Which Way Is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington: Sundance Review

Tim Hetherington
An expertly gauged epilogue to the life of a distinguished photographer whose emotional stake in his work elevated it beyond journalism.

Sebastian Junger's film for HBO is a stirring tribute to his co-director on the Oscar-nominated "Restrepo," who was killed in 2011 while covering the conflict in Libya.

PARK CITY – While taking in Tim Hetherington’s staggering body of work in Which Way is the Front Line From Here?, the growing impression arises that, had he lived, the British photographer might have gone on to become a major filmmaker. Image after image -- and his filmed footage, too -- suggests a gaze of rare compassion and unconventional inspiration. But what made him an exceptional visual artist was his uncommon ability to locate the humanity in any situation, no matter how grim or horrific. 

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Due to air April 18 on HBO, this is a tremendously affecting salute to Hetherington by Sebastian Junger, his friend, colleague and co-director on the Oscar-nominated 2010 documentary Restrepo. Soon after the release of that film, while covering the conflict in Libya, Hetherington was hit by shrapnel from a mortar blast in Misrata; he bled out while being transported to the hospital.

That tragedy was covered with less clarity and emotional power in an episode of the recent four-part HBO series about photo-reporters in conflict zones, Witness. Junger opens and closes his film with a visceral account of the incident. But Which Way is the Front Line is more than a chronicle of a life and a brilliant ten-year career cut short at age 40. It’s also a strangely beautiful insight into one man’s distinctive way of looking at and experiencing war.

A traveler by nature after an upbringing punctuated by frequent moves, Hetherington was drawn to photojournalism by the idea of “telling stories in pictures.” A professor at Cardiff University in Wales, where he went after undergraduate studies at Oxford, said Hetherington was ahead of the curve in anticipating a post-print future and embracing multimedia.

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Unlike many in his field, Hetherington was not a combat-adrenaline junkie. While he frequently found himself on the frontlines – in Liberia and other West African countries, as well as Afghanistan and Libya – he was more interested in the human face and societal devastation of conflict than in the action shots.

While some photographers maintain that detachment is necessary for objectivity, Hetherington’s working method was all about connection. “I’ve got to talk to them,” he says of his subjects in one of many interviews excerpted here. Ridiculously handsome, rangy and athletic, with an easy manner and reassuring smile, he clearly had the innate tools to bring intimate engagement to his images.

Fittingly for a documentary tribute to an artist who regarded the personal angle as vital, the key commentary here – along with Hetherington’s parents and girlfriend – comes from two collaborators with whom he cohabited for extended periods in tense environments.

One is Junger, his companion for a year in the remote Eastern Afghanistan valley outpost where they made Restrepo. The other is one of this doc’s producers, James Brabazon, a fellow Brit photojournalist who took the less experienced Hetherington along in 2003 when they traveled with the Liberian rebel army through thick jungle, documenting their bid to bring down the brutal Charles Taylor regime. The accounts of these experiences are vivid and harrowing, but they also illustrate the forging of a brotherhood among journalists embedded together like soldiers. The recollections of both men include intensely moving observations.

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Junger’s facility for sharp journalistic prose is an ideal complement to Hetherington’s instinctual visual sense. The director points out that war provides a unique experience of male camaraderie not reproducible in society. Eloquent illustrations of that are seen in Hetherington’s tender images of the platoon in Afghanistan, notably the incongruously idyllic “Man Eden” and the “Sleeping Soldiers” series, which unmasked the heavily inked tough guys as vulnerable boys.

The film seems very much an extension of Hetherington’s own complex internal dialogue concerning war, seeing conflict as something hardwired into young men that gets co-opted to become part of the political process.

Emerging throughout this poignant documentary is an appreciation for the fact that what Hetherington brought to his work as a skilled photographer was inseparable from what he brought as a humanitarian. His loss is deeply acknowledged, but also placed within the broader context of every loss of brothers-in-arms in a letter that Junger received from a Texan Vietnam vet following his friend’s death.

Describing the gut impact of Hetherington’s images in words can’t possibly do them justice. But the film – which is superbly scored and edited – does so amply, closing with a striking series of photographs accompanied by the mournful growl of Shane MacGowan singing “Danny Boy.”

As a result of Hetherington’s death and in response to the need for conflict journalists to acquire medical skills to deal with life-threatening injuries, Junger established the nonprofit training program RISC (Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues).

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres)

Production company: HBO Documentary Films

Director: Sebastian Junger

Producers: Nick Quested, James Brabazon

Executive producer: Sheila Nevins

Directors of photography: James Brabazon, Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger

Music: Joel Goodman

Editor: Geeta Gandbhir, Maya Mumma

No rating, 78 minutes.