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No Concessions: Sebastian Junger and His Elegiac Film for Tim Hetherington

Welcome to FADER’s new film column hosted by me, Michael Zelenko. What can you expect to see here every week? Interviews with up-and-coming, original talent; conversations with first-time directors as well as veterans of the field; spotlights on smaller films you may not have heard about and films from beyond America’s borders. Sometimes we might do a roundup of the best “Exciting Military Movies Based on Real Life” Netflix has to offer, or maybe even dip into TV. Other times we’ll talk to costume designers, animal trainers and other film crew members you rarely hear from. Next week, we’ll be going to the Tribeca Film Festival. It’ll be an engaging and interesting space. Most importantly, it will give you something to talk about just in time for the weekend.

I’m thrilled to kick this column off with a conversation with award-winning journalist and Academy Award-nominated documentarian Sebastian Junger about his newest project, Which Way Is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington, an HBO Documentary Film debuting today. Incorporating new and archived interviews alongside excerpts from footage shot by Hetherington throughout his career, Which Way Is the Front Line from Here? offers a crushingly moving portrait of the conflict photojournalist who lost his life in a mortar attack while shooting in Misrata, Libya in 2011.

A rakishly handsome and tall Brit, Hetherington stood out like a sore thumb in war ravaged Liberia, where he made a name for himself as a photojournalist in the early 2000s. Being conspicuous was a dynamic Hetherington tackled head-on by establishing close relationships with his subjects, dismissing journalism’s mantra of fly-on-the-wall objectivity. But establishing those relationships also proved emotionally taxing: during one interview in Which Way Is the Front Line from Here?, we hear Hetherington break down in tears as he recounts a particularly tragic loss during an assignment in Afghanistan. After a decade of war reporting, in 2010 Hetherington returned to the States, seemingly weary of covering conflict and in search for a more sedentary lifestyle. But just months later, Hetherington found himself abroad once more—this time in the midst of a bloody Libyan revolution. It would prove to be his last assignment.

It’s hard to imagine a better-suited director to tackle such a delicate subject than Sebastian Junger. Junger and Hetherington are cut from the same cloth: sober and hardened journalists whose works exhibit deep wells of compassion and who chose war as the prism through which to understand their worlds. Together, they made 2010’s Restrepo, the Academy Award-nominated film documenting a harrowing year in the life a platoon stationed in Afghanistan’s most dangerous corner. The bond formed between the two journalists during that year is on display here, and the admiration Junger felt for Hetherington is palpable. Which Way is the Front Line from Here? doesn’t recount the sum of Tim Hetherington’s life. Instead, it feels like a eulogy, or else a farewell letter to a friend who’s left on assignment for a very, very long time.

What propelled you to make Which Way is the Front Line from Here? Some of the journalists who survived the attack [in which Hetherington died] were coming to New York for the memorial service for Tim and Chris Hondros. I thought I would take the opportunity to interview them just to find out what had happened—I had a lot of questions. I thought if I was going to interview them, I should do it properly in a studio. We also got a chance to see the footage that Tim had shot on his last day—very dramatic, powerful footage. At that point, Nick Quested, the producer on the film, decided we had the material for a very powerful documentary. We took it to HBO a couple months later and they okayed the project.

In the first scene of the film, we see Tim trying to explain the mission behind his work. He takes a few stabs at it, but can’t quite seem to get it right. Having worked with Tim for so long, what did you understand his mission to be? Generally for most of us [journalists], and Tim was no exception, the motivation to go to war and cover war—on the more noble end of the spectrum—is a sense of moral responsibility to document the suffering of other people. To document it and to broadcast it, like they did in Bosnia, and like we tried to do in various famines. Then, in combat there’s a tremendous amount of adrenaline involved. It feels very intense, very meaningful. It’s very exciting, frankly. And finally, Tim was a very ambitious person, as are most journalists. War is an excellent place to do good work and be recognized for it.

One of the recurring themes of this film is that although Tim was a journalist, he also stepped out of the classic, objective boundaries of journalism. He made connections, he got involved. He wasn’t a daily news reporter—he’d never done that kind of thing. That allowed him to think more deeply about the story. When he was using his camera, he didn’t engage people in order to take photos. He used his camera almost as an excuse to engage people. He wanted to understand their experiences and tell their stories. He really, truly did. Photography wasn’t even the point. It was sort of a means to an end. He said he was a story teller, and he used visual media, or any media, to tell stories. I think he actually would’ve used crayons to tell his stories if they allowed him to. He had no allegiance to the camera per se; it was just one of his tools.

There’s a moment in the documentary when we watch Tim step in and negotiate to save the life of a medic who has been accused of being a spy by a group of rebels. That really brings up this question of a journalist as being a completely uninterested, observing party. I don’t think there are any journalistic ethics that supersede the moral obligations to save a human life. Not only was he saving the medic’s life, but he was probably also saving the lives of all the wounded civilians and rebel fighters that the medic was treating. I don’t think there was any ethical conundrum for him about that, as I think there would be for very few people. If anything had impeded him, it would have been the concern that if you defend someone who is accused of being a spy by a rebel commander in an active war zone, you put yourself in a position of maybe also being accused of being a spy. In other words, you put yourself in great danger. What amazes me isn’t that he overcame any ethical issue, which I think is nonexistent, but that he overcame his concern of what might happen to him.

