by Alexandra Marie Daniels
This week marks the 10th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan. For most of us, this is a relatively insignificant fact in our daily lives. We acknowledge our military as distant heroes, doing important work to protect our safety, over there. Yet for every one affected - the soldiers, their families and close friends - this war has been a brutal, life-altering reality. Repeated deployments, traumatic brain injuries, multiple amputees, and PTSD are devastating families and communities.
When Hell and Back Again opened this weekend I attempted to share this film with friends. The reaction, repeatedly, was the same. Enthusiasm quickly morphed into averted eyes and changing of the subject when I shared that Hell and Back Again is an intimate look into the psychological devastation of the war in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, many people do not want to watch, as I heard more than once, “another film about war?”
But this film is not just about the battles of war; it is about the battle of coming home. Seen through the eyes of a 25-year-old U.S. Marine sergeant terribly wounded in combat, the film is a portrait of his return home, a broken man that must be cared for full time by his young wife.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Hell and Back Again director Danfung Dennis while he was in town for the Los Angeles premiere. Danfung is not new to war photography. As a photojournalist, he has covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2006. Even though his images were being published in widely distributed journals like the New York Times, Danfung did not feel like they were making an impact. He explains, “After so many years of war, society was numb to pictures of conflict and so I knew I needed a new way to convey the brutal realities of what is happening there and at home.”This inspired the photographer to explore the moving image. Danfung explains that in the beginning he had no intention of making a film. “I just knew that I needed to tell the next chapter of this conflict and do it in a new medium.” With nothing more than body armor, a back pack and a customized rig to support both his Canon 5D Mark II digital SLR camera and an external sound recording device, Danfung was dropped deep into enemy territory. He was embedded with the U.S. Marines Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment led by Sergeant Nathan Harris. Despite a violent battle with invisible Taliban forces coming at them from all directions, dust, and 130-degree heat, Danfung was able to use his experience as a photojournalist to allow the events to unfold in front of the lens without knowing where it would go.
Danfung could see that Sergeant Harris was an “exceptional leader” and so he followed him as he pushed further into the insurgent stronghold. Amidst these extreme circumstances, a friendship and trust developed between the two men.
About seven months later, at an emotional North Carolina homecoming for the Marines and their families, Danfung expected to see Sergeant Harris. When Nathan did not get off the bus, Danfung learned that, only days before rotating out, he had been shot in the hip during a Taliban ambush.
Learning that he was severely wounded, Danfung contacted Nathan. Despite Nathan’s “pain, distress…and guilt for leaving his men” he invited Danfung back to his hometown of Yadkinville, North Carolina and introduced him to his wife Ashley. Danfung rebuilt his camera rig to make it as compact as possible and began filming the couple as they struggled and adapted to their new life. The project evolved illustrating the interconnectedness of life on the battlefield to life at home.Danfung explains how Hell and Back Again “became a story about transitioning from war into a society that has very little understanding or no understanding of what [Nathan has] been through.” Danfung recalls how Nathan would introduce him to his friends and family as “this guy was out there with me,” and how instantly Danfung was accepted into this rural Baptist community. The filmmaker essentially lived with the couple during Nathan’s recovery and his transition back home.
With over 100 hours of footage, Danfung worked with award-winning editor Fiona Otway to weave Nathan’s experiences in Afghanistan with his reintegration to life at home. Danfung describes his collaboration with Otway: "For the first time I was sharing my experiences of war in a way that I had never done before.” With the understanding that “it really isn’t over there and back here, it’s just one experience,” Otway masterfully juxtaposes shots on the battlefield with mundane decisions like shopping at Wal-Mart that feel almost equally unsettling. She captures how the psychological battle is, in Danfung’s words, “oftentimes much more difficult than what’s actually happening on the battlefield.”
Danfung Dennis hopes Hell and Back Again will start a conversation about war. He stresses that one of the most disturbing things about going to war is coming back and seeing “complete indifference” at home. For most Americans the war is “an abstraction.” Danfung Dennis wants to “shake people from their indifference.”
The filmmaker embraces his responsibility as a photographer to bear witness to this time in our history. Humbly, “he hopes his film is a small contribution towards a world that thinks very carefully before it goes to war.” By presenting the reality of what comes as a result of war, “pain, suffering and loosing people you love,” perhaps we will begin to think first.
Hell and Back Again has the potential to achieve this very goal. But, we must be willing to witness, understand, and acknowledge what is happening both here and over there. Hell and Back Again is a beginning.
About the Author:
Alexandra Marie Daniels is a writer, dancer, and filmmaker. She has made three films with the director Bernard Rose, including The Kreutzer Sonata (2008) and Mr. Nice (2010) and has worked with the director Martyn Atkins as a script supervisor on concerts such as Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood: Live from Madison Square Garden and The Crossroads Guitar Festival 2010. Alexandra is The WIP's Arts, Culture, and Media Editor.