There’s a long moment of dread near the beginning of Sebastian Junger’s new film about the life and death of Tim Hetherington. A video camera pans around a car full of journalists covering the uprising in Libya in April 2011. Hetherington and Chris Hondros are among them. As the car sets off through war-ravaged streets, Hetherington can be overheard asking, “Which way is the front line from here?”
That scene foreshadows the tragic ending of the film. Hetherington and Hondros died that day in Misrata when the rebels they were with came under mortar attack. Junger unspools those final moments with a deliberate and dramatic recounting by other photographers who were at the scene.
The film–Which Way Is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington–will have its broadcast premiere on April 18 on HBO, which funded the production. The film is both biography and homage, depicting Hetherington as an exceptional photographer and humanitarian, as well as as a warm, funny, generous man. It is also rich with insight about what really matters in photography, and more importantly, life, though the lessons came for Junger–and viewers–at a high cost.
A master story teller to start with, journalist and director Junger could not have had a more sympathetic subject. He also had an unusually rich trove of material to work with: interviews–many of them quite raw emotionally– with so many people who were close to Hetherington, his remarkable photography archive, and plenty of existing video footage.
Much of that was behind-the-scenes footage from Restrepo, the Oscar-winning documentary about a platoon of American soldiers in Afghanistan that Junger and Hetherington made together. But Junger also had plenty of other footage to draw from, most notably that of Hetherington covering the war in Liberia during the 1990s. It was shot by James Brabazon, whom Hetherington worked with at the time.
Junger, an adventure writer and best-selling author of The Perfect Storm, is fascinated by the courage of men who risk their lives with adrenaline-infused feats of derring-do. And Which Way Is the Front Line From Here? is, on one level, a celebration of courage. War is risky. It’s dramatic, and it pulls in audiences. (And Junger explains in the film that he took Hetherington on to help shoot Restrepo partly because of the courage Hetherington had demonstrated in Liberia.)
But Junger is interested in courage in the service of some higher purpose, and Hetherington certainly had that. From the start of his career he was interested in the physical and psychological toll that war takes on individual people. Moreover, he always went in search of hope, not just suffering.
As photojournalist Chris Anderson and others interviewed in the film point out, Hetherington’s work was not primarily about war, but about human nature.
Hetherington says in one of the film’s clips that moral outrage motivated him but wasn’t a useful tool to get people to engage with the stories he told. “I think we need to build bridges to people,” he said. Within Junger’s film is a tutorial on how Hetherington went about it.
In one clip he says he doesn’t care about photography “per se;” for him it was a means to an end, which was to connect with people. That informed his approach, too. Hetherington shot medium format in order to get the camera away from his face, so he could engage directly with his subjects. Those interviewed for the film–including his parents, colleagues, and friends–talk about Hetherington’s warmth and humor toward everyone he met.
And Junger shows it, with numerous clips of Hetherington interacting with all types kinds of subjects, from children to warriors.
Much of Hetherington’s work is about what happens to soldiers who fall under the spell of war. Restrepo, for instance, explores the bonding and self-sacrifice of soldiers in close quarters, trying to help one another survive. One of Hetherington’s central questions, Brabazon points out in the film, is: How do young men see themselves in war, and why? The question infused Hetherington’s work from Liberia to Afghanistan.
Junger’s film suggests that Hetherington ultimately fell under the spell of war himself, and that was his undoing. By various accounts, he was ready by 2010 to quit photographing in and around war. He’d had close calls in Afghanistan. He also feared ending up alone, without a wife and family, if he kept running off to cover stories in conflict zones.
But Hetherington was having difficulty flipping between the realities of his personal life and his work life. And Junger points out that winning the Oscar award for Restrepo was both intoxicating and alarming for Hetherington, presumably because it so strongly affirmed the career path he was trying to escape.
When Libya exploded, Hetherington saw photojournalists–his own band of brothers–running to cover the action. He couldn’t resist the urge to join them. His father, who is interviewed extensively in the film, warned him not to go. So did Chris Anderson, who says in the film that he told Hetherington: “This is not your story right now.” And it wasn’t. The point of Hetherington’s work had never been to document fighting.
Junger’s new film portrays Hetherington as a a rare talent and inspiration, but in so doing it also raises despair, and an imprecation: If only Hetherington had glanced at Libya, and heeded the internal voice that was telling him it was time to leave conflict journalism behind…