Sebastian Junger is a tough guy. The whip-smart Vanity Fair contributing editor and author ("War," "Fire," "The Perfect Storm") has put himself in dangerous situations, from Liberia and Niger to Sierra Leone, as an occupational hazard. He won a National Magazine Award for reporting the Oct. 1999 Vanity Fair article “The Forensics of War.” But when he heard of the death of his best friend, British filmmaker and war photographer Tim Hetherington, 40, who had co-directed with him the Oscar-nominated Afghanistan doc "Restrepo," Junger gave up his jones for danger. "As soon as Tim was killed I decided within an hour," he told me. "I decided I am not going to do this."
I first met Junger and Hetherington at Sundance in 2010 (see my "Restrepo" flipcam interview and Hetherington's own 2010 video diary below). "Restrepo," which is currently available for Netflix streaming, doesn't resemble your standard documentary or other embedded war docs, or voice-over narration films, or movies with a strong personality or clear narrative spine. It's another animal. This film dogs you emotionally, messes up your tear ducts. Strapping, manly men, Hetherington and Junger held their own with U.S. soldiers in the toughest mountain terrain. Even they got weepy talking about the movie. What's the source of its power? The film takes us close to seeing what men at war go through, what they suffer and lose, and especially in Afghanistan, the futility of it all.
"I can count on a single hand times where I'm in a situation where I think I'm gonna be killed, and gone much further," Hetherington told me. "Not just killed like, 'Aw, I could've been shot,' but really a situation where you think like, 'this is it. I've gone too far now. My family's going to be so angry with me, they're going to be so upset. What have I done?'"
Having survived many dangerous photographic missions in his life, as well as repeated trips to the lethal Restrepo outpost in Afghanistan--now abandoned by U.S. military-- on April 20, 2011, Hetherington was killed by mortar fire during the civil war in Misrata between Muammar Qaddafi's soldiers and Libyan rebels, along with photographer Chris Hondros.
@TimHetherington's last tweet read: "In besieged Libyan city of Misrata. Indiscriminate shelling by Qaddafi forces. No sign of NATO."
I was so sad about Hetherington. He was one of those rare people you meet who are not only admirably heroic, but good to the bone. He was handsome, vital, charming, sharp, and dedicated to his work, which involved putting himself in the front lines of danger. Here's Junger's Vanity Fair piece on Hetherington.
Junger and I spoke again at Sundance 2013, where his doc "Which Way is the Front Line from Here: The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington" debuted before opening in theaters Friday April 12 and airing on HBO April 18. He admits that he was "very nervous about him going into Misrata, and I was worried he wouldn't be able to get out, and it seemed obvious to me that Qaddafi's navy would be trying to destroy boats that were making the run into Misrata. You don't want to get in there and run some gauntlet in a boat trying to avoid some navy, they'll know you're in there. It just smelled bad to me."
But Hetherington "took his chances and it could have easily been fine, you know," says Junger. "But it wasn't. Other things that were fine could have ended in tragedy in both of our pasts."
When a few of the journalists who were at the mortar attack attended Hetherington’s New York memorial service, Junger interviewed them about his friend’s death. Spending two years making the documentary about Hetherington was healing, he says. "It allowed me a concrete project to work on, and I felt when I got to the end of this process, I'd be at the end of some grieving process. I didn't know if it was true, that's what I told myself: 'when we premiere at Sundance, that is when I will stop actively grieving and put this behind me a little bit and make peace with this otherwise open-ended process.'"
Junger had plenty of Hetherington's visceral video and photographic material to work with, and interviews his friends and family.
Are more journalists taking precautions? "Although the casualties have plunged in the last few years because of the Arab spring," Junger explains, "there are more wars and more access to front lines and it's more chaotic and they're not professional armies, or they're not worried about shelling civilians. There's been a lot of deaths. I think that has started to bring on an awareness among journalists that they are extremely vulnerable. Journalists feel they are outside the normal calculus of danger as observers, they're not. People are starting to realize that you can't just go to Syria and hang out with the rebels and assume you're going to be fine. We are all starting to realize, 'oh this is actually serious.' We are going to have to adjust the way we operate."
Does it make a difference if you are married with family? "I think having others close to you and dependent on you, like children, does change peoples calculus about all kinds of things, you know? Tim didn't have anybody, and I think that probably changed how he thought about risk."