Famed War Journalist Sebastian Junger on Slain Friend Tim Hetherington: ‘When He Died, I Left War’

Sebastian Junger talks about his new HBO documentary, war reporting and his late friend

Sebastian Junger earned an Oscar nomination in 2010 for the first film he ever directed, "Restrepo," a documentary about American soldiers at war in Afghanistan.

Little more than a year later, Junger would unwittingly begin work on a second documentary — the tale of his "Restrepo" co-director, Tim Hetherington.

Junger had planned on going to Libya with Hetherington but was unable to for personal reasons. Instead, the emotional interviews with those beside Hetherington when he  was wounded inspired a cinematic tribute, “Which Way Is the Front Line? The Life and Times of Tim Hetherington,” a documentary that premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival and airs Thursday on HBO.

It was in March of 2011 that Junger learned that Hetherington, his good friend and collaborator, had been killed in Libya. Because he was one of the first to get the news, he had to inform Hetherington’s girlfriend, filmmaker Idil Ibrahim, that she would never see the man she loved again.

As the shock of losing his friend began to settle in, Junger — an award-winning journalist, author and filmmaker — had an idea. He wanted get some of the journalists who had been with Hetherington in the Libyan city of Misurata to talk about Hetherington as well as wht it was like to cover the Libyan revolution.

A British photojournalist who contributed to Vanity Fair, Hetherington had already made a name for himself following rebels in East Africa and American soldiers in Afghanistan. He embarked on that Afghanistan journey with Junger, author of "The Perfect Storm," and the two collaborated on "Restrepo," which followed a U.S. Army platoon in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley. Junger also wrote a book, "War."

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TheWrap spoke with Junger about why he made the movie, how Hetherington's death changed his own life and why 18-year olds will think combat photography is cool.

How quickly after Tim’s death did you decide you wanted to make a movie?
Pretty quickly. I wanted to interview the journalists who had survived the attack, and they were coming to New York for a memorial a few weeks later, so I set up studio interviews at Goldcrest, where we made “Restrepo.”

They reminded me of the interviews Tim and I did for “Restrepo” – tightly framed, emotional, raw. After that I thought, ‘Damn this would be an interesting film.’ It might help people, help me, help put Tim’s extraordinary life into an accessible form.

Though a lot of it is biographical, the movie also explores the subject of war reporting and the journalists who can’t give it up. Did you have a specific message you wanted to convey?
War reporting is necessary and on the one hand, people romanticize the profession. On the other hand, the reporters aren’t appreciated enough. We lost two more guys two days ago in Syria. It’s endless.

I wanted to turn down romanticizing and turn up the appreciation of war reporting. Tim was working on this thing about young men and war and how young men act in war, why they are so transfixed by war. It’s all very politically incorrect.

How so?
War is supposed to be horrible and we only do it with the greatest reluctance and distaste. The fact is a lot of men can’t wait to go to war and Tim was trying to understand what was that about. Some of it was to honor my good friend. He lived a big life. He was very compassionate, curious about the world and very brave – artistically brave and brave on the battlefield. Knowing Tim inspired me to be more like Tim and some of the people who see my film will feel likewise.

You and many of the other people you interview in the film have spent a lot of time reporting in highly dangerous locations. What makes that so compelling?
You don’t go to war unless you’re excited by it. You don’t leave it until you’re tremendously saddened by it. Tim completed the last part of that arc for me. When he died, I left war. In studying young men at war, he was trying to understand his own relationship to it. He was creating at the highest level he was capable of in war and all those things are just intoxicating.

In the movie, before Tim dies, he flirts with the idea of leaving war zones behind. Why couldn’t he?
He wasn’t old enough. I got out at 50 and he was only 40. He’d only been a war reporter for 8 years. That’s not very long. I think he was just getting going. I think he wanted to think he was capable of getting out, but I’m not sure he believed it. I know I didn’t believe it.

