In the summer of 2009, Sgt. Nathan Harris, 25, is about to embark on a tide-turning counter-insurgence operation in Afghanistan. Prior to deployment, the regiment leader makes no qualms about the codes of their mission: “We’re experts in the application of violence … Your conscience should be clear and your honor should be clean.” And conscience is precisely at the heart of Hell and Back Again, the debut documentary feature by award-winning photojournalist and Cornell alum Danfung Dennis, who follows Harris and his men as they are subsequently dropped behind enemy lines, left to fend against a practically invisible enemy. In fact, we never see a single Taliban member. Seemingly at war with themselves, the Marines shoot at the void off screen as they fight a ghost-like force: “They strike out of nowhere, they kill innocent people, then they disappear,” Dennis tells me during a phone interview. “It’s very frustrating for these Marines, because they don’t know who the enemy is.” And indeed, the Afghanistan we see is almost pure expanse, a tessellation of fertile plots and arid stretches dotted by the occasional farmstead, these now forced into makeshift bunkers at the hands of combatant forces. The psychological pressure of possibly dying at any moment cannot be overestimated and figures prominently in the Marines’ attempts to appease those who call this land home, and who seem unsure of whom to fear more.
Just one mission shy of his station, Harris is shot. After nearly bleeding to death, he survives, now with a metal rod running from his right knee to his hip, the latter completely destroyed by the bullet’s entry. We jump to North Carolina, where wife Ashley has been waiting for his return. More than his recovery, however, which is most certainly painful, Harris is stressed by the messiness of everyday life. He talks about the “simplicity” of being in Afghanistan, where he had a sense of mission and purpose, a far cry from the disembodied voice at a fast food drive-thru or the overwhelming profusion of a Walmart Super Center. His re-acclimation is interwoven with flashbacks from overseas. These include sobering exchanges with farmers (essentially prisoners on their own land), fathers and other disconcerted souls. The jolt of this is all the more visceral for having been edited by Fiona Otway, whose tender considerations so effectively graced James Longley’s 2006 eye-opener, Iraq in Fragments, which Dennis also cites as an inspiration. This, combined with the film’s empathic sound design, makes for a respectfully balanced experience.
And just how does one use cinema to accomplish this balance? Says Dennis, “I think we have this highly construed representation of war, and I think part of it is perpetuated by storytellers, something deeply ingrained through the ages. Those who win wars tend to paint a very different picture.” And so, rather than tell a story, Dennis lets a story tell itself. It is a story of the Afghani man who must send his son away from the village for fear of exposing him to unpredictable crossfire, of the battalion chaplain who can hardly finish his eulogy through the stream of tears that clouds it during a memorial service for KIA soldiers, of the families of returning (and non-returning) veterans who are, Dennis observes, “the ones bearing the entire burden of this war.”
Dennis is careful to label this as a nonpolitical film: “It tries just to lay bare the costs of war, what it means to be at war and who’s bearing that burden. It’s very easy to think of it as a distinct conflict, as something far away, as an abstraction … So it is a hope that my bearing witness and showing the reality of what’s happening can help shape the public consciousness into understanding what the true costs are.” And in this respect, the film more than succeeds. One can leave it just as mystified by the war as when one entered, even as the costs of that decision are heavily weighed on a scale with many pans. With unwavering honesty, it addresses the complexities of violence and trauma, of the questioning apparatus that prompts so many of us to willful ignorance thereof, and ultimately of the vitriol that all too often haunts narrative cinema pertaining to war. For this viewer, it reinforced a deepening awareness of the futility of war in an age where the specter of uncertainty looms in so many of its conflicts.
Freedom is a tricky business. Not unlike the bald eagle that symbolizes it in this culture, it can be acutely farsighted from its lofty position, where it soars for time on end under the protection of law, unexpectedly diving earthward, and only then for the kill.
The complete phone interview is below:
The Sun: I was fortunate enough to see Hell and Back Again last night and, before we begin, wish to express my deepest appreciation for sharing it with the world. I hope you won’t mind my comparing it to another documentary, but it affected me in much the same way as James Longley’s Iraq in Fragments in that it trained its eye so respectfully on its subjects. I know that this film came about by chance, but first wanted to ask if you drew upon any such films for inspiration on how to tell such a complex story.
