Hell And Back Again DVD review by Ian Johnston
Not only an Oscar Nomination 2012 but a likely winner…

After ten years of conflict in Afghanistan, photojournalist turned filmmaker Danfung Dennis has produced arguably the most emotionally powerful documentary yet made about the physical and mental repercussions of the war.  Dennis’ camera also manages to capture the terrible predicament of the Afghan farmers and their families, who simply want all the combatants to go and fight elsewhere.

Remarkably, Dennis shot the entire film on his Canon Digital SLR Camera using a customized camera rig, enabling him to capture the propinquity, physicality and terrible beauty of the Southern Afghanistan frontline warzone. The result is a poignant film that is similar in tone and style to the work of the great Vietnam War stills photographer Tim Page.

During the summer of 2009, U.S. Marines launched a major helicopter assault, the biggest undertaken by the American military since the Vietnam War, on a Taliban stronghold in Helmand Province, known as The Fishhook. Within hours of being dropped deep behind enemy lines, 25-year-old Sergeant Nathan Harris’s unit is attacked from all sides on ”ËœMachine Gun Hill’.

Embedded in Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment of the US Marines during the assault, photojournalist and filmmaker Danfung Dennis encapsulates the vanguard action with instinctive immediacy. Dramatically, Dennis, and his gifted editor, Fiona Otway, then cut back and forth between the Marines battling the Taliban in southern Afghanistan and Nathan Harris in recovery at home in bleak North Carolina after he is severely injured by a bullet that has ripped through his hip. Deeply troubled and in enormous physical pain Harris, with the unflinching support of his young high school sweetheart wife, Ashley, attempts to resolve the compulsive nature of wartime violence with the frightening regularity of domestic home life in a small rural Baptist community.

It is incredible the degree of intimacy Dennis gains with his subject. Harris, at first, does not seem particularly likeable.  He freely admits that as a teenager he joined the military because he “wanted to kill people.” Yet, as Dennis’ footage of him in the field attests, Harris has developed in character considerably since his vacant outlook as a youth. He interacts with Afghan elders well, genuinely trying to understand their problems and offer constructive help. Dennis is also underlining in these sequences the impossible position that US troops are being placed in, trying to be both effective ”Ëœwarriors’ and diplomats simultaneously. “That’s above my pay grade,” is Harris’ answer to a general question about the politics of the situation, but he has clearly become concerned with the fate of the Afghans as well of that of his own men who fight on without him.

Understandably, Harris becomes more unhinged during the sequences in North Carolina, focussing upon his painful treatment and attempts to acknowledge that he will never return to active frontline duty. Clearly in extreme agony, he is becoming addicted to his opiate-based medication, clutching his head as awful withdrawal symptoms begin. Harris is always waving, stroking and usually preoccupied with his handgun. He shows his wife how to handle the weapon correctly but it is obvious that he is starting to conceive of using the weapon to take his own life. These are the often-untold consequences of war.

Dennis’ documentary even boasts a fine, specially commissioned end credits song by the legendary country singer Willie Nelson, ”ËœHell and Back’, which starkly outlines the trauma and mounting dilemmas that face Nathan Harris.

Hell And Back Again has been shortlisted for an Oscar at the 2012 Academy Awards and nominated for Best Documentary at this year’s British Independent Film Awards. It should win both.

Additional bonus material on the DVD includes a full and absorbing audio commentary by director Danfung Dennis and editor Fiona Otway, a panel discussion at the film’s London premiere, the film’s original song ”ËœHell and Back’ performed by Willie Nelson with still from the documentary, a bonus feature where the director explains how he shot the film and the customized technical equipment he used and several deleted scenes.

 

Hell And Back Again is released on DVD on 23rd January 2011 by Independent Distribution.

 

 

 

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