Which Way is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington Director Sebastian Junger
One great journalist salutes another in Which Way is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington, a moving combat documentary premiering Thursday, April 18 on HBO. The film is celebrated author-turned-director Sebastian Junger’s tribute to Hetherington, the British-American photojournalist who co-helmed the Oscar-nominated Restrepo with Junger, and tragically lost his life in 2011 while covering Libya’s civil war. Like Restrepo, which ditched political agendas to get at the human core of a platoon of soldiers stationed in Afghanistan, Which Way is the Front Line From Here? pins its focus on the heart and unquenchable drive of a man, who found not just success, but great meaning in capturing truth in areas few would dare set foot. Compiled by Junger from a wealth of Hetherington’s footage and still photography from Libya, Liberia, and beyond, the movie stands as a form of closure for a media maker who lost a great friend, while also adding texture and interest to the ever-blending worlds of journalism and filmmaking.
A veritable legend in his field, Junger is, of course, the man behind such bestsellers as The Perfect Storm, Fire, and War, the accompaniment to Restrepo and Junger’s Vanity Fair articles about his and Hetherington’s embed with the Afghanistan platoon (Junger continues to serve as a Vanity Fair contributing editor). His work has now netted him accolades in the arenas of both print and cinema, affirming his enduring (and malleable) gift for unflinching storytelling. Junger recently took some time to chat about his HBO doc, the pluck and passion of his late friend and colleague, and the journalistic virtues he hopes to continue to bring to the screen.
Filmmaker: Surely it must have been a bit painful revisiting all of this while making the film. Would you say the drive to tell Tim’s story was on an even keel with any emotional toll the process might have taken on you?
Junger: I’m not sure if it made the emotional experience worse. It just was very painful to lose Tim, and I think it was going to be painful in all kinds of unexpected ways. Making the film, there were moments when I got kind of emotional, and then there were moments when I just felt like I was doing a good piece of work, and I would almost kind of forget it was about something so tragic. Both things were happening. Without making the film, I think I might have even felt kind of helpless and passive. And this made me feel a little bit more active. I think it actually helped.
Filmmaker: In the first shot, you establish Tim’s genuineness by showing him delivering a manifesto, then repeatedly checking himself and dismissing his words as “bullshit.” When did you know that’s how you wanted to open the movie?
Junger: Pretty early on. We found that, and it was classic Tim, who thought and over-thought about almost everything he did, which is one of the things that made him such a brilliant photographer and such an interesting and engaging person. It didn’t make his own life any easier, but [that portion] really showed him in a very interesting light. Also, when you talk about poverty, and war, and things like that, there’s a kind of boilerplate language that everyone kind of expects. And if you deliver that language, everyone’s fine, everyone’s happy, and you don’t get in trouble, but no good really comes of it either, because it’s so…pasteurized. And Tim could spit out that language as well as anyone could, but he also knew it was bullshit, and that, if you really want to do something useful, you need to speak honestly, and sometimes that means saying things that make people uncomfortable. So that’s why he kept editing himself and revising himself—he realized he was just spitting that kind of language out, and that it was useless.
Filmmaker: Immediately, there’s also a juxtaposition that’s established, both in the footage you’ve selected and in the tone: You have Tim’s painterly shots and compositions in there (even the grime that bisects a car windshield is handsome), and an upbeat song playing in the car Tim’s riding in, but it’s amid all of this danger and grittiness. Is that also a reflection of how you viewed Tim’s work? He seemed to have been born to pull beauty out of ugliness.
Junger: Yeah. I mean, he could also find the ugliness in things too. First and foremost, that scene was at the start of the movie because that was the start of his day in Misrata—the day he died. And that was what the windshield looked like, and that’s what was playing in the radio. So that was just a slice of reality. But there were things about that reality that I kinda liked. I hadn’t noticed the windshield, but now that you mention it, it is a nice touch. But also, one of the things that’s surprising about war is the sort of everyday quality of it. People do listen to the Bee Gees while driving to the front line. They do stop for lunch while they’re fighting. They do have romances, and play chess, and do their laundry. All kinds of mundane things go on in the middle of all this violent drama. And one of the things I liked about that specific scene is how young the driver looked, and how he was awkward and a little aware of himself in front of the camera. And there’s the cheesiness of the music—the whole scene made me sit back, and think, “That’s war.” It said a lot about the modern experience of combat.
Filmmaker: In the film, Tim says that photography liberated him from the workplace, and made him free. Have you felt the same way as a writer and a journalist who works so often out in the field?
Junger: Yeah, but while the work did allow Tim to travel, I think he meant it more in the sense that the work gave him freedom from his somewhat constrained, upper-middle-class English roots. I think that’s what he meant. If you just follow it back a little bit, one of the reasons he wanted to travel was to get out of that sort of English atmosphere. I think a lot of people who do this job can relate to that. I came from an American suburb [in Belmont, Massachusetts], and it was an appallingly uninteresting place. And appallingly safe. And I think a lot of people who do this job are trying to escape the withering boredom of where they grew up. I think people who grow up in violent, troubled, dramatic and dynamic places probably don’t find war particularly appealing.
