NAVIGATING ALTERNATE REALITIES
Part II of a Conversation with TIM HETHERINGTON, Oscar-Nominated Co-Director & Co-Producer of RESTREPO
Tim Hetherington by Tyler Malone
Tim Hetherington is an interesting character, as I found out when I sat down with him to talk shop about his film Restrepo, and our conversation veered into all different directions. It was a fascinating discussion–the first part of which was published last week–because it seemed that at any moment it could go anywhere. We talked about war, literature, film, violence, politics, philosophy, travel, and just about everything under the sun.
Like our conversation, Tim Hetherington himself seems to be working in different directions as well. He has his own personal perspectives, but he’s conflicted, as any true intellectual is and should be. His answers often contain questions in them–to himself, to me or to no one. Sometimes he answers the questions, sometimes not. Is it that he prefers questions to answers? He reminds me of the birds in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five–a novel near and dear to his heart–who make what is described as the only sound possible in the face of war and disaster and massacre: “Poo-tee-weet?“ Of course, a question. “Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question,” wrote the poet e. e. cummings.
The inquisitive Tim Hetherington understands that life is in flux and that it contains multiple modalities, and he appears to be interested in immersing himself completely in the chaos and fusing those various modalities into some sort of personal narrative of existence. Through personal perspective, he finds a curiosity and a duty to and towards the world–and so he questions. Other journalists might find someone who ponders questions, rather than easily answering them, quite difficult to interview, but I found it refreshing. Too often people seem to have all the answers, but anyone who claims to have all the answers, clearly doesn’t. Tim Hetherington doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but he’s not afraid to ask all the questions. And while he seems to be moving in a million directions at once, the journey always comes circling back to himself–because every journey, as he claims, should be in some way a journey back to the self. So it goes…
Tyler Malone: What was the sense of the troops over there? I mean you were immersed in their world, surrounded by them. Did they feel like they were being forgotten? Or did they feel like they had the support of America? Or what was the sense that you got from them?
Tim Hetherington: Eh, it’s complicated. I mean I think that when we first got there in 2007, the US military was feeling very unloved. You know, the focus was on Iraq. But when we got to the Korengal Valley, over a fifth of the fighting in the whole of Afghanistan was happening in that one valley. They were being underresourced and undermanned. You know, we won the war in Afghanistan already in 2001, and then we lost it when we walked away to Iraq, which was completely ridiculous. We left 19,000 soldiers in Afghanistan. There’s 40,000 cops here in New York City. The 19,000 left weren’t given a focus–so yeah, the military in Afghanistan was feeling very unloved.
You know, these are men who volunteered, and they’re going through this…huge…experience. And it’s a completely existential experience, as well. You know, killing or having your friend die in your arms, it’s a huge deal for them, obviously, so of course they are going to feel like nobody understands or cares for them. But it’s about: How do we close that gap? It’s about closing a perceptual gap…
I mean should everyone here be… [he kind of gestures out to the street where passers-by carry shopping bags and laugh at inside-jokes with one another, and he gets lost in his thoughts for a moment, and then sort of changes his direction].
I mean people have other stuff to do in their lives as well. We can’t all be focused on Afghanistan. And you know what? They chose to join the military, so they have to deal with the consequences of that. But at the same time, we’re sanctioning them being there, and we need to understand their experience because ultimately they’re going to come home, and we have to make a place for them here. So I guess it is just trying to close that perceptual gap between what we think they’re doing and them feeling that we understand that. That’s what we wanted to do with the film.
The whole discussion about whether we should be in Afghanistan…
TM: I mean, that discussion is over. We’re already there…
TH: Exactly. We’re already there. For the far left who want to have a discussion about American military imperialism and fighting, I mean a lot of those people are having hang-ups from the Vietnam War and the Bush Era. But the fact of the matter is this is Afghanistan, this isn’t Vietnam, and this isn’t the Bush Era. So we have to find a sort of workable solution to stop the war and get out. But the fact is we’ve already abandoned the Afghans once. Isn’t it kind of funny that the people who are normally the ones so supportive of human rights are the ones who want to turn tail and walk out of Afghanistan when Afghan civilian casualties are at their lowest levels since 1979? I don’t get it sometimes…
TM: I mean, I didn’t even know that data about Afghan civilian casualties and I’m someone who stays relatively attuned to the goings-on in Afghanistan. It’s facts like that that the average American has no clue about.
