close up graphic shots in the film (despite having filmed them): “It’s better to watch death from a distance. It forces the viewer to be more engaged. A shocking close up disconnects”.
Tim says that the camera became his gun giving him a way to control the experience (“the camera was my gun. (...) Because of it I was not afraid.”)
Indeed, the immediacy of this film is shocking from the moment it becomes clear that the filmmakers are right in the middle of combat and their obsession with covering the scene at times stays ahead of their safety, while the soldiers main objectives is kill the enemy without getting killed.
So, what does it take to provide the viewer with an emotional experience of the events filmed? Clearly being close to the subject of the storytelling, becoming one of its participants and acquiring their perspective helps. But there is more: a balance of restrain and immediacy is needed as well. It seems that to the makers of Restrepo withdrawing certain elements of the subject matter (not creating a narrative porn with showing everything in full detail, and I do not mean only the physical stuff) makes space for the viewer to experience that which the heros themselves struggle with.
The filmmakers select their canvas and style by sticking to the filmed unit, by avoiding an attempt to give the “bigger picture”, by limiting their ways of handling traumatic moments, by carefully entering (or not entering) the psyche of their heros. The combination of these decisions is very powerful.
The audience together with the characters on screen does not fully comprehend or is able to fully process the experience. And, contrary to the intuitive urge to show more, this controlled discrepancy between the limited narrative approach and obviously full filmmaking access to the surface of events creates an emotional, gut wrenching feeling of being in the middle of things. Because being in the middle excludes full control and understanding.