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How did you two first come to work together?
I was on assignment for Vanity Fair. I wanted to follow a platoon off and on for a year, write a couple articles for Vanity Fair and take notes to write a book. I would shoot video in hopes that at the end of the year I’d have enough video to make a documentary even though I didn’t know what that involved at all. (Left: Hetherington and Junger at Sundance in 2010)

And Tim?
On my second trip into Korengal in September of 2007, I brought Tim for the first time as a contract photographer for Vanity Fair. He quickly fell in love with the topic, and I was very happy that someone who knew more than I knew about documentaries was interested in collaborating with me. He came onto a project I’d already conceived of and was starting to try to do, but he completely bailed me out because he knew what he was doing and I didn’t. 

And that work spawned a friendship.
First and foremost we had a job to do, a project we were in love with and we were financially committed to. We were emotionally and professional entangled in many ways and I was very fortunate to be doing this with someone who was so capable and driven. It was a tremendous blessing and it affected the project quite a bit.

How so?
Well, we went off to do this project but also had an experience together. The film had to be emotionally true to that experience. It was an experience we shared and I said to Tim at one point in terms of editorial decisions that we need to have the same experience, same emotions watching this film as we had when we were actually out there.

Does the peripatetic lifestyle of going in and out of conflict zones make it more difficult to maintain those relationships?
I go overseas for a month and take three months to write. I’m jealous of photographers who could drop off film and now send in a file and move onto the next story. It allows for constant motion. If you want to avoid emotional commitment, being a combat photographer is a pretty good way to do that.

And yet he was in a relationship when he died, and you had to tell his girlfriend what happened.
I don’t know how much they were talking when he was in Libya. She was his girlfriend and I was able to confirm through media and news channels that he’d been killed. I was the one who broke the news to her, but she knew something was going on.

Were you surprised that she and Tim’s father were willing to participate?
I was grateful and relieved. It’s me, James Barbazon, Nick Quested, who helped us make “Restrepo” and was a good friend of Tim’s. Who else are you going to have make a movie about Tim? I don’t know who else would do it and I think they realized it was right.

You are also an interview subject. Did you have someone interview you or did you prepare a statement?
As a journalist the last thing I want to be is in front of the camera. I know networks news has started to turn correspondents into action heroes at times. I'm appalled by that approach to journalism. My editor Geeta [Gandbhir] said ‘you’re the only one who knows about Afghanistain, which was an enormously important and profound experience in his life. You have to sit in front of a camera and explain that experience.’ So she interviewed me.

In terms of network newscasts, what about that is so upsetting?
When you see the camera rolling on a correspondent under fire with soldiers all around, what are you shooting the correspondent for? I understand doing a stand-up – ‘here we are in the Korengal Valley – but not keeping the camera rolling on correspondent instead of the soldier. They aren’t the story; they are here to cover the story.

You said you’re done with war? So where do you go from here with this film as a bookend to your war experience?
I’m just not going to cover combat. The after effects of war are pretty profound, and take place back home. I can imagine writing about some of that, or something completely different. I have a project that involves a couple of combat vets that I can’t talk about in detail. It’s a film for HBO and also will be a book. Very early on after deciding to try and make this documentary, the first people I talked to were at HBO. They agreed within a half an hour to full finance it.

Have most of the war reporters you know been able to let go or do they need something personally traumatic?
I know a number of people who stopped war reporting because of Tim’s death. Some do it because they have a kid. I don’t have kids. Sometimes it’s just fatigue. There’s a physical and moral burden to doing this shit and eventually you just don’t want to.

What kind of impact do you think this movie will have on those young men who want to go to war?
I expect people will watch this footage like they do with “Restrepo.” Many 18-year-old guys will be inspired to be war reporters. Everyone knows the consequences of war are death. It doesn’t stop many people from raising a hand and doing it. It makes the profession of combat photographer look pretty appealing to a certain kind of person.