NAVIGATING ALTERNATE REALITIES
Part I of a Conversation with Oscar-Nominee TIM HETHERINGTON
Tim Hetherington by Tyler Malone
When Tim Hetherington and I met for tacos in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, I didn’t know what to expect. Since he is the Oscar-nominated co-director/co-producer of the phenomenal documentary Restrepo and had spent quite a bit of time embedded with American troops in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, which CNN dubbed “the deadliest place on earth,” I had no clue just what this British-born, NYC-based photojournalist would be like. As it turns out, tacos with Tim is just about the best spent Friday afternoon imaginable. Our discursive discussion began with us gabbing about the most beautiful places we’ve traveled and where we’d like to live if we could choose anywhere. For the curious, I’ll let it leak that the most beautiful place Tim has visited is in Africa, and if Tim could live anywhere he would split his time between San Francisco and a small farm in Latin America.
Before long, we discovered that we not only shared the same favorite documentarian–Chris Marker, whose films La Jetée and Sans Soleil definitely inform Hetherington’s work–but also the same favorite novelist: James Joyce. Hetherington, I soon learned, had years ago written his dissertation on Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which seems fitting for a man interested in how perception, dreams and memory work, for a man fascinated with immersion and exile. James Joyce is the perfect patron saint for this photojournalist/filmmaker/writer because of these shared interests and fascinations, but even moreso because of their modus operandi: they let images and stories tell themselves, let nuance pull at the threads of anything ordered to reveal an inner chaos, and let politics and philosophy and aesthetics enter the conversation, but not rule the discourse. Neither Hetherington nor Joyce are men of slogans. They avoid the trite platitudes of us vs. them. They understand that the world is in flux, as are all of us. Both Hetherington and Joyce are embodiments of what the poet John Keats called men of achievement possessing a certain Shakespearean negative capability. Negative capability, as Keats explained, is “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” A mention of Keats here doesn’t feel out of place because, as Hetherington says in the interview below, he once wrote a paper on the effects of drugs on the Romantic poets. The fact that the work of Hetherington (and Joyce, and Keats) cannot be summed up in a simple sentence is what makes it endlessly fascinating. The work exists in uncertainty, mystery, doubt. This is what has made Restrepo, a documentary about the war in Afghanistan, a simultaneously highly-praised and controversial film. It refuses to make a didactic argument for or against the war. It’s not that there’s no underlying politics, or that Hetherington and co-director/co-producer Sebastian Junger have no opinions on the matter–they certainly do, as I found out over lunch. What it is rather is that they let the story tell itself, which has led people on both sides of the political spectrum to praise the film and see it as strengthening their arguments, while others, also on both sides of the political spectrum, have criticized it for not going far enough in either direction.
By the time I had started recording our conversation, we’d already been discussing Joyce and his relation to Hetherington’s work:
Tim Hetherington: So, about the Joyce thing, to bring it all back: It’s funny, I teach students, and you have students who come there and they tell you what the work is all about, and you’re like…
[He makes a funny face implying that it is impossible to sum up the work of someone like James Joyce into a simple sentence.]
You know, but the one nice thing about getting older and accumulating work, or accumulating life’s journey, is you start to understand and look back and think: “Oh, that’s interesting that I did that.” I just gravitate to things that interest me, but there is a kind of logical…you join the dots up, you know, and see: “Oh, that’s what’s going on…”
Tyler Malone: You develop a certain constellation of your own personal philosophy and understanding of the world?
TH: Yeah, and ultimately all my work is a journey, but ultimately the journey leads back to myself–it’s starting to lead back to myself. Which is great, that’s life. I mean I hope that that’s what it’s about. It’s both an uncovering the world and uncovering of yourself. But I’m being discursive with you as a way of expressing that…
Back to Joyce: the themes of my work, and my interests in work, in cinema–and not just cinema, but my interests in life–are no different from when I was a writer. They were no different then from what they are now.
TM: And what exactly are these interests specifically?
