Tim Hetherington, the British director and conflict photographer who was killed Wednesday while filming rebel violence in Libya, didn’t make war documentaries in the traditional sense of the word. His Oscar-nominated 2010 film Restrepo, co-directed with Sebastian Junger, doesn’t aim to instruct you about the objectives or strategy of the war in Afghanistan (the way, for example, that Charles Ferguson’s excellent No End in Sight briefed viewers on the events that led to the disintegration of Iraq’s infrastructure shortly after the 2003 invasion). Rather, Restrepo hurls the viewer into the chaotic, sometimes boring, then suddenly terrifying daily life of one Army unit during its 15-month deployment in the Korengal Valley, known in the military as one of the most dangerous postings in the world.
Freed from the explanatory voice-overs and talking-head experts that serve as the structuring principles of Frontline-style combat docs, the viewer of Restrepo is forced to assume the point of view of one the unit’s soldiers: confused, disoriented, afraid of what might be coming next. There are scenes in Restrepo that are terrifying less for what happens in them than for their sense that anything could happen.
If Tim Hetherington (who, at 40, had only just begun his career as a feature-length filmmaker after years spent working as a photojournalist in West Africa) could be said to have a directorial style, it lay in this sense of rawness and disorientation. He sought to document the experience of war and political unrest from the point of view of an individual, a vulnerable body struggling to make sense of chaos and violence—which makes the news of his death, that ultimate vulnerability, all the more sickeningly sad.
Hetherington’s highly subjective, almost poetic vision of the events he spent his life documenting is on plain view in his remarkable 2010 short film Diary. (View it in full here.) Diary isn’t, by any meaningful definition of the term, a documentary. It’s an impressionistic 20-minute collage of images and sounds, a sketchbook of Hetherington’s memories from a decade of war reporting. While watching it for the first time the day Hetherington died—watching it because he died—I felt a pang at the thought that, in addition to losing a brave journalist who also seems to have been a lovely man, we have lost what could have been a great filmmaking career.
Diary doesn’t feel accomplished or even quite finished, which is part of what’s so gripping about it. This is clearly the work of someone trying to figure out what he wants to do as he’s doing it. The film opens with a shot that will recur, of what appears to be a ceiling fan blowing a bed curtain, filmed from an angle that makes the objects appear as abstract moving shapes. Then, after we hear the voice of a woman leaving a phone message, the sound of the fan grows louder, slowly morphing into the roar of helicopter blades over a battlefield. (The same fan blade/helicopter propeller connection is made, in reverse order, at the beginning of Apocalypse Now.)
The implied frame of the story is clear—a journalist lying on a hotel bed, a voice message from home, another day on the highly dangerous job—but it’s never spelled out, and Hetherington never appears. Instead, what we see is a dizzying scramble through space-time from the perspective of a war reporter: a woman’s face in the backseat of a car, smiling and chatting with the photographer as she casually points a machine gun out the window. A rebel militia confronting a frightened man at gunpoint. U.S. soldiers napping under improvised tents. The pleasant drone of BBC news on a car radio. Are we in Afghanistan? Liberia? London? New York? There are no title cards or voice-over to help us out, only a cacophonous but somehow lyrical swirl of impressions.
Each new segment of Diary (many of them set off from each other with shots of that fan seen through a bed curtain) explores a different visual or auditory idea. Beginning at around 4:08, Hetherington runs the film backwards for several shots in a row: First cars on a rainy street, then oxen crossing a rural path, move in reverse. At 9:01, he turns an image upside down: a woman’s face, reflected in the coffee cup she’s drinking from. Later, at 13:14, an injured boy writhing in pain on a floor is also shown upside down, making him appear to hang from the ceiling. Near the end, at 17:30, there’s a long, difficult-to-watch shot in which a group of women supplicates a few armed men for something. Mercy? The return of their loved ones? Their own physical safety? Hetherington presents the image without any sound. Though the idea is simple, the resulting image is shockingly powerful: The women can beg all they want, but they have no voices.
Experiments like Diary and Hetherington’s 4-minute film Sleeping Soldiers (a record of exactly that, featuring some of the same men he’d filmed in Restrepo) suggest to me that, had he lived, he might not have continued as a documentary filmmaker, at least not exclusively. It’s easy to imagine him making a great fictional film about war, or an essayistic real-life road movie a la Chris Marker. His short films’ distinctly nonjournalistic concern with perspective and voice—with interpretation—indicates that Hetherington was exploring new ways to look at and think about the large-scale human suffering that had long been his subject matter as a journalist. That he didn’t live long enough to make more movies is just one of the many reasons to mourn him.