An exhibition of Tim Hetherington’s excellent, emotionally charged photography work is currently on display at Open Eye Gallery. Whereas a whole exhibition of high standard work would usually warrant an long, blow-by-blow review, there is a piece currently on display there that not only sums up the whole show but also requires a full and proper write-up all of its own. The piece is a video work called Diary (2010), found on the first floor of Open Eye’s space. It plays alongside many of Hetherington’s photos, though rarely touches on the same places or wars.
Hetherington was one of the world’s leading war photographers before his untimely death by mortar attack in Libya in 2011. In spite of his obvious skills within journalism (a skill which delved beyond the stories he was covering into more human areas), he was clearly a very skilled filmmaker with a director’s eye when it came to shooting. Trying to sum up the work is somewhat difficult, partly because it is so visual that words will always fall short, partly because its quality so high, there’s a sense of trying to do it justice.
According to his parents Judith and Alistair, Diary is one of a number of self-portraits that Tim had done, apparently returning to them time and time again. It’s more than simply autobiographical though and is a reflection of a world through one man’s eyes. This world isn’t always a pleasant one but more often is a war-torn, ravaged land, predominantly in Sri Lanka during the civil war. Piecing together all sorts of footage, a fragmented form of Hetherington’s identity solidifies. We see him walking in the gentle English countryside with family which contrasts greatly to the other landscapes within the film but this is the really the only moment of Diary that gets rid on its tension; it is a breif respite from the uncomfortable tension that an atrocity is about to happen before Hetherington’s camera.
Diary continually returns back to a hotel room, clearly in a warm country abroad. There’s a fan that seems to initiate deep dives into past excursions of filming and photographing as it blows and ruffles the mosquito net around his bed. We see young people carrying guns and rifles, almost dehumanised in their marches. The footage ranges from spellbinding to harrowing, making it a dynamic curve ball that feature-length, mainstream cinema can only dream of throwing. The casual brutality of the places shown instantly disarm and numb being shocking and unmissable at the same time.
Two scenes in particular stand out, both from Sri Lanka. One shows a group of people being chased with rifles being shot into the air above them. One woman lingers behind, almost as a rebellion causing another woman to run after her with her rifle firing until she runs. What’s shocking is her reaction. She isn’t angry or showing any signs of the madness that her actions speak of. She is laughing to herself, almost hysterically, clapping her hands as if a funny joke has just been told. Taken out of context, her laugh could be infectious. Within the reality of situation filmed, it is simply abhorrent.
The other scene, also in Sri Lanka shows how quickly violence can escalate in volatile situations. A man is being pushed around and gradually more and more attacked physically by a group of men with guns, believing him to be a spy. It starts off with young boys slapping his back before an older man pulls a hand pistol to his face threatening to shoot. It’s not the action that comes through but the genuine fear in the man’s eyes. No one around appears to know what exactly is going on and are simply going with the violent flow. Diary cut backs to the bedroom before we can see what happens but thoughts on what did linger on long after viewing.
When discussing Hetherington with his parents, his clear cinematic influences came to the fore in conversation. The film is full with Kubrick style match cuts, the best being the smooth illusion of switching the viewing hole in a hotel door to the moon in the night sky. It was pleasing to learn that Hetherington indeed did watch Kubrick, with Paths of Glory (1957) being one of the films cited that he really liked. The other was Apocalypse Now (1979); an instantly obvious influence to Diary with its emphasis on the fans and the sound of air rushing past.
Within Diary can be found more cinematic ideas than most of the films currently in the local cinemas. It is not only a skilfully cut, visual poem but an affecting self-portrait doused in the humanity and torment that only a war correspondent can understand. It is perhaps the closest the public can get to what it is to be in the midst of a brutal and uncompromising conflict which is what makes it the best piece of video work to visit Liverpool for some time.
Tim Hetherington: You Never See Them Like This is on at Open Eye Gallery until 24/11/2013.