TH: How do you characterize it? Immersion. Abandonment into subject matter. Exile, maybe. I mean Joyce wrote Ulysses when he was mostly in Trieste. He was completely immersed in the world. He was emotionally abandoned. There was no reason in it. In much the same way that, for me, doing the emotional projects I do now–it’s complete abandonment into the work. And an interest in other perceptions, in other ways of thinking and being.
When I was 16, I wrote my O level essay on the effects on drugs on the Romantic poets. So there was always this fascination with alternate realities, alternate ways of seeing, and going in and immersing yourself in other places. That’s really how my documentary work has evolved. I completely try to immerse myself in other worlds. It’s about experience and immersion.
I did a film recently called Diary which is like a 20 minute film. You can see it on vimeo if you go to vimeo.com/timhetherington. I took ten years of war reporting and my personal life and mixed it into a stream-of-consciousness. It’s completely non-narrative. It’s really about simultaneous experience. In the same way that Joyce was into journeying–you know, Ulysses is a journey in one day–there are themes of journeying and dreaming and sleeping. Diary is like a dream. There’s no logic to it. Someone asked me: “How did you work out the governing principles?” Well, there aren’t any governing principles in a dream.
TM: Or like in San Soleil, there aren’t any governing principles in a memory–a memory being much like a dream.
TH: Exactly. I also did an installation in 2009 called Sleeping Soldiers.
TM: Yeah, I saw that online.
TH: Did you see the single screen one? Not the three screen? Because it is actually a site specific installation. It’s three screens that wrap around you so it actually immerses you into the dream. Each of the frames is different, it doesn’t replicate. They’re all slightly different: they’re different speeds and there are different things happening. You go into it and go into this other world. It’s pictures of soldiers sleeping and you know, I guess that gets us back to Finnegans Wake, which I wrote my dissertation on. This is far from Restrepo, I know…
TM: Well, let’s talk about how that film came about.
TH: Restrepo? It really was Sebastian who initiated it. You know, he’d been covering the wars in Afghanistan since the mid-90s. He had met battle company of the 173rd Airborne in 2005 and he liked them. He realized that the US was going to be in Afghanistan for a long time and he wondered what the experience of the soldier was like since the war on terror began. It seems really obvious, but nobody had followed a platoon of soldiers for an entire deployment. So he said: “Well, if battle company goes back out to deploy, I’ll go with them.” And they did, and they deployed to the Korengal Valley.
You know, you make long-term projects but you structure them and fund them in different ways. One of the ways we fund stuff is we’re contributors to Vanity Fair. Sebastian told Vanity Fair that he wanted to go off and do this and they said: “Fine, we’ll send you on assignment.”
TM: Yeah, that’s what I was curious about. I was wondering if that came first or the idea for the documentary came first…
TH: No, the assignment kind of came first. I mean Sebastian had it in his head. He had said he wanted to write a book and he was thinking of doing a film, but he didn’t really have a sense of how to do a film. I understood how to make a film.
But at first when I was heading out there on assignment, I was really just going to make a set of images for Vanity Fair. When I got there though I was like: “Wow! There really is a film here.” I turned to him and said, “Yeah, we really have to make a film.” And he said, “Yes, absolutely.”
TM: The Korengal Valley, where the entire film takes place, is supposedly the “most dangerous place in the world,” so how did–
TH: Well, in terms of combat, I’d still say Baghdad is more dangerous.
TM: Really? Isn’t Korengal known as the “deadliest place on earth”?
TH: Well, yeah, I know. CNN dubbed it that, and then it becomes that. In terms of US soldiers, the casualty rate there was quite high, but I just think if you look at Baghdad, the civilian death toll there is fucking huge.
TM: True. But, well, what I wanted to ask was what did you feel when you were out there in one of deadliest places on earth? Was there fear? Excitement?
TH: Like how did I feel just being there? It just felt like I was doing a job.
TM: Yeah? Were you fearful for your life at all?
TH: Sometimes I was, sometimes I wasn’t. And sometimes you’re not fearful for your life, and then you snap-to and you think: “PAY ATTENTION!“ If you go out on patrol and you’re walking down the street, you’d be scoping everything out. You’d be looking and you’d be wondering: “Okay, if we suddenly get shot at where am I gonna go to?”
