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2011 Jacqueline Donnet Emerging Documentary Filmmaker Award--Ethics Amidst the Fog of War: Danfung Dennis

By Justin Ridgeway

From Danfung Dennis' <em>Hell and Back Again</em>, a Docurama Films release. Courtesy of Danfung Dennis

The chopping sound of helicopter blades hovers over a black screen, feeling less like an entrance than a continuous perpetual drone, a cloud that does not lift. The soldiers of Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment are launching the largest helicopter offensive since Vietnam: 4,000 Marines countering the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. A group of soldiers kneels low in loose sand, their weapons in hand; they resemble a football squad posing for a yearbook photo. A young soldier smokes a cigarette, the background blurred out of focus in shallow depth-of-field: It is a quiet, contemplative moment, except for the ever-present, ominous whir of the helicopter blades. Men rush to load up the SeaKnight helicopters, running through a grey haze of stirred desert dust. Over a montage of soldiers crammed side by side, facing each other in the helicopter's carry and a harnessed-in tail-gunner covering the field below, the battalion commander intones, "Your conscience should be clear and your honor should be clean." The men land and set out as the helicopters fly away. The assault begins amid the rubble of a marketplace. You are so close you can see the rounds feeding into the assault rifles and hear the shouts of men over the chaos of ricochet gunfire all around them.

Photojournalist Danfung Dennis, embedded with the men of Echo Company, is capturing footage for his first film; he does not know what this film is going to be or what it's going to be about, but he has been here before. Not exactly this location, but in this situation. As a war photographer who has covered conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, famine in Ethiopia and political disruption in Kenya, he is accustomed to going places and seeing things most of us would prefer to hold at a distance. Having made the transition from still photographer to filmmaker, Dennis brought with him the same motivation that initially convinced him to document humankind's most brutal realities.

The result of Dennis' first foray into filmmaking, Hell and Back Again, premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the World Cinema Jury Award and the World Cinema Cinematography Award. And Dennis himself has been awarded the International Documentary Association's 2011 Jacqueline Donnet Emerging Documentary Filmmaker Award. Hell and Back Again is indeed a remarkable achievement; personal and deeply psychological, it merges and balances cinematic aesthetics with journalistic intent.

 "It was an evolution going from photojournalist to filmmaker," says Dennis. "I think I am still going through that process, and I don't think they are mutually exclusive.

"At first I thought I could shoot still and video at the same time," he explains, "but I quickly realized that it's two completely different thought processes. When you're trying to capture decisive moments [in photography], you have to stay very fluid, thinking of capturing the crescendo of a scene, whereas when you are creating a film, you have to look for those extended moments and try to bring the viewer into it in a much more full way. I am working with a lot of these ideas of immersion to convey emotion in the most visceral sense."

What unfolds through Hell and Back Again is a juxtaposition of the combat experience in Afghanistan with life in small-town North Carolina, as viewed through the eyes of Sergeant Nathan Harris, a returning soldier severely wounded just days before the end of his deployment. The camera reveals a man who is strong and confident, an exceptional leader in the field--and also lost, depressed and anxious at home with his wife as he recovers. The images throughout are graphic and disturbing, sometimes beautiful, but above all, intimate.

From Danfung Dennis' <em>Hell and Back Again</em>, a Docurama Films release. Courtesy of Danfung Dennis

This intimacy derives from a level of access that every documentary filmmaker strives for and that Dennis achieved through his unique position and extensive experience, which provided him with crucial insight. "You have to request specific units, specific locations," he explains. "Otherwise, the generic embed is not very interesting. You'll just be given a tour of very positive stories for the military. But, if you dig deeper and you know where and when things are happening, you can be with the right unit at the right time."

When the soldiers returned, Dennis went to the homecoming. Sgt. Harris, however, did not get off the bus. Two weeks previous, he had been transported out of Afghanistan and was recovering in a US Naval hospital. Dennis made contact and was invited to Harris' hometown, where he was introduced to Harris' wife, Ashley, and their friends. Dennis recalls, "Harris would say, ‘This guy was over there with me,' so I was accepted into this rural Baptist community, and I essentially lived with Nathan and Ashley."

Back home, Harris was struggling with his own physical and mental recovery. "It crystallized," Dennis maintains. "The experience of war is not simply what happens on the battlefield, but what happens when you get back."

The situation a war photographer puts himself in is much akin to that of the soldier, both in combat and upon the return home. "No one really understood what I had just seen," Dennis says. "You come back from this world of life and death, the blood and dust, to one where everything seems almost mundane and trivial." Among the landscapes of drive-throughs and outlet malls, only Harris and Dennis could see and taste the blood and dust.

"He knew that I understood what he had seen," Dennis says, "and I think that's why he let me into that side of him. Most people won't reveal it. So by going through the same experience that he went through, he allowed me to document those dark, more invisible struggles when he got home."

In portraying this experience, Dennis would abide by journalistic principles; he would avoid determining a conclusion, providing exclusively substantiating documentation. "As a photojournalist, I learned to bear witness and let events unfold in front of the lens truthfully and honestly," he explains. "I brought the same methods and ethics to combine them with the narrative of documentary film."

Perhaps if it were explicitly critical, Dennis would not only be stepping over the journalistic boundary, but also losing some of the power of his narrative. Instead, he appears to subtly question. "It's looking at what kind of world we live in back in the US: Big-box Walmarts," he observes. "Is that what we are fighting for? I don't think I give solid conclusions, but I think I try to raise as many questions as I can."

This objectivity establishes a trust between the filmmaker and subject. Dennis did not intervene in the story; he merely placed himself there as a witness. "I never actually sat down with Nathan and asked, ‘How were you feeling at this point? Did you have this memory come back to you then or there?' None of that. He simply had to trust me to tell a story."


Justin Ridgeway is a Toronto-based writer and art consultant.