TH: Over the last ten years, the top most levels of civilian casualties has been 30,000, as the highest level, which is terrible. It turns out three-quarters of those were killed by the Taliban. In fact, Afghan human rights groups are now asking that Taliban commanders be subject to investigation for international war crimes. 30,000. But that’s nothing compared to the 400,000 that died in the 1990s when the Taliban and the Northern Alliance and the war lords fought it out. And that’s nothing again when compared to the decade previous, which is much more difficult statistics to gather, but it is around a million to a million and a half–I mean that’s a big fucking gap–under the Soviets. So in some weird way, we’re the lowest levels of violence. So we wanna pull out now? That’s great, because all the Afghans I talk to are terrified that if we pull out now it will spiral back out of control to the 1990s levels.
So, my guess, as a liberal, is that we have a responsibility in Afghanistan. But maybe other liberals don’t feel that way? They feel like we should just get out. Economically, we’re spending 1% of GDP in Iraq and Afghanistan, Vietnam was 10%. This is a war we can afford. By some measure.
I’m not supporting the war, but what I’m supporting is… [He pauses, and thinks of it another way...].
Am I supportive of military intervention in countries? Yeah, I am. So when you take the argument back one step, it’s not just about Afghanistan. If they want to say it is about American military imperialism, fine, I get it. But the question is: Do we have a standing army or not? Do we use an army? Do we believe in intervention? Do we believe in war?
So, okay, my personal issue is that I believe in military intervention. I think that if Rwanda happened tomorrow, we’d have the moral responsibility to get involved. And I have been in African countries where massacres have happened and the West has done nothing, and I can tell you it’s not a very nice sight.
TM: I think that’s most of the questions I had planned to ask, but I guess, going from a completely different angle: What’s next for you? What are you doing next?
TH: Um, I don’t know. I’m not so sure. You know, again, talking about this immersion thing, it’s like, you know, in Liberia I lived with a rebel army that pushed Charles Taylor out of power. I was a filmmaker and a photographer, and now in Afghanistan, with this body of work. A lot of the work is about young men in conflict, and I guess trying to figure out this impulse that young men have. So I’m just kind of trying to work things out, I’m not quite sure. I don’t want to jump on board anything yet because emotionally you have to give so much in the work. I get requests, but I’ll wait and see.
TM: And then one other question I had, that you were talking about before I started recording, but I’d like to know what are some of your favorite documentaries? I know you mentioned Sans Soleil earlier. I mean, that is kind of on the border of whether that is technically a documentary or not. It could be classified as a documentary or a fiction film.
TH: And yeah, La Jetée is the same. And thinking of La Jetée, one of the best anti-war books I’ve ever read is Slaughterhouse Five.
[I am quite surprised at the mention of that book because I had planned on mentioning it earlier, but hadn't].
TM: That’s funny, I was actually going to bring up that book earlier. How weird. In that novel, Vonnegut talks about, well, is it an anti-war book or is it not? He even says at one point something to the effect of: What’s the point of making an anti-war book? It’s like making an anti-glacier book.
TH: Right, right. [He laughs].
TM: The irony of that of course is that glaciers are probably going to go away before war does. The metaphor doesn’t work anymore with global warming.
[We have a good chuckle].
But he’s asking, basically, what’s the point of making an anti-war book? But then he goes ahead and does, a little bit. But Slaughterhouse Five, like Restrepo, is a bit more nuanced than just “anti-war”…
TH: Well, exactly. He doesn’t make some sort of moral polemic about it, because it’s more about the experience.
You know, I’ve said this before, but I’d love to make a science fiction film in Afghanistan.
TM: That would be amazing. That could be really interesting…
TH: Kurt Vonnegut is for me, well, totally…there. And the way he brought science fiction into Slaughterhouse Five, I just thought was absolutely incredible. I like the idea of mixing genres, and making surprises. Just like these anti-war polemics, they become like clichés, they’re very childish. We’ve delineated what has to be dealt with in a certain genre. Or how certain genres should behave. And science fiction is really one of the underrated genres for me.
TM: Well, yeah, and certain genres are relegated to “not as important.” I think that’s what is so amazing about Slaughterhouse Five, is that it is probably, for me, the most visceral and real war book, yet a major plotline is about aliens. It seems so antithetical, but it actually works, and makes you feel the war parts even more.
TH: Kurt Vonnegut is also drawing on personal experience. It was interesting, did you read the thing in the book review about the new biography of Salinger that is coming out?
TM: Oh no, I didn’t.
TH: He saw a huge amount of fighting, and I didn’t realize that at all because he rarely writes bout it. I thought: “Ah, I should read that biography, it sounds really fascinating.”
