As we continue to process how a life can end in an instant as it did during the Boston Marathon bombings, HBO offers an unusual and powerful documentary premiere tonight. Which Way is the Front Line From Here? recounts the life and death of war photographer Tim Hetherington and was directed by Sebastian Junger, Hetherington's co-director of Restrepo, which earned the pair an Academy Award nomination. Hetherington was killed by a mortar shell in Libya two years ago, a loss that led Junger to retire from war reporting.
"When Tim died, I was 49, 50, and I just realized there's a point where you're not the most important thing in your own life and what you want isn't more important than what's good for others," Junger told Cultist. "And I suddenly was realizing the effect of Tim's death on everyone he loved, including me, and I just didn't want to risk doing that to everyone I love. Suddenly, it was very clear."
Junger, the bestselling author of The Perfect Storm and War, was in town last month to show the doc at the Miami International Film Festival. Amidst the ersatz tropicalia of The Standard's lounge, Junger, dressed in a suit for the film's premiere later that night, ducked under the frond of a potted plant as he joined us. From an overstuffed sofa, he recalled his experiences in the hot and foreign dangers that were now a world and a career away.
"I'd answered all of my questions about war, about myself," he said. "I'd answered them. Then Tim got killed. And people think you're risking your life when you're going to war but you're actually risking the emotional lives of everyone else. You're dead. You're the least of the problem. And I just realized that about Tim and I was like, 'Shit, I just don't want to do that.'
"War reporting is, in some ways, quite easy. It's very dramatic so you don't have to work that hard as a storyteller to make an impression on people. It's kind of served to you on a platter. And to take a quieter story and to get people to pay attention is a far greater feat of journalism or filmmaking."
So, in Which Way, Junger looks for that quieter story within the chaos of war, often letting Hetherington's still images speak silently for themselves.
"I felt like his work in war zones was absolutely essential, but I also wanted to avoid the tired cliché of the sort of adrenaline junkie war journalist because that was not what Tim was. And so, as much as we needed to talk about war, we also needed to make sure that the other aspects of his character were really well illuminated."
Sara Bernstein, Junger's producer at HBO Documentary Films, also sat down with us. Even though she did not have the same relationship with Hetherington as Junger had shared, she still felt personally invested in the project.
"The film on its surface is really about a life cut short, the risk of being a war photographer, how risky that profession is in general," she told us. "That's what's on the surface, which is incredibly important. But I think with Tim's story in particular, what struck us was just how incredibly gifted he was. Just his use of the medium format camera, the fact that he wanted to look people in the eyes and not have this structure of a camera between them, really spoke to who he was as a person. And certainly as a humanitarian, as you see in the film."
She was referring to a gasp-inducing moment in the film when Hetherington puts aside his camera and literally steps in front of a gun to stop a political execution. This was a man who, other than being a truly gifted artist and journalist, was on a quest to do more about injustice than just bring it to light. But even with the interviews and video archive Junger and Bernstein compiled, there were questions that Junger had for his late friend that he would never be able to have answered.
"Shit," he said, breathing out and taking a moment to collect his thoughts behind closed eyes. Then Junger began asking the questions he would have asked Hetherington:
"Why weren't you wearing a bulletproof vest? Why did you go back out at the end of the day after being in so much combat? When you were dying, did you, were you anguished that you'd made a mistake? Were you in anguish about having made a mistake and being out there?"
Junger's eyes refocused and he seemed to return to the room, marimba music filtering in from the adjacent barroom.
"More generally about his life," he said, "I think I might have asked him, if I could have one question, I might have said: 'What's the most meaningful thing you've done in your life as a journalist, and why? What is it?'"
For Junger himself, that question is readily answered without hesitation.
"For me? Oh, the Korengal Valley," he said, referring to the events he reported alongside Hetherington for both the Restrepo film and War book. "That experience by a factor of 10. I think it's going to be the most profound of my professional life and my life period. Yeah."
Prior to the Korengal Valley, Junger said, the most profound professional moment was the time he spent in Afghanistan with the Northern Alliance. But Korengal "answered all the questions I had about war."
So what does he find himself wondering about now?
"Marriage," he laughed. "Strike that."
Bernstein said, "He's in therapy right now. Can you tell?"
"Yeah, right! I'm in therapy four times a week," Junger joked. "Yeah, no. Seriously. I think, for me, I'm really trying to figure out what gives life meaning. And life does have meaning. I'm 51 and I don't have kids and I'm trying to figure out, like, kids are an easy way of giving life meaning. You know?
"But I want to know what, what is it that makes life important to live. Tim died at 40 and does it matter? Or does it only matter to us, because we lost him?"
Bernstein, who has made a long career of parsing complex subjects, had this to offer:
"You have to love other people," she said. "It's like what [Junger] said, when you think about the people who lost Tim and how much pain they're in because they lost someone they loved so profoundly. And it could be anything. It could be a child, it could be a dog."
"Or a tree," Junger rasped, following up with a mischievous, tree-loving grin. "If you have love in your life, you have a meaningful life. But Tim's life got cut off so something didn't happened that would have happened. And I just want to know: does that matter? Maybe it doesn't matter. I don't know.
"I'm an atheist. I don't believe in god. I don't know. These are typical midlife questions. Maybe more specifically, it's a big challenge for me and for everyone I know who has been at war, like how do you come back from war? How do you give it up? How do you give war up, because it's really meaningful and it makes everything back home seem not as meaningful."
"And it's so destructive at the same time," Bernstein agreed.
"So destructive," Junger said, "but it's the most meaningful experience you're probably ever going to have and how do you walk away from that? And it's very hard for combat soldiers. Combat soldiers are very ambivalent about coming home and I'm trying to understand that. And my [next] project involves that question a little bit."
With Which Way, Junger embraces the search for these answers away from the battlefield. Which isn't to say that it will be any less dangerous of a pursuit.
"Occasionally I get a weird email from somebody," he said. "I remember after I wrote about Kosovo, a Serb nationalist threatened me with death and I'm sure I've got a couple of ex-girlfriends..."
Junger's career as a war reporter is over, as is Hetherington's, for entirely different reasons. Much is made in the documentary about how Tim had planned to retire as well, as soon as he would have returned from Libya. It's a story Junger chose to lend credence as a documentarian. But as Hetherington's friend, did he buy that line?
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"Personally?" he asked. "No."
Which Way is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington premieres tonight at 8 p.m. on HBO.