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Sebastian Junger on Tim Hetherington’s Death and the Film It Spawned

Featured

Sebastian Junger on Tim Hetherington’s Death and the Film It Spawned

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Tim Hetherington was a complex, charismatic and extremely talented war photographer. Before he was killed by a Libyan bomb blast in April 2011, he had worked in Liberia, Sri Lanka, andAfghanistan where he spent a year embedded with an American platoon alongside writer/filmmaker Sebastian Junger. The result of their collaboration was the Oscar-nominated documentary Restrepo, which focused as much on the male-bonding of war—the camaraderie and intimacy—as on the brutality of combat. Fittingly, Junger and Hetherington themselves became friends. When Junger (best known as the author of The Perfect Storm) learned of Hetherington’s death, he began work on a documentary portrait of his friend. That film—Which Way is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington—premiers April 18th on HBO. Here, I talk to Junger about his and Hetherington’s work, the mixed motivations behind combat journalists, and why war, despite its horrors, can be undeniably intoxicating.

How did you first meet Tim? You said in the film you needed a camera man?
Actually I had already started shooting Restrepo and I was the cameraman. What I needed was a photographer to shoot the still images. That’s how I met Tim. I liked him instantly and our relationship got stronger by the day. Originally we were technically out there on an assignment for Vanity Fair. But we both started shooting video.

So you’re idea for a documentary was separate from the Vanity Fair assignment?
Well, my little secret plan was to write a book about a platoon in combat. I came up with that idea in 2006. And then I thought if I was going to spend so much time with a platoon I might as well shoot video. And shooting video in combat is pretty damn easy.

Why is it easy?
Because combat is really dramatic. And video cameras now are so sophisticated and user-friendly that anyone within can do an adequate job in a few days. Adequate video for a dinner time conversation doesn’t hold anyone’s interest but in a firefight it works fine.

So there was the book project and also the film.
Yeah. I thought if I was going to write a book I may as well have a visual notebook of the experience. I told Tim about my idea, that I really wanted to make a film. He said sure. I don’t think he was really committed to it until we got out there and then he realized what a great story it was. That’s when we formalized the agreement and became partners.

How long after you learned of Tim’s death did you start thinking about the possibility of this new film?
After Tim was killed I decided to interview the journalists who survived the attack. I thought I should videotape it just so I could have it. Many of them came to Tim’s New York memorial—about a month later. That was when I was also able to look at the footage Tim shot the last day of his life, which is awfully dramatic. Between the interviews and that footage, I realized there was a basis for the film. The next stop was Sheila Nevins at HBO. Half an hour after I talked to her, she said “sounds good, let’s do it”.

The film is a tribute to Tim’s talent but also his character. And those two qualities are at times in conflict with each other. At the very least he seems very ambivalent about what he does. Was that something you knew going in or did that come to you in the editing?
One of the reasons his life was complicated—but also why he was so brilliant—was that he over-thought everything. He knew that he thought too much, but it also let him get places intellectually. And at the same time it was a stone around his neck.

The opening scene of the film shows Tim formulating and reformulating answers to the question of why he photographs people. He’s very self-conscious about expressing himself correctly.
What I liked about that opening scene was that you can tell immediately that Tim was someone who could provide the kind of boiler-plate language any interviewer would be absolutely fine with. But then he realizes that the other person being fine with it isn’t enough. So he tries to rephrase his answer again and again until he finds something with real value. The first thing he said sounds fine on paper but it’s fairly hollow. And what he finally said at the end was meaningful. Tim was smart about not living up to other peoples expectations; he needed to live up to his own expectations.

Was there something about Tim that you didn’t expect to learn in the research for the film? I don’t know how much you guys talked about your past while in Afghanistan.
We talked a lot and I knew him pretty well. But what I hadn’t appreciated about him—because I knew him in the context of war—was how engaged and open he was with his subjects. Especially dealing with the young children in Sri Lanka. I mean you knew that about him—he could be very lovely and friendly to people—but I didn’t realize how he used that quality in his work to open people up and turn someone who could have been a stranger into a real person.

A lot of people have made the analogy about war correspondents that combat is like an addictive drug. This comes up a bit in the film, but not that much. Did you think Tim’s need to go to Libya was something of a compulsion? And addiction?
I think the word addiction is overused and a little strong. But I think his motivations for covering combat were similar to other journalists I know. There’s a spectrum from noble to self-serving. At the more noble end, people do feel that the tragedies must be documented so they don’t happen in darkness. That’s a very strong motivator––a noble and a true one. And journalists really do risk their lives to that end. But no one does it for entirely noble reasons. The other part of it is that combat is incredibly exciting, stimulating, meaningful––all these intoxicating things. It’s a bit like surfers when the surfs up. “Oh, we gotta get down to the beach, the surf is huge.” They want to have an intoxicating experience even if it is deadly. And finally, Tim is an ambitious man, like I am, like most journalists are. And wars provide an incredible opportunity to do good work and advance your work.

Most of your books or films have been about manly men in direct confrontation with the world. But Tim was an intellectual and artist. Was this new for you—to be looking at the role of an artist?
It’s an interesting point. I appreciate art but it doesn’t interest me as a subject for journalism. I made the film because Tim got killed. It ended up being about photography because Tim was a photographer; and it ended up being about war because Tim took photographs of war. But you’re right because it is fundamentally different than any other subject I’ve ever covered. Because a) it’s a biography and b) Tim was an artist. So yes, it’s new territory. But that’s what the subject demanded. The film happened because I felt a strong obligation to make it.