Sebastian Junger’s docu “Which Way Is the Front Line From Here?” offers a moving requiem for his “Restrepo” co-director, the photojournalist and filmmaker Tim Hetherington, who was killed by shrapnel from mortar fire in Misrata, Libya, in 2011. Featuring Hetherington’s eloquent photographs; interviews with him over the years; visceral video from war zones in Liberia, Afghanistan and Libya; and crisply shot studio footage of his parents, girlfriend, and various colleagues sharing their memories, the film pays tribute to an empathetic man who became a leading chronicler of the world’s trouble spots.
HBO will air the film on April 18, just prior to the second anniversary of Hetherington’s death. The telecast will coincide with the Grove Press publication of “Here I Am: The Story of Tim Hetherington, War Photographer” by Alan Huffman.
Although the pic’s brief running time rules out an in-depth consideration of Hetherington’s entire life, it covers the essentials via an early interview with the man, as well as commentary from his father. Hetherington was the youngest of three kids born to a working-class English family that moved frequently during his youth, giving him a taste for the peripatetic lifestyle he enjoyed as an adult. After studies at Oxford, he traveled in Tibet and India for two years, discovering a passion for photography. At the age of 26, he enrolled in a photojournalism course at Cardiff U., where professors and peers identified him as a true talent, with the capability to work across media formats.
A project documenting young Liberian soccer players, some of whom had been former rebel fighters, first brought Hetherington to West Africa in 1999. He spent the greater part of eight years there, reporting on social and political issues and covering the continent’s civil wars. The pic’s producer James Brabazon recounts with awe Hetherington’s first experience as a war correspondent, during the period when the pair lived behind Liberian rebel lines, the only foreign journalists to do so. Photographs illustrate his story of Hetherington bravely interfering when a commander threatened to shoot the local clinic’s only doctor.
While some photojournalists feel that speaking to the subjects of their photographs compromises the objectivity of their pictures, Hetherington was not among them. Photos and field-video footage show him creating a genuine and immediate bond with elderly fisherman in Sri Lanka, well-dressed tots in India, blind children in Sierra Leone, and the American soldiers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Korengal, Afghanistan, where he shot “Restrepo” with Junger.
As Junger notes, Hetherington was the ideal co-director. His personality, fitness, bravery and work ethic clearly made him beloved by the soldiers, who are shown affectionately teasing him in field footage. The film also acknowledges the toll that Hetherington’s career took on his personal life and health; ironically, at the time of death at age 40, he was planning to start a family with his girlfriend, Somali-American filmmaker Idil Ibrahim.
Production values are topnotch, smoothly blending various moving-image formats and photos. The resonant score by Joel Goodman smartly resists sentiment. A stirring montage of Hetherington’s photos screens under the end credits accompanied by the Irish folk dirge “Danny Boy.”