Over the next few weeks, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the films that have been honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with an Oscar® nomination. This piece was originally published in conjunction with DocuWeeks in the August issue of Documentary magazine online. You can see Hell and Back Again at DocuDay LA on Saturday, February 25 at the Writers Guild of America Theater, with filmmaker Danfung Dennis in person.
Synopsis: From his embed with US Marines Echo Company in Afghanistan, photojournalist and filmmaker Danfung Dennis reveals the devastating impact a Taliban machine-gun bullet has on the life of 25-year-old Sergeant Nathan Harris. The film seamlessly transitions from stunning war reportage to an intimate, visceral portrait of one man's personal struggle at home in North Carolina, where Harris confronts the physical and emotional difficulties of re-adjusting to civilian life with the love and support of his wife, Ashley. Masterfully contrasting the intensity of the frontline with the unsettling normalcy of home, Hell and Back Again lays bare the true cost of war.
IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?
Darfung Dennis: I have been covering the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan for many years as a still photographer for newspapers and magazines. Despite widespread publication of my pictures, I found that I was unable to convey the brutal realities on the ground. The public was numb to these same images of war, and the traditional media outlets were not committed to their coverage of the conflicts.
This drove me to explore the medium of the moving image. For some time, I was simply making pictures with movement. It was a natural progression, and I'm still very much learning how to combine photojournalism with the tradition and narrative structure of filmmaking.
I needed new tools, so I built customized camera rigs using still cameras that allow me to follow the same methods and ethics of being a photographer--purely being an observer and letting events unfold in front of the lens--while building sequences and anticipating the next event in the story.
IDA: What inspired you to make Hell and Back Again? How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?
DD: Hell and Back Again is the first feature film to be entirely shot on a highly customized digital SLR camera rig, the Canon 5D Mark II. Canon most likely did not intend people to shoot feature films on it, and certainly nobody could have envisaged the results this rig would achieve on the frontlines.
I didn't go to Afghanistan with the intention to make a film. I had no script, no shot list, no financing. I simply had body armor, a backpack and a camera to try to convey what was happening there as honestly and truthfully as I could. The story only began to emerge after many trips to different provinces with various units, and when I learned of a major offensive that was going to take place in the Helmand River Valley. Accredited as a New York Times photographer, I was dropped deep into enemy territory with the US Marines Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment to seize a key objective.
Within a few hours of landing, we were surrounded by Taliban insurgents and attacked from all sides. The fighting focused on a pile of rubble that became known as Machine Gun Hill.
Despite the raging battle and 130-degree heat, a Marine handed me his last bottle of water. This is how I first met Nathan. By the end of the first day, one Marine was dead, and a countless number had collapsed from heat exhaustion. Cut off and isolated, I spent the night in a one-room mud compound, with a Marine kneeling at the door with his weapon raised in case of an attack.
Over the next days and weeks, I followed Nathan as he led the 2nd Platoon deeper into the insurgent stronghold. We came to trust each other, as we ate the same instant meals, slept in the same dust and endured the same difficult experiences. I watched his growing frustration turn to desperation as he lost buddies during a protracted and violent fight with a ghostlike enemy who was invisible, yet everywhere.
Six months into his tour, and days away from rotating out, Nathan was shot in the hip during an ambush. He nearly bled to death before he was medivaced out and underwent blood transfusions and multiple surgeries.
I rejoined Nathan when he returned to his hometown of Yadkinville, North Carolina. He was in incredible pain and distress from having left his men behind. He introduced me to his friends and family by saying, "This guy was with me over there." With that, I was accepted into a rural, conservative, Baptist community, and I essentially lived with him and his wife, Ashley.
The story naturally became less about counter-insurgency doctrine as I began to document Nathan's most difficult mission: his struggle to transition back into a community that was completely disconnected from his experience; and his transformation from a warrior and leader to a man who required help with even the smallest daily tasks, while clinging to the dream that one day he would rejoin his men in combat.
