Flavorwire Interview: Sebastian Junger on Documenting the Life of His Friend Tim Hetherington

Journalist Sebastian Junger (The Perfect Storm) first met Tim Hetherington in 2007. “I was doing this project for Vanity Fair,” he recalls. “I was following a platoon for a year in combat and I also wanted to make a documentary film, and so I got a video camera and started shooting video for ABC News and for my own purposes. And I wanted to write a book. After my first trip in there, the photographer I was working with just wasn’t working out, and Vanity Fair suggested some other names, and we went through the list and Tim was clearly a really good pick.” The resulting book was the bestseller War; the film became Restrepo, which got the first-time directors an Oscar nomination for Best Director. Hetherington and Junger became friends as well as colleagues. “He was just very open and engaged and curious about the world,” Junger says. “His openness invited and required you to be open. Everyone felt like his best friend.” So when Hetherington was killed while reporting from Libya in 2011, Junger felt an obligation to honor his friend.

The result of that obligation is Which Way Is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington, Junger’s new documentary, which premieres tomorrow night on HBO. “After I found out about his death, I had a lot of questions about why it happened, how it happened,” he says. “We were supposed to be on assignment together and I couldn’t go because of personal reasons. So he went on his own, and I felt somewhat guilty about that. At any rate, I had a lot of questions. I wanted to talk to the journalists who had survived the attack, who had been there, and a lot of them were coming to New York for the memorial. So I kind of corralled them a little bit — I don’t think it was something they really wanted to talk about. I encouraged them to sit down for an interview with me and I interviewed them all. And we also got the footage that Tim shot on his last day, powerful stuff. So I realized that between… all the interviews and all the footage that Tim had shot in his life and that I shot, you put all that together and it’s a pretty powerful movie.” HBO agreed, and gave Junger the go-ahead.

“I wanted some kind of commemoration of my good friend Tim and some kind of platform for his work to continue on reaching people, affecting people,” he says. “People don’t necessarily go to art exhibits or read books, but they do go to see movies. And Tim worked in the visual media, and a movie about a man who made movies and photographs made perfect sense to me.”

True to his mission, Junger places Hetherington’s photographs, videos, and other work front and center in the film, and displays a keen understanding of what, exactly, makes that work so special. “He was technically a very good photographer, he was very courageous, he had all the sort of tools you need to do combat photography,” Junger grants. But more than that, “what he realized was that combat itself isn’t that interesting. It’s dramatic, but it’s repetitive, it’s not that interesting.”

It’s not just about combat itself, Junger says, but what happens “in the emotional sphere” between men in the platoon, or for those they leave behind. “For example, for the Libyan war, he shot a really iconic photograph of war – it’s a man in the rebel armed forces saying goodbye to his girlfriend. It’s this very tender moment and you know exactly what’s going on there: they clearly don’t know if they’ll see each other again. In a way, it says more about war than any man shooting a gun, and Tim was sensitive and smart enough to get that.”

But Which Way Is the Front Line is more than a simple biographical portrait, or a friend’s tribute. Junger compellingly poses the question of motivation: what is it that drives seemingly sane journalists to place themselves in harm’s way, as he and Hetherington did? “I think everyone who goes to war goes to war for very personal reasons,” he says. “Sometimes it’s dressed up as patriotism and duty or, for journalists, it’s sometimes dressed up as ‘these stories must be told’ or horrible situations must be documented. All those things are true on paper, but I don’t think anyone risks their life for completely noble reasons. They do it because they have a powerful personal motivation. I think war is seen by many people as transformative – it will turn you into a man, it will turn you into a caring human being – whatever it is, there is a very strong personal component. It’s also a glamorous, romantic, admired job.

“I’m describing myself here, but if you take a young man in his late ‘20s just waiting tables for years and say, ‘How would you like to be a war reporter,’ you say, ‘Yes, absolutely.’ If I can’t be a rock star, I’ll be a war reporter.” Did Hetherington feel the same way? “We didn’t need to talk about it because it’s so obvious,” Junger explains. “I think some journalists are squeamish about being there for personal reasons and they do kind of insist on the narrative of ‘these stories need to be told.’ And I think there’s absolutely truth to that – I just don’t think it’s the whole truth. For Tim and I, it was so clear to both of us that we were covering war for both of those kinds of reasons, it almost didn’t need to be talked about.”

The intensity of that pull can make war reporting a hard beat to give up, and that struggle is seen in Junger’s film — Hetherington had told his partner (and fellow filmmaker) Idil Ibrahim, “I’m done with war.” But he wasn’t. However, for Junger, Tim’s return to the field signaled his farewell to it. “After he got killed, within an hour I decided I wasn’t going to war anymore,” he confesses. “I don’t struggle with it at all. I didn’t think it would be easy – once I made the decision, I thought it’d be like trying not to smoke, I thought it’d be a struggle. Not at all. War reporting is so dramatic, it’s kind of an easy story to tell. It’s actually a little harder to tell a compelling story that doesn’t have the off-the-charts drama of combat. And I realized that if you only report on combat, in some ways, it’s kind of the easy way out as a writer or filmmaker. If you can take something from more normal life and make it interesting, that’s actually more difficult and ultimately says more about your skills.”

As a result, his next project, another documentary for HBO, “doesn’t involve people getting killed, which feels very, very nice.” And he says the progression from writer to filmmaker, and the transition he now makes between the two, comes very naturally. “With my first book, I was struggling to figure out how to start it, and I was in my early 30s and I didn’t know what I was doing,” he confesses. “So I just thought, if this was a movie, what would I be wanting to look at in the beginning? So I wrote the first paragraph like a moving shot across the docks and street, across the hallway and up the stairs, like a tracking shot. I figured that was the first shot I would want to see about the storm, and about the guys who died. That was what I wrote and it worked, so I’ve always written like that.” So it’s not so much that the writer became a filmmaker. “I think it’s the reverse: I think my writing style made me susceptible to picking up a camera.”

Which Way is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington premieres Thursday at 8pm on HBO.