His decision in that moment is juxtaposed by the action of James Brabazon [co-producer of the film], who instead of intervening took a step back and pulled out his camera. I think they’re both valid responses. At that moment, James might’ve intervened, and Tim may have stepped back with the camera. I think it’s fairly situational. All of us would be capable of doing either.

After Tim’s return from Afghanistan, he seems genuinely resolved to stop reporting on war. And then, suddenly, we see him in a boat heading to another war zone, Libya. Had he ever actually decided to stop? It wasn’t a decision; it was more of a hope. I think he wanted to get out of war reporting and have a more stable life back home. But he was also wrestling with the incredible gravitational pull of war. I don’t think he was at a point of making a decision—clearly he wasn’t, because he went to Libya. I don’t know how much longer he would’ve continued doing war reporting. I think probably for some more years. But he was starting to think about [quitting].

Tim’s combat photography really stands out because his eye tends to rest on the non-violent images of war. Yes. He’s done plenty of combat and he didn’t shy away from that. He shot everything. But the photos that he chose to include in his collections were often images of war that didn’t involve guns: soldiers that were sleeping, a rebel fighter saying goodbye to his girlfriend before a battle—things that were just as much about war but more about the emotional components that are a little more elusive.

In one of the last images of the film, after Tim has been mortally wounded, we see footage of the sky, shot from the back of a pick-up truck traveling in Libya. Did Tim actually shoot that? No, it’s the only scene in the movie that was recreated and I felt OK about it because there were no people in it. It really is an impressionistic shot. He died en route and I asked a woman to put a camera in the back of a pick-up truck and shoot upward at what Tim would’ve been looking at during that drive.

Was it powerful seeing that view for you? It was very evocative for me. As a journalist, I’m really cautious about misrepresenting reality. That shot seemed so abstract that if felt like it was clear what we were doing. It felt good in the sense that it really drove home the power and tragedy of that moment. We worked with a composer and he created a really effective soundtrack there. I really like that scene.

As a journalist who is used to entering and engaging stories from the outside, did you find it difficult to work on a subject who was not just a colleague, but a friend as well? Yeah, it was complicated at times. I knew Tim in the context of war and [in this film] there’s footage of him in very peaceful situations. Frankly, I had to fight the journalist’s instinct for the dramatic. His life was not just about combat, but also about a lot of other things, some of them very lovely. I had to remember that. You can’t capture a life in 80 minutes. But you can capture the parts that were the most meaningful, and that’s what I tried to do. What aspect of Tim’s life would Tim had found the most important, the most meaningful, the most significant? That guided my decision-making.

If we only take away one thing from this film, what should it be? There are a few things I wanted to stir up. First of all, [journalism] is incredibly dangerous and people get killed all the time bringing you news every morning. Twenty-eight journalists have been killed in Syria alone over the last couple years. I also wanted to raise this question that Tim was so interested in: why are young men drawn to war? And why do they miss it once it’s over? What is that about war that’s so compelling to young men? I feel like we have to understand that for our own purposes in the U.S. As we bring combat soldiers back and try to integrate them into society, often they miss the war that they left. We need to understand that.

And finally, and maybe most importantly, I learned a lot from Tim. He had tremendous capacity for empathy, he was incredibly interested in people’s experiences—the powerful, the poor, the weak, American soldiers, taxi drivers in New York City…it almost didn’t matter. He just wanted to understand everyone’s experience. I’ve learned a lot about that from him and I wanted a film that showcased his work and allowed people to learn some of the same lessons I learned from him.

You tell an anecdote at the end of the film in which a veteran calls you and tells you that now that you’ve experienced the death of a colleague, you’ve finally experienced the entirety of war. Are you done with war reporting? Within about an hour of getting news that Tim was killed, I decided to stop covering wars.

There’s a mirroring here between you, Tim, and the other war reporters and the soldiers you’re covering, in that both groups loathe war and yet are constantly drawn to it. Will you miss it? Yeah, I will miss it. But I also miss my 20s. You know it wouldn’t be good to continue living like that but that doesn’t mean you don’t miss it. I miss all that tremendously.

As someone so familiar with Tim’s work, is there any one photo that stands out to you? That’s hard, but certainly one of them is in the film. It’s a young rebel fighter saying goodbye to his girlfriend before a battle. It’s an iconic photo of war, even though no one’s shooting a gun and it’s not combat. But an unavoidable part of combat is the moment when you understand you may not survive, which means that when you say goodbye to people, you may never see them again. That happens to any journalist that goes to a war zone, any soldier that deploys, or any rebel fighter before a battle. It’s a universal experience of war but it’s hard to capture with a camera. Tim managed to do it, and I think he shot an absolutely iconic photograph of the experience of war.

Which Way Is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington premieres today, 4/18, on HBO. “Tim’s death might’ve been avoidable,” Junger told me as we were getting off the phone. “He just bled out—it didn’t have to be a mortal wound.” With that in mind, Junger has launched the nonprofit Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues, or RISC. Thanks to generous private donations, RISC offers intensive first-aid training courses to experienced, published freelance journalists operating in active war zones. Find out more at risctraining.org.

No Concessions: Sebastian Junger and His Elegiac Film for Tim Hetherington