Opening with a selection of warm outtakes of photojournalist Tim Hetherington explaining why he pursues such a dangerous career, director Sebastian Junger pays a fitting homage to Hetherington’s life, which was cut tragically short when he was killed by shrapnel in 2011, with Which Way Is the Front Line from Here? (2013). Told chronologically, Junger blends archive interviews with Hetherington with still images and interviews with friends, family and colleagues. His career saw him document the civil war in Liberia, the heart of the Afghanistan conflict in the Korangal Valley and the revolution in Libya.
Immediately we realise that this is an intimate portrait, and that a great deal of care has gone into explaining why Hetherington felt the need to throw himself into such dangerous and violent situations. There are numerous sound bites which aim at explaining his compulsive behaviour, always cutting back to an essential truth. Hetherington had no perverse Thantos complex. Instead, he wanted to understand the human stories in war, focusing not on the perversely sensationalist gore so often seen on broadsheet front-pages but on people. As Chris Anderson states, “Tim’s work was not about war, it was about human nature.” Hetherington took a highly personal approach to his work, trying to truly understand his subjects.
More painful to watch are interviews with Hetherington’s parents. We see them celebrate the publication of his first book, and then hear of their reaction upon the news of the death of their son. Equally the interview with his girlfriend Idil Ibrahim, who was still with Tim up to his death, makes for truly tragic viewing. As the film engages with the period when he was making the Academy Award-nominated Restrepo (2010) we see the athletic, energetic Hetherington mucking in with the troops. Yet, he was always at work, passionate to understand not the politics of war but those who fight on the front line.
Moving towards the events of 2011, we see him ill at ease at the Oscars, eager to get back to work. Those who were with Hetherington in his last moments speak with conviction and passion of his work, frequently breaking down on camera at the loss of a friend and fine colleague. For those yet to see Restrepo, Which Way Is the Front Line from Here? might well be a better place to start if you wish to understand the raison d’etre of Hetherington’s work. A tremendous film in its own right, Junger has crafted a very fine documentary, with the only criticism being that it’s all too short to explore such an influential life.