As a witness to the difficult struggles of just one Marine, I feel I have a responsibility to share Nathan's story and help shake people from their indifference to a long war.
IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?
DD: As I built a custom camera system, I had significant technical hurdles to overcome.
The first problem is with audio. I used a Sennheiser ME-66 shotgun mic and G2 wireless system running into a Beachtek DXA-2s (I've since upgraded to a Juicedlink DT-454), which converts professional XLR mics into a mini-jack suitable for the 5D. I built custom aluminum "wings" to hold this audio setup.
The second problem is stabilization. The design of the Canon 5D Mark II makes hand-held video shooting difficult. I mounted my whole system onto a Glidecam 2000 HD with custom rubber pads on the mount and a foam earplug to suppress the vibration of the lens. The rig is very heavy and it took about two months to get my arm strong enough to shoot extended shots. I cut up a Glidecam Body Pod to make it fit with my body armor and used it to rest my arm when I was not shooting.
To achieve a cinematic look when shooting in bright daylight, I shot at f2.8 at 1/60th or slower, which requires a drastic amount of reduction of light that hits the sensor. I used a Singh Ray Variable ND filter. While the filter can reduce the amount of light by two to eight stops, I had serious problems with uneven coverage, so part of my frame would be darker than others. I have tried Fader ND filters, but also have the same problem.
Another issue is that all focus must be done manually after recording begins. The only way to address this was a lot of practice racking focus. I was not able to rack focus when running, so I often had to try to stay the same distance from my subject to keep them in focus. The most frustrating problem was that the camera would overheat after about 15 minutes of continuous shooting in 120-degree heat. I had no option other than to turn it off and let it cool. I did not have a spare body.
IDA: As you've screened Hell and Back Again--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?
DD: Showing the film to main characters of the film, Nathan and Ashley Harris, was an emotional experience. They had hardly seen any footage up to that point and had completely trusted me to tell their story. They laughed and they cried as they watched themselves for the first time on a large screen. What they thought of the film was more important to me than what anyone else thought. When it finished and the lights came on, they looked at each other and said over and over again, "It was perfect."
IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?
DD: I recently learned a photographer friend was severely wounded after stepping on a mine in southern Afghanistan. He lost both his legs and is in critical condition.
I'm flooded by feelings of rage, sadness, helplessness and isolation. I think of my friends and colleagues who have lost their lives while doing their job. It all seems utterly senseless.
Unless you have a personal connection, the war in Afghanistan is an abstraction. After nearly ten years since the initial invasion, the daily bombings and ongoing violence have become mundane, almost ordinary. It is tempting to become indifferent to the horror and pain. It is much easier to look away from the victims. It is much easier to lead a life without rude interruptions from complex insurgencies in distant lands. But it is when we take this easier path, the suffering becomes of no consequence and therefore meaningless. The anguish becomes invisible, an abstraction. It is when society becomes numb to inhumanity; horror is allowed to spread in darkness.
Visual imagery can be a powerful medium for truth. The images of napalmed girls screaming, by Nick Ut; the street execution of a Vietcong prisoner, by Eddie Adams; the shell-shocked soldier, by Don McCullin--these iconic images have burned into our collective consciousness as reminders of war's consequences.
But this visual language is dying. The traditional outlets are collapsing. In the midst of this upheaval, we must invent a new language. I am attempting to combine the power of the still image with advanced technology to change the vernacular of photojournalism and filmmaking. Instead of opening a window to glimpse another world, I am attempting to bring the viewer into that world. I believe shared experiences will ultimately build a common humanity.
Through my work I hope to shake people from their indifference to war, and to bridge the disconnect between the realities on the ground and the public consciousness at home. By bearing witness and shedding light on another's pain and despair, I am trying to invoke our humanity and a response to act. Is it possible that war is an archaic and primitive human behavior that society is capable of advancing past? Is it possible that the combination of photojournalism, filmmaking and technology can plead for peace and contribute to this future?
It is these possibilities that motivate us to risk life and limb.
Learn more about Hell and Back Again at the film's website.