View From the 'Front Line'
In their 2010 documentary Restrepo, photojournalists Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington embedded themselves for 15 months with a U.S. platoon in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley.
The doc was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary in January 2011. A few short months later, Hetherington was killed by mortar shells while photographing the front lines of the Libyan civil war.
Which Way Is the Front Line From Here? is his family and friends’ collective grieving – catharsis by celebration and a deeply felt sense of admiration for the British-American war photographer who captured modern warfare with searing realism by rebuking one of journalism’s greatest textbook tenets: Never make the story about yourself. This intimate portrait, directed by Junger, also eschews objectivity, but in favor of pathos, communicating just as pointedly as Hetherington transmitted emotion through his work.
Using shots culled from his comrades, as well as ghostly found footage, the documentary traces Hetherington’s career photographing conflicts in West Africa and the Middle East, right up to the final moments before his death. And while there are plenty of interspersed interviews with family and colleagues from the field, much of what we see is from behind Hetherington’s camera.
As affable a presence as Hetherington was, he was a workaholic; his work was his life, and this doc is Junger assembling the chapters of a years-in-the-making video memoir. That it comes too soon is rendered in the swelling, pained eyes of his longtime field partner, James Brabazon, whose tearful breakdown is perhaps the film’s most devastating moment.
As it should be, there’s heavy emphasis on Hetherington’s work. But this isn’t a movie about the photojournalistic process, military stratagems, or political posturing. It’s about Hetherington’s almost intimate understanding that art is felt – and more often than not, that feeling is overwhelming pain. You see it in his photos: the desperate, lonely faces of Liberian children, the piercing and guttural pang of defeat felt by a solider who loses his brother-in-arms. Hetherington was a masterful journalist exposing the world to its obscured horror, but he was only able to capture it by becoming so close to the terror that he felt it too.
The sequences stitched together by Junger, which include segments from Hetherington’s Faulknerian and autobiographical short film Diary, indicate the skill of a fledging filmmaker on the verge on his own breakthrough. He had a tight, closed-in feel to his images and video that made it feel like you were being captured inside moments with Hetherington’s subjects – a weird, transfixing layering effect that came from an auteur who maybe cared a little too much.
This documentary comes at an interesting flashpoint in nonfiction television, particularly at prestige cabler HBO. Two weeks ago, it debuted its new magazine show, VICE, as part of a partnership with the eponymous alternative news publisher. They too, play rough with journalistic standards and get opinionated and become overly involved in crises facing foreign nations. And earlier this year, HBO broke from its usual standard for its documentaries and let Beyoncé direct her own biography.
But where VICE leads with twitchy agitprop and Beyoncé feigns transparency, Junger’s doc goes in the complete opposite direction, one of deeply held respect and veneration. Because it’s hard not to become completely enthralled with Hetherington (he was perhaps the most charming war photographer to have ever smiled onscreen), Junger risks making Which Way Is the Front Line From Here? too sepia-toned. But this fallen war photographer was so damn talented that his body of striking, poignant work stands stronger than any media criticism.
Which Way Is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington premieres tonight (Thursday, April 18) on HBO at 7pm CT.