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.
Did you expect it to be like a get-it-out-of-your-system thing, like you do it once and then you can return or did you feel like that was what you would be doing for the rest of your career?
I didn’t know what war reporting was really like, but it seemed like something I would really like and I hoped it would work and I would keep doing it, but one of the reasons I wanted to do it was that sense of manhood.
Does that sense of moral outrage work itself in eventually?
Of course. You get there and then you’re affected by the things you see and you’re indignant and so that sort of moral purpose definitely becomes part of the job, but if you get honest answers from journalists about why did you want to become a war reporter, I think most of the honest answers would be because, “I wanted that personally,” and not “I’m so upset about the suffering in the world and I have to do something about it.” That comes later and it’s real. You can’t see suffering and not be affected by it and want to change it, but that’s not what gets you there, I don’t think for most people, if they’re honest about it.
When you write a story, or in this case make a film, do you ever get the sense that it has gotten through or do you keep providing more information and hope that people get it but never really know who’s going to get what you’re trying to tell them?
Well, I’ve seen the effects of journalism, just in Bosnia in ’95, winter/spring of ’95, the press reports, there was one mortar shell that came into Sarajevo and killed 79 people, which happened a lot, but a TV crew, BBC I think, TV crew happened to be there at the moment of impact and started rolling and there was just the most appalling footage of wounded civilians missing their legs, crawling around, screaming. It was just ghastly, right. If I’m remembering correctly, that triggered the NATO bombardment of Serb artillery positions around Sarajevo. They’re like, “Pull back, pull that ship back or we’re going to bomb you,” and the Serbs didn’t and they got bombed. That was because footage got out that the UN couldn’t whitewash anymore, like, “Ok, it’s a siege. We’ve got to do something about it,” and then later the press reports triggered finally a major NATO involvement that ended the war. So, it does happen. On a more general level, I don’t think I’ve ever written anything that’s triggered a NATO air strike, but I think governments make decisions partly because of public opinion and public opinion is affected by the media. The press is part of that conversation and if you write about Afghanistan, or anything, it just becomes part of the conversation and very slowly, it starts to guide how to nation makes decisions and without that information there’s no sort of compass to look at to see where you should go. There’s just no information at all and then government just makes their own decisions, unaffected by public opinion. So, I think it’s a really important part of the conversation.
Did you think that you were going to make another film after Restrepo?
After Restrepo came out and it did well, Tim and I never really started talking about what we can do next. We had some ideas, you know, and then he got killed and I was like, “Shit. I guess that’s the next film we’re doing together.”
Do you consider yourself primarily a filmmaker now or do you consider that just another tool in your journalism?
I’m a journalist and this is just another way of communicating information and the film that I’m working on now for HBO, there will also be a book that comes out, so for me, there’s no conflict.
Then what took you so long to come to film as a form of communicating? You’ve been reporting for so long, why was it only with Restrepo that you took to filmmaking as a way of communicating?
Well, I started shooting video in conflicts in 2000 in Afghanistan.
I imagine that was when the first time really anybody was bringing cameras into war zones as reporters, because of the way digital camera had developed.
Right, and I would do it because I’d have an article that would come out in Vanity Fair or whatever, and if I had a B-roll, then CNN would want to interview me about Liberia or whatever it is. TV stations love that. You know, it’s free, particularly if it’s dramatic footage. I also noticed that the situations, precisely the situations that you can’t take notes in, like firefights, are the situations that are perfect for shooting video. No one takes effective notes during firefights. You can’t read them later. You just look stupid. So if I’m going to just be sitting there, trying not to get shot behind a tree, I might as well shoot video and then I have that record of what happened, because I’m not going to be able to get it down anyway.
