One of the more disappointing attitudes stoked by the recent political culture has been a quadrant virtually devoted to closed-mindedness and exhibiting little interest in what’s happening beyond narrow borders, whether national or ideological. In that respect, bon vivant Anthony Bourdain and late war photographer Tim Hetherington — tragically killed in Libya two years ago — are kindred spirits, and thus perhaps appropriately the subject of a new CNN series and a moving, deeply personal HBO documentary, the latter titled, “Which Way Is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington,” premiering the same week.
The “true traveler,” Bourdain explains in the debut of CNN’s “Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown,” is “relentlessly curious, without fear or prejudice.” Bourdain applies that approach to visiting Myanmar (formerly Burma), where most of the people he encounters have spent time in jail for speaking out against a government only now, slowly, beginning to relax its crackdown on dissent.
Bourdain’s show is its own kind of acquired taste, mostly because of the way he mixes history, current events and (inevitably) lots of tantalizing local cuisine into one big travel/lifestyle/foodie gumbo. Yet the insights are honest, direct and occasionally funny, including Bourdain’s harrowing ride that illustrates the country’s dismal train system, and the confession he stuck to designated areas because parts of Myanmar remain off-limits to foreign visitors. “There is shit going on they do not want you to see,” he says.
The second hour, set in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, seemed a little strange at first, if only because it almost unconsciously juxtaposes a neighborhood within a major U.S. city and a foreign country. But Bourdain zeroes in on the area’s complex history during and after the Los Angeles riots — when there was widespread looting and destruction — before diving into the wealth of eateries hidden in mini-malls, including an unexpected trip to (of all places) a local Sizzler.
Mostly, Bourdain’s show creates its own modest destination for CNN — which is clearly eager to bring some personality to the network — while playing like the kind of dish the host himself seems to appreciate: Many different ingredients, and compared to most travel fare, unexpected bite.
Hetherington — who, with Sebastian Junger co-directed the Oscar-nominated Afghanistan war documentary “Restrepo” — possessed a slightly different form of curiosity, primarily devoted to the nature of young men in war zones. Although slow going at the outset, Junger’s tribute to his fallen comrade is a loving and sobering look at the courage of photojournalists in unsettled regions, augmented by compelling images in much the way HBO’s recent documentary series “Witness” was.
The film is more powerful and haunting thanks to the ample footage incorporated of Hetherington himself, a cheerful soul even when faced with evidence of unimaginable cruelty, such as photographing those blinded during the war in Liberia.
Hetherington is remembered for his strong humanitarian streak, approaching his subjects with compassion and not just journalistic detachment. Through interviews with his colleagues and family, viewers not only acutely feel their sense of loss but — contemplating such a promising talent and life so abruptly silenced — might even share in it, too.
(Series; CNN, Sun. April 14, 9 p.m. ET)
Host: Anthony Bourdain
(Documentary; HBO, Thurs. April 18, 8 p.m.)
Produced by Goldcrest Films. Executive producer, Sheila Nevins; supervising producer, Sara Bernstein; producers, Nick Quested, James Brabazon; co-producer, Gretchen McGowan; field photography, Brabazon, Hetherington, Junger; editors, Geeta Gandbhir, Maya Mumma; music, Joel Goodman. 78 MIN.