Danfung Dennis: I had been deeply moved by images from past wars—Vietnam, Bosnia, Rwanda—and these pictures motivated me to cover these conflicts. I distinctly remember the first time seeing James Nachtwey’s Inferno. Those images just seared into my mind, and I realized what evil looked like. I felt compelled to follow in this tradition of bearing witness to try to shake people from their indifference to these atrocities. I worked in Afghanistan for a number of years for Newsweek and my images were being published, yet I felt like after so many years of war society was numb to these pictures….And so I knew I needed to move into a new medium to try and convey realities on the ground, and that’s when I built this custom camera system to shoot highly cinematic video and took it with me. I had also been inspired by Iraq in Fragments, especially the editing, which is just magical, really brilliant. So I contacted Fiona Otway, the editor, out of the blue. She actually had seen some of my past work and we just started talking. I started showing bits of footage and I brought her on as the editor. She was just this extremely talented craftsman that could just pull these worlds together. I knew I wanted to merge the dusty battle fields of Afghanistan with the mundaneness of civilian life in North Carolina, to blend those into one experience of going to war and coming home from it. So with that kind of mandate we worked very closely to bleed one world into the other using sound, and she was just so talented at that, and made those transitions feel seamless, so I felt very privileged to work with her.
Sun: Speaking of sound, among the many scenes in the film that provoked deep reactions within me is one during which Nathan’s doctor is prattling on about his projected pain medication regimen. As he listens, the sound design moves in and out of focus, as if we were hearing through Nathan’s ears. While some might have taken this as a contrived moment, I found it to be utterly empathic. Was this empathy something you were striving for, and how do you see empathy working through the film as a whole?
D.D.: I tried to bring the ethics and the method from photojournalism of purely being an observer and just letting events unfold in front of the lens, yet at the same time trying to capture as much emotion as possible and to convey that emotion….I was also trying to convey what I felt in trying to bring those together. And so I brought that same method to making the film. Nathan and I never sat down and talked about “Were you thinking this at this time?” or anything like that. He really just had to trust me to tell his story. So I think I brought in a lot of my own personal experiences of coming home from war, that emotional numbness, that disorientation, and the isolation, and sound was a way for me to convey those incommunicable feelings that I couldn’t otherwise do with images. And so I used two sets of sounds. I wanted to use, on the one hand, outside sound effects. I wanted to stay true to the material. So I separated one set of very human emotional sounds—of pain, of crying—and another set of very warlike metallic sounds of grinding and machines. I would slow those down to 2% or 4%, creating these low drones and rumblings that I would underlay in many scenes to try and convey those feelings I couldn’t otherwise show, and in particular that scene as he’s trying to pay attention to the doctor talking about addiction and dependence, fading in and out. That scene in particular had veterans who would come to these screenings afterwards saying, “How did you know what it feels like?” And so I think on one hand, he probably wasn’t having that experience at that time, but it does honestly and truthfully give a portrayal of these feelings of coming home from war that are so hard to communicate in words.
Sun: Any documentary can be criticized for the politics of its representation. You seem deeply aware of this at every turn, interweaving cinematography that is, for lack of a better word, beautiful even as atrocities are inflicted and suffered within that beauty. At one point, you even parallel your camerawork with that of Call of Duty 4. To what extent do you see your film as a constructed object and, as such, how do you see its medium relating to its message?
D.D.: The idea that there’s this romantic, glorified version of war has been deeply ingrained into this society, and especially in young men. That comes from all forms of media; it comes from the way war is portrayed. And I think it is this false representation that I had to personally work through. I think when I went to war as a young man I had those same notions. I tried to make images that matched those cultural expectations about what war was. Over the years, I began to realize that it’s completely different, that the brutal reality of it is much darker, that it’s pain and suffering, it’s losing your friends. And so I was very aware of this false representation and was trying to do something more real, more honest. And so I spent a lot of time talking about our own misconceptions, perceptions of war, and what was real. And so there isn’t, for example, an orchestra playing as you run into the battlefield as portrayed in movies. It’s terror. And so I wanted to raise certain questions about what the real representations are, and I think it’s just impossible to get a completely objective view and this is actually a highly subjective experience through the eyes of one man, through this one Marine. So I do often juxtapose contrasting worlds of North Carolina and Afghanistan. Especially in that scene of going from this video game to patrolling the village, they actually look very similar. You have these false representations that quite closely match a very select portion of what war is in combat, and yet it excludes everything else. It excludes the pain, it excludes the graphic brutality of it, and only focuses on honor and glory. I think we have this highly construed representation of war, and I think part of it is perpetuated by storytellers, something deeply ingrained through the ages. Those who win wars tend to paint a very different picture. And so it’s just trying to give an honest and truthful portrayal of what war really looks like.
Sun: In any scenes of combat, we never see a single enemy. It’s almost as if they are shooting at empty space, as if that empty space were retaliating against the futility of being there. We see only the sometimes-fatal aftereffects. This came across to me as a very powerful strategy on your part, assuming it even was a strategy, as it no longer branded the enemy as such. In short, it was as if these Marines were at war with themselves. Was there any such intention in filming these harrowing and unpredictable battles in this way, or was it simply logistics and/or safety that dictated how the camera moved?
