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Which Way is the Frontline from Here?

Which Way is the Frontline from Here? featured image

Which Way is the Frontline from Here?: the Life and Time of Tim Hetherington

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Feature documentary directed by Sebastian Junger w/Tim Hetherington, James Brabazon, Sebastian Junger, Idil Ibrahim

Tim Hetherington was a great combat photographer who paid the ultimate price for his calling. On April 20, 2011, he was killed in Misrata, Libya, while documenting the civil war taking place there. Hetherington was only 40 when he died. Seven weeks earlier, he had walked the red carpet at the Academy Awards, a nominee for best documentary for the film he co-directed about combat troops in Afghanistan, Restrepo. Now, his co-director on that film, Sebastian Junger, has made a film about Hetherington.

Which Way is the Frontline from Here?: the Life and Time of Tim Hetherington is an artfully constructed homage to a brave artist who died too young. There is no doubt about Hetherington’s talent or fearlessness. But it’s also true that every man has flaws and none are shown in this documentary profile. That’s an understandable omission in a film directed by one of Hetherington’s closest friends and co-produced by another, James Brabazon, who worked with him in Liberia during their civil war.

It was in Liberia in 2002 that Hetherington, an Oxford educated Englishman, finally practiced his métier. By all accounts, a restless spirit in his youth, he came to photography after university and only studied it at Cardiff after working with cameras as an amateur for a couple of years. By the time he arrived in Liberia, Hetherington had already shot brilliant photos and videos in Wales and England. Junger highlights a piece on an emergency wing of a hospital that’s absolutely riveting.

In Liberia, Hetherington collaborated with Brabazon, often taking photographs to accompany his texts. Unlike most contemporary photographers, Hetherington used a Rolleiflex, forcing him to compose his photos in a more painterly way. His compositions are usually exquisite even in extreme situations. In a series of his photos, girls being harassed by soldiers are shown in their anguish and fear—the important aspect of the images—but Hetherington also manages to respect the frame, placing the young women in harmony to the deteriorating landscape surrounding them. In another, a capsized tanker, its rusting hulk gleaming in the sunlight, forms the background to a man in a small yellow sailboat passing by the wreckage; again, both vehicles are balanced, emphasizing the inherent tension in the shot.

Brabazon emphasizes that Hetherington was concerned about the people in the war, not with the thrill of being a war photographer. At one point, he placed himself at risk, saving the life of a medic accused of being a spy. When the civil war was over and corrupt President Charles Taylor was deposed, Hetherington spent several years in the country, working with the United Nations to see that justice was done for many civilians brutalized during the conflict.

If the footage of Liberia is excellent, Junger’s use of documentary material in Afghanistan is even better. The film employs footage from Restrepo, showing the complex and paradoxically loving relationships that are developed while men are in combat. Like Brabazon, Junger shows that Hetherington was always interested in the deeper, more human stories in a conflict though he certainly could shoot exciting war photographs as well.

Which Way is the Frontline from Here? shows the tragedy of war and the equally tragic loss of a fine visual artist and humanitarian. It’s a wonderful tribute to Tim Hetherington—and should be seen widely.

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