Filmmaker: There’s some really indelible imagery in the movie. One shot, for example, that jumped out at me is the one that sees Tim literally aiming his camera down the barrel of an anti-aircraft gun in Liberia. You were, of course, familiar with Tim’s work, but were you alarmed by any discoveries you made while making this project and culling this footage together?
Junger: The footage from Liberia was pretty dramatic. He got through that okay, but it looked like it was awfully dangerous. I really hadn’t quite realized what he’d been doing over there.
Filmmaker: Tim expresses some self-doubt in the film about putting so much on the line, simply for a picture. Surely you must relate to that in your own reporting, having visited plenty of dangerous places. Can you think of a specific time in your career when you felt the danger was just too great and changed your plans?
Junger: Well that happens constantly. You’re making decisions about what to do on assignment, and you’re constantly adjusting them because you don’t quite trust this guy who’s offering to take you someplace. Sometimes the decision wind up being paranoid ones, and sometimes they do prove to be very sensible. You’re just constantly adjusting that dial. When I was in Liberia during the civil war, there was a lot of fighting downtown, and I didn’t go down there. I had been accused of being a spy, by the government, and I was sort of in hiding. And there were a lot of government checkpoints that I would have had to talk my way through. The boys at those things were really terrifying. They were just drugged-out child soldiers who were really psychotic. It was too dangerous. I was too scared to go down there.
Filmmaker: Similarly, Tim states that he has no interest in photography, per se, but in reaching people and connecting with them through views of the world. Do you find more interest or reward in your subjects than in the actual work?
Junger: I mean, the subjects are the work. They’re sort of one and the same. If I’m not interested in someone or something, then the work’s not going to be interesting. I can’t really pull them apart. The work, to me, is incredibly exciting. Writing and filmmaking—particularly writing—are really exciting processes for me. I think I’m probably more alive and illuminated when I’m actually putting all together than when I’m in the field. But it’s a tough call. They’re both so necessary that it’s hard to separate them.
Filmmaker: This film, of course, eventually leads to the making of Restrepo, at which point it’s established that Tim really wanted to capture the men and not necessarily the conflict. Did you feel the same? Did you and Tim approach the project with the same intentions?
Junger: Well neither of us had any interest in the political dimensions of the war, whether it was the geo-strategic dimensions or evaluating if it was right or wrong. Tim was a little bit more attuned to the sort of quieter dramas of the whole thing—the relationships between the men, the boredom, and lots of things that don’t look like an obvious story. If he hadn’t been, he wouldn’t have thought to do his photo series “Sleeping Soldiers” [which is referenced in Junger's film]. You know, a photo of a soldier who’s asleep is the epitome of a story that’s not happening a combat zone. Clearly nothing’s happening: the whole platoon’s asleep. Tim saw that that actually was an important part of what’s happening out there, and he captured it photographically in a way that had really never been captured before. So he was attuned to that in a way that I wasn’t, and I kind of learned from him about that. But really, both of us were just interested in what it feels like to be a soldier, and in somehow capturing that with our words, with our video, and with his still images.
Filmmaker: Tim also states that he was surprised by the amount and the extent of the combat you encountered at Restrepo. Were you surprised as well?
Junger: I was surprised. I was with American forces once in 2005, and it was my first time embedded. We were only in one firefight in two weeks. I head out to Restrepo, and we’re hit four times in one day. Iraq was the big story; Afghanistan was thought of as a peace-keeping mission. Even the soldiers were worried they weren’t going to see any combat over there. Before they deployed, they were worried that they were just going to be sitting around drinking tea. That was not the case.
Filmmaker: In this movie, you yourself say that “as a journalist, you are part of a machine that’s hurting people,” and that you can feel shame because of that. Can you expound on that statement a bit?
Junger: Well, you’re not killing people, but you are documenting it, witnessing it, and making a living off of it. Another war-reporter friend of mine once wrote, “I should be punished for some of the things I’ve seen.” I think war reporting is a completely honorable and necessary profession, but it does on some level, maybe unconsciously, make you feel like you’re feeding off the darkness in humanity. And it feels like it creates a kind of moral burden. You may not be aware of it for years, but eventually it breaks through. And I wouldn’t change a thing about the way I’ve led my life in that regard. So I’m not regretting anything, but I am understanding—and Tim understood a little more clearly—the moral burden that comes with making a living off of other people’s suffering, and other people’s tragedy. Emergency room doctors do it, lawyers do it. This isn’t the only profession that does that, but there is something to think about there.
Filmmaker: On that note, I surely doubt there’s anyone who doesn’t view Tim’s death as a tragedy, but some might say that, in choosing this line of work, he set himself up for devastation, and maybe it isn’t such a surprise that he lost his life in the process. What would you to someone with that kind of view on things?
