In an ideal world, Sebastian Junger would never have made his latest documentary. Which Way Is The Front Line From Here? The Life And Time Of Tim Hetherington was necessitated by the death of its subject.
The photographer Tim Hetherington was killed by shrapnel in the Libyan city of Misrata on April 20, 2011. He was 40 years old. Just a few weeks earlier, he'd been at the Academy Awards with Junger, walking the red carpet in support of their Oscar-nominated documentary Restrepo.
With Which Way Is The Front Line From Here? screening this week at Hot Docs, Junger means to memorialize his friend and collaborator. We spoke about the project earlier this month.
Is it difficult to make a documentary like this, when the subject is not just a colleague but a friend?
I mean, I have plenty of my own personal feelings and experiences, and I try not to drift into letting my feelings and experiences be the point of all this. My last book, War, was probably the most personal, but I was very careful to make sure that my personal experiences were simply a lens through which to see the larger experience of the soldiers. I was never the point. I used my personal feelings about Tim in making this film, but I tried to do it in a way that would illuminate Tim rather than illuminate me - and in a way where other people who didn't know Tim could still be affected and drawn in.
Your subjects speak at length of Hetherington's compassion and empathy as a photographer. Those aren't necessarily qualities you expect to find in a combat journalist.
Yeah, he was very empathic. He was also very ambitious, and I think he realized that he didn't want to compete with the front-line [photo] journalists. There's an army of those guys, and Tim did not want to be in the crowd. He had the technical abilities to do that, but I don't think he wanted to do it. I think he realized that the way forward for him, and the way forward to being recognized and successful, was to be different. And given his personality - a very empathic, engaged, curious, interested person - the way to be different was to exploit those qualities in himself as a photographer. It would produce probably a more satisfying experience in the world, but certainly would produce unique photographs that other front-line photographers just weren't getting, because they're frankly moving too fast. They don't necessarily develop emotional roots in the story, and nor should they. I mean, they're going from Somalia to Mali to Liberia to Congo - you know, I mean, they're the real front-line troops of the business, and in some ways they have to make certain to not be too human, because that would really slow them down. It would burden them with too many feelings, I think. We need those guys, absolutely, but that's just part of the spectrum, and the other end of the spectrum was long-form journalism, which allows a journalist to not only develop an emotional connection with the story, but have that emotional connection affect the work.
Speaking of the emotional connection, you had to interview a number of Hetherington's colleagues for the documentary. Was that difficult for you?
I did a lot of them. Some of them, the ones in the UK, were done by James Brabazon, who was one of the [documentary's] producers. He was Tim's colleague in Liberia, he's also interviewed in the film. James lives in the UK, so he did the family and Idil [Ibrahim, Hetherington's partner], Tim's UK crowd.
The wound is still very raw when they speak.
Yeah, and that was intentional. Emotions sort of calcify, you know. Pain can calcify. I mean, some of the interviews were done [just] a month later, actually. With some of the journalists who knew Tim - Katie Orlinsky, Chris Anderson - we wanted to talk to them quite quickly afterwards.
You must have still been processing it yourself.
How does that work? Can you turn that part of yourself off and have that conversation?
Well, my work involves having access to your emotions in order to understand the story, like, on every level, and then being able to turn off your emotions when it comes time to communicate. I give a lot of talks, and I talk about war, usually; for me it's an extremely personal, emotional topic, particularly now that Tim was killed. And I can be extremely emotional - when we screened the film at Sundance, for example, I was a complete mess for most of the movie. And [then] I stood up and did a Q&A, and I don't think anyone in the theatre knew that five minutes earlier I'd just been bawling. You know, turning off sorrow is the same as turning off fear; if you can't turn off your feelings, you can't do this job. Forget it. Don't even try. You'll be bad at it, and you'll be miserable. I've been having to turn off my fear ever since I was in my late 20s; it's just a little psychological trick. There's nothing mystical about it.
When we talked about Restrepo in 2010, you spoke of using documentary footage to reproduce the feel of being in a war movie. What was your approach here?
We weren't trying to reproduce reality, obviously - this is a film about something rather than the illusion of an experience. So we could have a musical score. We didn't have narration, but we could have. We have interviews with people, whatever. You don't think you're inside Tim's life, you're meeting him.
The biggest question was when do you, the viewer, find out that Tim was killed? Do we delay that and go through Tim's life and then you find out at the end "Oh my god, this guy died? I thought it was a biopic about a guy who was still out there working, and he's dead?" Which didn't seem satisfying. The structure we wound up with starts on the last day of his life, making it clear that it's very dire - that something bad's gonna happen. Then you rewind back to his youth, and then you keep going forward until you come to Misrata again, and then you finish with the memorial. That seemed like a really satisfying structure, that was really the main thing. I mean, you can't capture a man's life in 80 minutes, but you can touch on the things that he probably thought were most meaningful in his life. And that was what we tried to do.
Was there anything you had to leave out?
Nah, not really. You know, there's always wonderful material that you can't fit in, but there wasn't any one scene where I was like, "Oh my god, I can't believe we can't fit this in there." Any scene like that would have been in there. There was nothing that felt necessary that got left out.