Sebastian Junger paid tribute to Restrepo co-director Tim Hetherington at a special Hot Docs benefit screening of the film in early May, telling attendees during a Q&A that he could not see himself returning to a warzone after the death of his friend “took the wind out of my sails.”
The event commemorated the life and work of Hetherington – who died in Libya in April while covering the political unrest there, at the age of 40 – and saw some 500 attendees cram into one of the theatres in Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox. Among them were senior execs from CBC and Skywriter Media, as well as acclaimed director Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters) and actor Elias Koteas (The Hot Zone).
Hetherington was highly praised as both a photographer and a filmmaker, having won the 2007 World Press Photo Award for his photos of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan for Vanity Fair; and the 2010 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize for the war documentary Restrepo.
“He was incredible,” Junger said of Hetherington during the post-screening Q&A. “He was bigger than life physically, but intellectually too. He had this incredible mind, and he would see things and think about things in ways that I’ve never really been exposed to before.
“He was a great filmmaker, and I learned a lot from him. As a friend, a companion and an intellectual sparring partner… he’s irreplaceable; for me and for the world in general.”
The filmmaker also remarked that he had yet to see Restrepo again since learning of Hetherington’s death. “I’m going to at some point, but I have to pick my moment,” he said.
“When they [the troops] watch it, one of the things they’re watching is a reminder of the death of their friends. Now what I’ll be seeing next time I watch the movie is the death of a brother. I’ll be watching this movie with a complete understanding of what war is.”
The event was organized by National Geographic, Hot Docs and realscreen, with support from HarperCollins Canada, Playback magazine, Maple Pictures and Nick Quested.
The screening raised more than CDN$10,000 for three charities chosen by Tim Hetherington’s family: Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), and the Milton Margai School for the Blind in Sierra Leone.
In addition, HarperCollins Canada – which publishes Hetherington and Junger’s books – announced it would donate $1,000 to the CPJ.
Junger’s words of shock and sorrow were echoed by many within the documentary community.
Oscar-winning documentarian Michael Moore also paid tribute to Hetherington, telling realscreen: “He was willing to take risks few would be willing to take. Through every frame of Restrepo you sat there fearing for the lives of the filmmakers who were there on the ground to bring us the truth.
“I am deeply saddened by this loss and I am grateful that he was willing to be there and document the struggle of a people wanting to be free.”
Elsewhere, National Geographic – which last year picked up TV and theatrical rights to Restrepo after it aired at the Sundance Film Festival – also spoke out.
National Geographic Society president Tim Kelly said in a statement: “We join the community of dedicated photojournalists and documentarians around the world who are mourning his loss.”
Staff at Virgil Films, which handled the release of Restrepo on DVD, also paid praise to the filmmaker. Virgil president Joe Amodei said that for many at the company, working with Junger and Hetherington to get the film out had become “the high point” of their careers.
“But business aside, this guy was a special breed of man,” he said. “I once asked him and Sebastian what drove them to risk their lives, going into the darkest, most dangerous places on Earth.
“His response was simply that someone needs to show the world what is happening and pictures sometimes bring home truths that words cannot convey. Our lives were made richer by knowing him. How fortunate we are.”