So then I saw the real value of video and I started giving it to TV networks that would interview me and then when I came up with this project of following a platoon for a year... I wanted to write a book about a platoon in combat, so I needed a Vanity Fair assignment to get out there and I was like, if I’m going to spend a lot of time on and off with a platoon, I might as well shoot a lot of video. If I’m going to do that, I might as well see if I can do a documentary. I had no idea what that meant, but I thought at least I’ll start shooting the video and see what happens. So, on my second trip into Afghanistan, I was teamed up with Tim, who did know about making documentaries and pretty quickly saw the possibilities of a documentary about this outpost. So, he started shooting video on his next trip out there, which was in October. So, we’re now five months into the deployment, but he started shooting video then. I’d been shooting all along and then he kicked in and so, it took me so long to start doing that just because of the equipment involved and my consciousness involved. It just took a while.
The way that we see things from Syria that may be shot by someone on their iPhone or whatever, all while it's hard to get journalist in there and even that nobody has got the money for it--do you sense that we’re moving towards less and less professional journalists to give us that context or are there always going to be people?
I mean, journalism doesn’t need money to get freelancers into war zones. They’ll go on their own, just because it’s an opportunity. So, the thing that’s keeping them out of Syria is the danger. So, as the industry collapses, the opportunities open up for freelancers, because they’re paid $300 for their photo rather than going in for a week and it costs the network $100,000 with insurance and all of that shit.
Didn’t NBC send someone, like Katie Couric, went to Egypt or something?
Yeah, Anderson Cooper went over and Laura Logan and she had a bad time over there. So, yeah, the networks do it. Television news is a bit of theater, you know, there’s a little bit of theater to it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the news pie, that’s such a tiny sliver of the news pie is network news with a high profile correspondent over there in front of a camera. That’s not that important of piece of the pie, in my opinion.
So, it doesn’t drive you crazy that there’s so much of that theater and then there are people who are dodging bullets and aren’t necessarily getting their stories out there?
No, it doesn’t drive me crazy. Anderson Cooper is well spoken and he gets a lot of attention and when he goes somewhere, people pay attention. You know, a twenty-four year old freelancer goes somewhere, no one pays attention. I’ve been in situations, like in Liberia, where you watch the news, network correspondents. In this case, it was a CNN correspondent, drinking in the hotel bar and then it’s time for him to file his spot, his live hit on CNN and he climbed up to the roof of the hotel, put on a flak jacket and helmet, pretended it was dangerous, and then he took it off and went back to the bar. It’s total theater. Complete theater. That bothers me, but it’s part of the game and it looks dramatic and so people watch. I don’t know. It’s not a big deal.
Does the slowness of documentary filmmaking hamper you in a way, like there’s stuff that’s happening urgently and you're caught up in making the film? It took a while for Restrepo to come out.
Well, it takes a while for books to happen too. It’s takes a good year to write a book, then it takes another year for it to come out. So, I’m just used to that and after Tim died, I just decided not to do any more war reporting, like within an hour.
You’re totally done?
Yeah, like what’s going on with Syria, I have no desire to be there.
That wasn’t a hard thing to give up, after he died?
No, I thought it would be, but it wasn’t.
The film talks about how he kind of thought he was going to stop and then he couldn’t bring himself to do it.
Maybe if I’d gotten killed, it would have been easier for him to stop. Maybe that’s what it takes. Also I was fifty and he was forty. If a friend of mine had died when I was forty, I wouldn’t have stopped doing this, but it’s partly that it was a real tragedy in my life. I understood the consequences for others of getting yourself killed. I didn’t get that. I was experiencing it with Tim. I was experiencing this terrible grief and I suddenly got it. I don’t want to do something that makes everyone I care about feel the way I’m feeling right now. I’d never thought of it like that. You think you’re gambling with your life when you go to a war zone, but you’re really gambling with everyone else’s lives who are going to have to deal with their sorrow, so I was like, “Shit, I’m not interested in it anymore."
I’d answered all of my questions about war. I didn’t have any more questions. I got it. Three or four years ago, that wasn’t true. After the Korengal, I had questions about war, about young men, about myself. I didn’t have any more questions. Really, I would just be repeating something I’ve already figured out.