D.D.: I think that sort of follows on our representations of war, that there’s close-quarter fighting in which you’re shooting a bad guy. This counter-insurgency is fighting this completely ghost-like force. They strike out of nowhere, they kill innocent people, then they disappear. It’s very frustrating for these Marines, because they don’t know who the enemy is. When they come across someone, they can’t figure out if the he is a Taliban fighter or not. That constant fear that at any moment you could be killed adds to that psychological pressure. And so, when I am shooting those situations, there isn’t much “construction.” I have to simply focus on staying alive and working the camera and doing my job to capture what’s happening in front of the lens. They are very much fighting a seemingly invisible force.
Sun: Reviews of your film have commented on the balanced and relatively unbiased quality of its telling. Do you agree with this assessment and, either way, did your own allegiances change at all throughout the filming process?
D.D.: It is a nonpolitical film. I don’t have a leftist or right agenda. It tries just to lay bare the costs of war, what it means to be at war, and who’s bearing that burden. It’s very easy to think of it as a distinct conflict, as something far away, as an abstraction….So it is a hope that my bearing witness and showing the reality of what’s happening can help shape the public consciousness into understanding what the true costs are. For people deeply into their political beliefs, they will see their version of what they think. I think I have about an equal number of people saying it’s pro-military or that it’s anti-war, but most do get that it’s just not a political film.
Sun: Regardless of what we might think about Nathan, one thing that I admired about him was the quietude of his trauma. There was something almost I daresay peaceful, on the surface at least, about the manner in which he handled a recovery that might have driven others to more extroverted forms of resistance. In this respect, I also took comfort in Ashley, whose occasional annoyance so gently softened potentially damaging arguments with a very down-to-earth humility and stoicity. The strength of their relationship I also felt was intensified by the ways in which you intercut scenes from his time overseas. What lessons did you take from them and how, at all, did it effect the way in which you filmed?
D.D.: Nathan is this completely open and honest man, and I think Ashley is an angel, just so loving and caring and supportive and always there for him, no matter how difficult it is. And they are very stoic. They volunteered for this. These couples, these families, are the ones bearing the entire burden of this war. I mean, three deployments is not unheard of, for others five or six. It’s a way of life for them. Fighting these wars is what they’ve known for these last eight years of their lives. And so I have a deep respect for the communities that have struggled through it, and especially for the families. They’re the ones that carry these very broken and injured men back and help them come home. So Nathan is extremely lucky to have someone like Ashley, because there are so many that don’t. Their relationship is extremely strained by his psychological and physical injuries, and she is so strong to carry on and stick by his side through it. They’re still together, they’re still very much going through this together. It’s also the story of this one couple going through this war, but it represents many other military families that are also bearing the entire burden of this war. And so I do have a deep respect for these communities, but also don’t try to glorify what it means to be in the military. I just lay it out bare.
Sun: I am curious about your personal background. Obviously this film is not about you, but I am wondering how your own past experiences might have overlapped with Nathan’s (or not) and how these might have informed this film as a statement.
D.D.: Nathan and I couldn’t be more different. He’s from this rural Baptist town in North Carolina, I’m from Ithaca, New York, Ithaca High School, studied Applied Economics at Cornell. Yet I feel closer to him than most everyone else, because we have been through this. He took me through this extremely difficult experience and kept me safe. And so I think there is this bond that is created by very difficult experiences, so that it doesn’t matter where you’re from in the end, you both survived it. I think because I had been through this with him, that’s why he allowed me into his life and showed me some of these darker aspects that are largely invisible. It’s the same as saying that the war is invisible, the idea of it being far away, and so the effects of it are largely invisible as well. He was willing to show me that because I had seen who he was over there, as a leader of men, someone with a sense of mission and purpose, who was making life-and-death decisions for men under his command. And he was willing to share that other side of being completely dependent on his wife, of being dependent on medications, and having to deal with the trivial, mundane nature of life back at home and trying to reconcile those two. We are from completely two different worlds but in the end we bonded because of the experience we went through.
Sun: My last question is perhaps an obvious one. When seeing a film as visceral as yours, audiences may react by saying, “Well, that was tragic, but what can I do about it?” and simply move on, if only because these realities are too traumatic to deal with. Do you have any advice for those on either side of the lens to stay engaged in these realities, to work through them and narrate them effectively, and to use those narratives to raise consciousness?
D.D.: I think first of all there just needs to be discussion. These wars aren’t even talked about on a real level….And so I think if we simply just start talking about it, it’s a starting point. But there are also many in our own communities that have experienced this war, so reaching out to them is also important. There are many veterans on our campuses, and I think there’s a disconnect for them as well….So I just hope that this film is a beginning point for further discussion and helps connect those that have been there with those around them.
Danfung Dennis ’05 will be at Cornell Cinema on Thursday, October 27 to present Hell and Back Again and will lead a Q&A after the 7:15 pm screening. For more information, visit cinema.cornell.edu.
Original Author: Tyran Grillo