Directed by: Sebastian Junger.
In 2011, while covering the war in Libya in 2011, war photographer and documentary filmmaker Tim Hetherington was killed. Heatherton spent his professional life photographing war torn countries – in Sierra Leone, in Liberia, in Afghanistan and finally in Libya, where he was killed. Hetherington knew the risk of his profession – and willingly took them. While there was probably something of an adrenaline junkie in him that made him go back time and again into dangerous situations, what the film makes clear is that Hetherington had a big heart – he was well liked by everyone who met him, and more than anything he just wanted to capture the truth with his camera.
The film was directed by Sebastian Junger, who back in 2008 decided he wanted to make a documentary about the war in Afghanistan from the point of view of the American forces there. Not having any experience directing – let alone filming in war zones, he knew he needed someone who did – and when he met Hetherington, he found his perfect collaborator. The resulting film was Restrepo – which was nominated for an Oscar in 2010 – and deservingly so. Restrepo is a documentary that pretty much leaves politics out of the equation – what they wanted to do, and what they did, was capture what is like on the ground for the soldiers. The pair spent months with these soldiers, who learned to respect them. It may well have been the success of Restrepo that made Hetherington want to get back to work right away – while he was walking the Red Carpet for the Oscar ceremony in early 2011, the Arab world was exploding in revolution. While he didn’t have to go back, he did.
Which Way is the Front Line from Here is not a movie that looks very deeply (really not at all) at any of the wars Hetherington covered. There are other films for that (including Restrepo of course). What the film is then is a tribute to the man by those who worked with him or those who loved him. When we see him in archival interviews, he comes across as a smart, engaged, charming and funny person – it’s not hard to see why many people loved him.
As a tribute then, the film works just fine. As a documentary, I’m not quite so sure. As I said, you don’t see any of the details of the conflicts he covered – they are outside of the scope of the movie – but you also really don’t get much in the way of a detailed look inside the life of a war photographer. It is a tribute to Hetherington, and not much else. Personally, I would have preferred a more in-depth examination of the man and his profession. Instead, aside from one brief moment, no questions anything Hetherington ever did, and the film never really explores why he felt the desire to throw himself into these war zones constantly.
Yet I also understand that objectivity in this case is downright impossible. The film was made by a colleague and a friend – one who is clearly still reeling from the loss. As a tribute to Hetherington, Which Way to the Front Line from Here is stirring, emotional stuff. Would it be a better film had it had more distance from Hetherington? Perhaps – but it would have had to be made by someone else, and would have been a very different film.