You couldn’t ask for a more elegantly powerful document of a life than Sebastian Junger’s tribute to his friend and colleague Tim Hetherington. The HBO film, about the frontline photojournalist who died in a mortar attack in Libya two years ago, is both an emotionally honest portrait of a specific, gifted man and a testament to the value of his profession — visual journalism during wartime.
“Which Way Is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington” does for Hetherington what Hetherington aimed to do for his own battle-wracked subjects: It finds the individual inside the moment of combat, it steps outside politics to look at the ways of human nature on the ground, and it merges the reflectiveness of art with the immediacy of real life.
By the end of this short but satisfying documentary, which premieres on Thursday at 8 p.m., you’ll probably have a good understanding of what made Hetherington run. You’ll have a sense of how his 40 years led to the moment when he and photographer Chris Hondros were killed by Libyan forces while traveling with rebel fighters. But you won’t feel manipulated into respect or grief, a flaw that can compromise such memorials. This is the kind of restrained filmmaking that doesn’t truck in overstatement or dramatics to make its points. Junger simply gives us footage and photos of Hetherington, as well as Hetherington’s footage and photos. And he surrounds that rich material with concise interviews — with colleagues and with Hetherington’s girlfriend, mother, and father — that interpret the man and, in particular, his work.
And what work it is — transcendent, humane, intuitive, universal. Hetherington, originally from England, took a step into the mainstream — and onto the red carpet — when he and Junger got a best documentary Oscar nomination in 2011 for “Restrepo.” The remarkable movie was about the year they spent embedded with a platoon in Afghanistan, and it delivered an extraordinarily close look at the blood, the boredom, and the brotherhood (what Hetherington called the “Man Eden”) that are the daily lives of American soldiers.
“Which Way Is the Front Line” covers the making of “Restrepo,” and it also spends time on Hetherington’s years working in Liberia, Libya, Sierra Leone, and Sri Lanka. His photographs zero in on the evidence of war beyond the action — a series of sleeping American soldiers looking vulnerable, child rebels in Liberia acting like big shots, primitive Liberian graffiti that spells out the hatred and the spoiled innocence — “the psychic scars of the war,” as Hetherington put it. Junger made the right choice in featuring so many of Hetherington’s photos; they speak not only of those psychic scars of war but of the generous and fearless eye of the beholder.
Along with his colleagues’ analyses of Hetherington’s work, Junger includes plenty of film of Hetherington describing his own photographic methods and goals as he sought out the deeper layers of a conflict. “At the root of my work is really this kind of whole idea of intimacy,” he says. “I become deeply embedded emotionally in all the work that I do.” As he sought the war beyond the battlefield, he often went against strict journalistic procedure and engaged his subjects before photographing them, to get them to become themselves. We see his warmth and his charm — he comes off like a dashing young Michael York — as he mingles with children and fishermen in Africa before snapping and filming them. “It’s really obvious I’m there, I’m a big white guy and I’m in your country, and for me to pretend otherwise is just plain stupid,” he says. Once he took his place behind his camera, he would slow down and pull back in the middle of situations that were moving quickly and chaotically.
There isn’t a lot of biographical material in “Which Way Is the Front Line,” although a series of photos of Hetherington as a young man — exotic travel, dreadlocks! — speak volumes. “He was a person who seldom became a tourist,” his father says. The focus of the film is on Hetherington’s adult passions, his journalism, his bravery.
On Monday, newscasters covering the Boston Marathon bombing continually talked about how some rushed in while many ran away. In those moments of crisis and doubt, instinct kicks in. Hetherington, like a lot of journalists, was one of those people whose reflex was to get closer — not to be a hero, necessarily, but because he needed to witness, to discover things about people when they are firing and under fire. “Which Way Is the Front Line” honors that unstoppable impulse and all those, including Hetherington, who have lived by it.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.