Sebastian Junger has intense blue eyes and a calm demeanor, and when you sit across the table from him you feel like you have to earn your time. He says things like "My first war was Bosnia" or "I started shooting video in 2000 in conflicts in Afghanistan," to explain how he came to be a filmmaker, in the same tone that other directors describe graduate school or their first job as a PA. He is a man who, when faced with the death of his close friend and collaborator, decided to make a movie about it, because "I’m used to writing or doing journalism about upsetting things."
In Which Way To The Front Line From Here: The Life And Times Of Tim Hetherington, Junger is both interviewer and subject, assembling Tim's family and friends-- himself included-- to talk about the war photographer's life, cut short at 40 when he was killed after an explosion in Misrata, Libya during that country's civil war in 2011. Six weeks earlier, he and Junger attended the Academy Awards as nominees for Best Documentary for Restrepo, the film they made together about a year spent with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. As Junger dryly remarks, "[He's] probably the first person to do that, go from the Oscars to dead in combat in six weeks."
Which Way To The Front Line, which is currently airing on HBO and HBO Go (more info here), explores Hetherington's life so thoroughly that I found myself talking to Junger more about his own experience of reporting on war, and how Hetherington's death convinced him to retire from war reporting entirely. We spoke for nearly 45 minutes, in a surreal glassed-in courtyard in the middle of the frigid Sundance Film Festival in January, where Junger and Hetherington had premiered Restrepo three years earlier (it won the Grand Jury Prize for documentary). Selections from our conversation are below. Restrepo is also available to view on Netflix Instant.
You're showing footage here from war zones in Liberia and Libya, and that stuff has a way of kind of meshing all together when it comes to American media, like, "This is all sad stuff happening elsewhere." When you are telling this story about one guy, is part of it also making people more aware of caring more about what happens in places like Libya?
Well, we had a section in the film, early on in the rough cut, that was sort of about the suffering of the Libyan people, the people in Misrata specifically. It was very powerful, but we had to take it out. We were trying to tell the story of Tim and it was just too much of a tangent, even though that’s why he was there. You have to make terrible choices in a documentary and that was one of them. My work has been about bringing awareness to this country of what’s going on in other countries, for sure, but the intent of this film really was Tim and there wasn’t a lot of room left over for anything that was too distant from that.
At what point did you realize that you could make this film, given how close you are, obviously, to the story, you were in it. Did you feel first that the story needed to be told and you were the right one to do it or is it a thing you knew you had to make at some point?
I’m used to writing or doing journalism about upsetting things and all of these topics become personally upsetting because you’ve been in them. So, I write about Liberia after the civil war. That was very emotional, because I was in it and it was really disturbing. So, in a sense, I’m used to doing that. I’m used to tapping my emotions for what they’re worth and then getting them out of the way so that I can work effectively and produce a piece of journalism. I felt like I was the last person to have a really extended, profound experience with Tim.
Because of the time you spent making Restrepo?
Yeah, at Restrepo and making Restrepo. I spent more time with him the last years of his life than probably anyone did, his family, his girlfriend, whatever. We were at the Oscars together and then six weeks later he was dead, probably the first person to do that, go from the Oscars to dead in combat in six weeks.
I didn’t even think of it in terms of, “I’m the best person to do this.” That thought didn’t interest me. What interested me was that I felt compelled to do it and if someone else from another part of Tim’s life had wanted to do a film, then yeah I would have been thrilled, but I felt like I was in a really good position to talk about the last years of Tim’s life. The last ten years of Tim’s life were incredibly important to him, as they would be for any forty year old person, and the last three years were incredibly important to him because it was with Restrepo that he came into the public eye really. He was respected within photography circles, highly respected for that, but in terms of being a public figure, that happened with Restrepo. I was already a public figure, so it didn’t have the same consequences for me as it did for him. So, those last years of his life, I spent with him very much and I watched him change and watched his life change and so, it felt important to do it.
After he got killed we arranged a memorial service in New York and a lot of, some of the journalists who were in the attack, who survived the attack, were coming to New York for the service. I just thought, I’m going to take the opportunity. These are guys who work all over the world--not just men, there was a woman too--who work all over the world and I’ll never have them all in New York at the same time again. So, I was like, “I’m going to interview them all, just to find out what happens,” and it was really confusing what happened. I had a lot of questions about it and so I did that and I did sort of Restrepo style interviews with them and at the end of that I realized that, and we had all of Tim’s footage from that last day, because he was shooting video.
I was going into this wondering if it was going to get into what drives a war photographer, like what makes someone do that. There’s some talk about that and his personality and the way he liked talking to people, but it doesn’t try to come up with explanations for what drove him, which seems like it would be easy to do when you know him that well.
I can’t claim to know anyone else’s mind. I mean, we did put in bits where he talked about his own motivations. There’s one bit right after the footage, in the beginning, right after the footage in Misurata in the burning building, you know, he says something like, “The reason I’m a war reporter...” I can’t remember exactly what he says, but we used Tim as much as we can to explain his motivations for being a photojournalist. In some ways, people’s motivations don’t matter too much, you know. Society needs firemen. Buildings burn down and we need firemen. If one guys is a fireman because his father was a fireman and another guy is a fireman because he got picked on in high school and he wants to feel manly, it doesn’t really matter. We need a fire department and I feel the same way with war reporters and for the soldiers, for that matter. They’re all in it for their own personal reasons. I’m not sure we need to understand what those reasons are.
Well, you must get the question all the time for the type of reporting you do.
Well that I can answer to, but just as a sort of general thing, the motivations of the individuals matter less than that it gets done or not and that it gets done well. I would say most war reporters become war reporters not because they’re compelled by incredibly noble, moral reasons of wanting to, like, shine a light on the injustices of the world. They do it for personal reasons, reasons of personal gratification, like, “That looks like an intense, sexy, wonderful job that probably doesn’t pay that well.” My first war was Bosnia and I went for a couple reasons. One was my quote, “journalism career”, was sort of languishing and I didn’t know what to do about it and I was like freelance writing for magazines and it wasn’t going anywhere and I thought it would sort of speed up the metabolism of my career, which it did.