[He begins pointing out and telling me what places would make good cover and what wouldn't on this Lower East Side street. I learn engine blocks in cars apparently make great cover.]
So that kind of effects your head after a while. You have hyper-vigilance when you come back. You’re walking down the street and you are thinking about that, and that’s kind of crazy.
TM: So how does it feel now to be back? And you’re nominated for an Academy Award? All the press from Sundance? You got the documentary award there. You’re not just back, it is a whole other world apart from Korengal…
TH: Yeah, well, there’s a number of different things. It’s incredible. Who would have thought we’d be at this stage? It’s a complete honor. The more people then get to see the film and talk about it.
In another way, LA is far from Afghanistan. But as we were talking about before, I’ve been navigating alternate realities for some time now. That’s what I do in my job. And you’ll see that in Diary. Diary is all about that. I am used to going from extreme realities and trying to navigate them. So in some ways it’s just like that, it’s a bit unreal and you’re just like: “Okay, here we go…”
TM: So one thing I really wanted to ask. I think I’ve read that you said that Restrepo is not a political film. When I saw it, initially I felt it was an anti-war film. But since seeing it, I’ve spoken with others on the opposite side of the political spectrum and they feel like it’s a film for them. Was it intentional that it would have an apolitical take–I mean obviously not completely apolitical, you cant talk about war or anything and be completely apolitical–but was it intentional to kind of extricate yourself from your own political beliefs or do you think they’re subtly in there somewhere?
TH: Firstly, what do we mean by politics? Is the film taking easy partisan lines? No.
But you can say that everything we do is political. What you eat. Or how you dress. Or where you choose to live. You know, it’s all political. So in some ways, of course, it’s political. But what it doesn’t do is it just doesn’t present you with…
TM: Easy answers?
TH: Exactly. Or easy political ideas. It’s more nuanced than that. Because ultimately life is more nuanced.
And why do documentaries have to lecture people? Who suddenly came up with that idea? Or is it that it just reflects the current state of the media where, because there’s so little money available to news desks now, they’re reduced to political comment and opinion, because they can’t afford to put people out in the field. Because I remember the days when reporting was actually about trying to be like a glass of water, going out there and presenting a sense of what’s happening to the viewer and allowing them to make up their own minds. It’s called coverage.
TM: Which is what I love about the film: it allows the viewer to make up their own mind.
TH: But that annoys people.
TM: I got a very specific political sense of the film, but I knew it was colored by my own understanding.
TH: You know, people get angry at the film. They get angry if they feel that it starts to stray into questioning the war rather than just presenting the experience of the soldier. Then, on the other hand, the far left gets angry if you haven’t morally condemned the war. Well, both of those points of view are really not that interesting or relevant to where we are now.
TM: They’re too easy. That’s a sentence, not a film.
TH: As I said to somebody last night. Sure, some people may not like the film, but the fact is that people are talking about it, and if that keeps Afghanistan on the agenda then we’ve done our job.
TM: Exactly. Obviously, Iraq has overshadowed Afghanistan. I mean Iraq is barely in the daily minds of average Americans, but Afghanistan even less so. So at least it is bringing that to the forefront and, more importantly, giving a sort of nuanced point of view. Nothing against Michael Moore, being a dyed-in-the-wool liberal and cinema junkie I like his films, but what I love about your film is that it is not telling you exactly what to think.
TH: Michael Moore is a great filmmaker, but there’s only room for one of him. There’s only one Michael Moore.
TM: Very true.
TH: You know, nobody has done the kind of film we’ve made. Nobody had put you in there. There hasn’t been an immersive war film like ours. And the only thing people compare it to is like The Hurt Locker or The Thin Red Line, and kind of bring out some ridiculous liberal critique that we’re somehow propping up the imperialistic American war-machine with propaganda. It’s just like, you know, get a grip!
[We both laugh.]
It’s like the very fact that you’re comparing it to HOLLYWOOD films–
TM: Right, comparing it to FICTION films…
TH: …is distressing in and of itself.
TM: Exactly. So, we’ve been talking about how this is an undeniably nuanced film, but I guess what I’m curious about is that if there is a take-away from the film is there something specific you’d want it to be? Or was the goal just to get the dialogue going? Or is there some sort of kernel of truth that you hope gets across?