So…let me go back to the idea…you asked me about what was next…and I definitely feel like as I’ve gone through this kind of journey of making projects that ultimately the journey is coming back to myself. There’s a balance between externally talking about stuff and something internal as well. And that this very personal take on things is what gives it power. What doesn’t give things power anymore is when someone doesn’t really have that dimension. I like the fact that people can talk from a personal perspective on stuff–that’s different from opinion–but it’s drawing on personal experience, which gives a kind of authenticity to what they’re saying and makes it more powerful.
TM: Which is like James Joyce, as we were talking about before. You know, Joyce doesn’t give a lot of opinion.
TM: But there’s an enormous amount of personal stuff behind it–personal perspective and personal experience and personality. It’s very controlled, but it’s also very chaotic in a way.
TM: He’s not really didactic about most things. I think his actual opinions on most things are debatable, we still don’t know. Even on the religious stuff, where on the surface level it may be easy to read his views as quite critical, there’s also–
TH: A fascination with it.
TM: But anyways, I was asking you about any other documentaries or films, besides Chris Marker’s, that really influenced or inspire you?
TH: I mean, loads of stuff. You know there’s stuff that I like and then there’s other stuff that’s shaped me or, umm… You know, I really like bits of the Coen Brothers. I visually like certain scenes and how they play stuff out.
TM: That said, are you rooting for them for Best Picture?
TH: I’m not sure… We’ve been so consumed with this that I haven’t had a chance to put my head above the parapets to see what else is going on out there.
I’m trying to think of other films that really…
Sometimes I really like those epic films that really immerse you into their world. I like Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev. Or I liked Carlos. You know, it’s a five and a half hour film and you say: “How the fuck can I watch a five and a half hour film?” But actually you sit in there and you have a very different type of cinematic experience than what you’re used to with the delineated two hour Hollywood film. You have this five and a half hour epic journey into this world. There’s lots of different languages. It’s fantastic. Um, so yeah, those two films.
I like films that also have anger in them. Like La Haine, I mean obviously hate’s in the title, and I like that film a lot. I like films that have a passion and an anger.
We live an emotional life. And I’m interested in… Well, how do we balance logic and reason with emotion?
TM: Yeah, I think that’s the big question. How to do that…
TH: Right. And what was funny about doing Restrepo. You know, documentaries are unfortunately often like medicine you take when you’re a kid. You don’t like it, but you know it’s going to be good for you. Whereas what we did with Restrepo is we took what Hollywood movies do so well, which is putting you there in it, like you are in the back when it is being robbed. I mean the illusion that Hollywood films, narrative films, make–where you feel you’re there–we kind of brought that to Restrepo. We brought you there. And that’s why we didn’t cut away to the big picture. It wasn’t the fact that I’m not interested in the political big picture, it’s just the fact that it wouldn’t have worked in this film. As soon as we cut away to showing you some sort of map of Afghanistan, you go: “Oh, I get it, we’re not in the Korengal Valley anymore.”
TM: You lose the sort of claustrophobia of it.
TH: Yeah, and if we’d had Morgan Freeman doing the voice over–
[I laugh, which in turn makes him laugh].
Or whoever, like Tom Cruise–you would have lost it. So, in that way, talking about films that have anger, it’s like you know I’m not interested in my work being a kind of moral outrage–moral outrage impels me to work and impels me to do what I do and engage with the real world and try to present it to people and keep those things on the agenda–but there’s no use in shouting at people to listen. And so, I’d like to think I’m interested in work that has this kind of energy to it. I look for things that have an energy to them, an emotion, an anger. It’s interesting to see that transformed creatively into something.
TM: Agreed. Well, thank you so much for your time.
TH: My pleasure.
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
Captain Dan Kearney of Battle Company, 173rd US Airborne meets with local Afghan elders in the Korengal Valley, Kunar Province, Afghanistan. 2008. A film still from the documentary RESTREPO by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger. Image © Outpost Films
Specialist Kyle Steiner of Second Platoon, Battle Company, 173rd US Airborne at Outpost Restrepo. Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, Kunar Province. 2008. A film still from the documentary RESTREPO by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger. Image © Outpost Films
Sergeant Brendan O’Byrne (l.) and Private First Class Juan “Doc” Restrepo (r.) of Battle Company, 173rd US Airborne on a train one week before their deployment to Afghanistan. Italy. 2007. A film still from the documentary RESTREPO by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger. Image © Outpost Films
Outpost (“OP”) Restrepo. – focus of the documentary RESTREPO by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger. Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, Kunar Province. 2008. Photograph © Tim Hetherington