Junger: I would say that they’re right. Tim chose to do something very dangerous. So did I. So do firemen. So do soldiers. So do loggers, and commercial fishermen, and even farmers. Farming is very dangerous. All of these people are choosing, freely, to do something that is incredibly gratifying and meaningful on the one hand, and incredibly dangerous on the other. And they get killed doing it. And I don’t think it would surprise them if they could somehow know about their own deaths.
Filmmaker: At a certain point, there’s a passage that acknowledges that Tim couldn’t stop doing his job, the way, perhaps, in which they say some soldiers grow addicted to combat life. Do you think Tim was addicted to this type of work?
Junger: No, I think “addicted” is too strong a word. That implies a kind of helplessness or powerlessness. Combat journalists who keep going back to war zones are not powerless; they’re actually making a choice. They really want that. And I don’t think it rises to the level of addiction. Adrenaline’s a chemical, and it does some drug-like affects on the brain, but I wouldn’t call this a literal addiction. It’s more like a compulsion, meaning, “If I keep doing this, it’s what gives my life meaning, and if I don’t do this, my life won’t have meaning.” That’s obviously not true, but it can feel true. I think that sense of compulsion is what drives people back again and again, but there is a strong adrenaline experience that reinforces all of that pretty powerfully.
Filmmaker: One of the most interesting portions of this film sees you and Tim at all of these awards ceremonies for Restrepo, all the while knowing, firsthand, about so many dire things going on in the world. Despite the honors, did you feel a disconnect from the people at these events? A sense of triviality?
Junger: Well, I gotta say, if you don’t feel a disconnect when you’re in Hollywood, you’ve got a problem. That’s just true of anybody. Or should be. Maybe it’s a little more extreme for a foreign reporter. I mean, we were watching the Arab Spring and we were, in some ways, quite thrilled, thinking, “Wow, the Arab world is finally throwing off the chains of U.S.-backed dictatorships that have oppressed them for decades, and the chains of religious zealots who’ve been trying to control Islamic society.” We were thrilled for that. It was clearly going to come at the cost of a lot of blood, and that’s tragic, but ultimately, we were quite excited for the world that these changes were happening, and we wanted to be back out there. We realized we were at a point where the work that we did could rise even to the level of the Oscars, and that was a good thing. We thought we could go into the world, cover the Arab Spring, and maybe get that same kind of visibility. We didn’t see a contradiction. The contrast was a little odd, but in a way, it was perfect. There’s nothing worse than doing good work and having it disappear. And the opposite was probably going to happen with us, and we were thrilled about that.
Filmmaker: The whole thing speaks to this transition that’s happening in your own career, wherein traditional journalism and filmmaking are merging. How do you feel about this evolution? What excites you about it?
Junger: Well, I’m new to making film. I think it’s really interesting and fruitful that the different media are not being ghettoized. It’s not like, “Oh there are writers and they’ll never pick up a camera,” or, “There are photographers, and they’ll never write anything.” That was sort of the old school way. Photographers who try to write about the world often wind up writing really interesting things, and it adds to our understanding of the world. And they may not even be great writers, but they’re writing about the world as people who take in the world visually, and it’s fantastic. One of the reasons Restrepo was good was that neither of us had never made a film. I barely even watched documentaries. I had no idea what I was doing, and Tim had very little idea of what he was doing. We came at it from a really fresh perspective, and I think because it was such a new thing, we created a really original movie. And I think if we each had had 10 documentaries behind us, Restrepo wouldn’t have been the original film that it was. So this crossover that’s happening, I think it’s really exciting, and it stirs things up in a really powerful way.
Filmmaker: As someone who’s had this illustrious career as an author and a journalist and a man of the world, and is, presumably, going to move ahead with more film projects, what do you hope to bring, or add, to the film landscape?
Junger: I don’t think I’ve done enough films to presume to bring anything to the world of film. That would feel a little grandiose. But I do feel licensed to speak as a journalist. And when I make films, I’m making them as a journalist—I’m a journalist who happens to be using a movie camera to communicate a story. And I feel like there’s a line that’s blurred in documentary film between advocacy and journalism. And many documentary films are advocacy. And for very worthy causes: global warming, prisoners being mistreated, whatever. These are great causes and they’re very important, but it’s advocacy. And the filmmaker has a point of view, and he’s at least potentially self-selecting in the information he uses. And he, or she, wants to promote his or her point of view and make you think the way he or she does. It’s all a necessary and totally legitimate thing to do, but it’s not journalism. In journalism, you really have to struggle to play prosecution and defense at the same time, whatever your personal opinions are. You can’t be trying to lead your reader or viewer to a forgone conclusion that happens to be your conclusion. The reason it’s so important to draw that fine line between advocacy and journalism is if you don’t, then you have to call Fox News journalism. And it’s not. And I feel like the documentary world, on the opposite end of the political spectrum, is sort of committing the same sin, and blurring a political agenda with journalism. And there’s real danger there, a real loss. In my work as a filmmaker, I would like to remain a journalist, and to make that distinction very clear.