TH: Well, the kernel of truth, I think it…well, hmm…I dunno. Is there a kernel of truth?
TM: I mean I know you obviously made a film and not a sentence, so I imagine it is hard to reduce it to a sentence, but…
TH: I mean, when I was making the edit for the film, I had an image in my head of meat going through a grinder. I think in the film, when you see the faces of the young men who are just staring at the camera, staring at you the viewer, I think that presents that image in my mind more eloquently than any political polemic ever could.
Maybe that’s a bit too easy for some people? You know, war sucks or war puts these young men through the grinder. What I think it’s saying though is that we instrumentalize these young men. They’re sanctioned by the state to go there, to fight. Even though they volunteered. They could have changed tires on Humvees, but they didn’t, they wanted to fight. But at the end of the day, they’re sanctioned by our society and they’re paid for with our taxpayer dollars, and we need to have a proper discussion. Do we want an army? Do we want to fight? Is this useful? You know, those are the kind of questions we need to be asking, because ultimately we’re instrumentalizing young men.
And, you know, I’m an image-maker, and I know when we talk about the war-machine, often we present it with images of Apache attack helicopters or missiles, but it’s not. The war-machine is: take a group of young men, train them together and put them on the side of a mountain, and they’re gonna kill and be killed for each other. It’s something very human.
The reason why some people get annoyed at our film on the far left is because they’ve dehumanized these young men. They don’t like feeling empathy for them. Well, you know what? Grown up!
[We both chuckle.]
TM: Exactly. It’s more nuanced than that.
TH: I was being asked again recently if I feel like I’m just making propaganda for the American imperial war-machine, and I was like: “Well, what are we all doing living here?” You know what I mean?
And then the other answer to that is: “Oh, well, this is the nature of the media. If you want to have a media that doesn’t represent people in situations–that’s cool, let’s be like Saudi Arabia.”
[The laughter returns.]
Stay tuned for Part II of my interview with the phenomenal Tim Hetherington, which will be posted early next week right here in PMc Magazine.
Tim Hetherington, award winning photographer and documentary filmmaker, is the co-producer and co-director of Restrepo with Sebastian Junger, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. His latest publishing project is Infidel, an intimate portrait of a single U.S. platoon stationed in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan. The images were made over the course of one year while Hetherington and Junger were filming Restrepo. Hetherington has reported on conflict and human rights issues for more than ten years. He was the only photographer to live behind rebel lines during the 2003 Liberian civil war–work that culminated in the film Liberia: An Uncivil War and the book Long Story Bit by Bit : Liberia Retold (Umbrage 2009), and his work for Human Rights Watch to uncover civilian massacres on the Chad / Darfur border in 2006 appeared in the documentary The Devil Came on Horseback. He is the recipient of four World Press Photo awards, including the World Press Photo of the Year (2007), and an Alfred I. duPont Award in broadcast journalism while on assignment with Sebastian Junger for ABC News (2009). A native of the UK, he is lives in New York and is a contributing photographer for Vanity Fair.
Tim Hetherington interviewed by Tyler Malone
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography by Tim Hetherington
Design by Marie Havens
RESTREPO filmmakers Sebastian Junger (l.) and Tim Hetherington (r.) at Outpost Restrepo. Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, Kunar Province. 2007. Photograph © Tim Hetherington
Specialist Misha Pemble-Belkin (l.) and Ross Murphy (r.) of Battle Company, 173rd US Airborne relax at Outpost Restrepo – the outpost is the focus of the documentary RESTREPO by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger. Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, Kunar Province. 2008. Photograph © Tim Hetherington
Outpost (“OP”) Restrepo. Korengal Valley, Kunar Province, Afghanistan. 2008. A film still from the documentary RESTREPO by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger. Image © Outpost Films
Specialist Misha Pemble-Belkin (l.) and fellow soldiers from Battle Company, 173rd US Airborne during a firefight at Outpost Restrepo during combat in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, Kunar Province. 2008. A film still from the documentary RESTREPO by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger. Photograph © Tim Hetherington