Last year’s Restrepo, a documentary following a platoon of American soldiers in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan, was marked by a series of close-ups of young soldiers. Their expressions are resigned, saddened, and a little scared. These post-deployment interviews showed us men who had seen terrible things, but the film itself mostly kept the horror in the distance. We see very little actual violence, no Taliban, and only a brief glimpse of a dead American GI. This was largely intentional, as the horror was written on their faces. At the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival last week, I saw Restrepo co-director Tim Hetherington’s latest short, Diary, which gives us a glimpse of what they did see. It’s a document about the trauma glimpsed by a person in war, a brief but haunting view of tragedy, made up of footage Hetherington shot while traveling around the world as a war reporter and photojournalist. With the terrible news that Hetherington was killed in Libya this week, the film suddenly takes on an extra resonance. It’s the last report of a man who had seen so much tragedy and was still struggling to understand why.
Diary starts with a whirling fan, shades of Apocalypse Now, followed by the faint sound of an answering machine in the background. It proceeds as a stream-of-conscious journey around the world: Chad, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, London, New York. Hetherington often views the world through modes of transportation, from planes and cars and trains, struggling to focus on whatever is around him. A sudden jump to a fireworks show takes us off guard; several seconds pass before we realize that what we’re watching isn’t a war zone, but a patriotic display. Scenes of carnage blend into news reports. A sound or an image causes Hetherington to jump to another place in time with a similar sound or image. We never know when we’ll be in a danger zone or when we’ll be safe. Even when driving through the streets of London, we begin to feel uneasy. The idea of stability starts to erode.
There’s some real brutality: Hetherington in a car speeding through gunfire, shouting for the driver to go faster; crowded hospitals where the malnourished and the sick wait for treatment; the outline made by a dead man in the grass. There’s real beauty as well, though usually by accident, such as an American soldier in Afghanistan standing in front of a mountain range at sunset. The film ends with Hetherington lying in bed, desperately talking on his phone about why his pictures matter.
It’s a brief document, but Hetherington is able to put you inside the mind of a working war reporter: the jet lag, the various locales, the constant danger, and the strangeness of life back at home. Like Restrepo, he doesn’t have a political statement, simply an experience he wants to share. It’s disturbing and unnerving, but ultimately made with a kind of hope that by bearing witness to an atrocity we can start to understand it. Hetherington gave his life bearing such witness, and Diary is what he saw.
This year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival ran from April 14 - 17.