“Astonishing! A tour de force that breaks new ground.” The New York Times
In 2009, U.S. Marines launched a major helicopter assault on a Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan. Within hours of being dropped deep behind enemy lines, 25-year-old Sergeant Nathan Harris’s unit was attacked from all sides.
Embedded in Echo Company during the assault, photojournalist and filmmaker Danfung Dennis captured the frontline action with visceral immediacy. Dennis then shifted his focus to the story of the severely-wounded Sergeant Harris and his struggles to overcome the tremendous difficulties of transitioning back to civilian life in North Carolina.
The two realities seamlessly intertwine to communicate both the extraordinary drama of war and, for a generation of soldiers, the no less difficult experience of returning home. An unprecedented exploration of the moving image and a film of uncommon intimacy, Hell and Back Again comes full circle as it lays bare the true cost of war.
This film is being shown in partnership with ITVS .
Since 2006, Danfung Dennis has covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His still photographs have been published in Newsweek, Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Rolling Stone, Le Figaro Magazine, Financial Times Magazine, Mother Jones, Der Spiegel, and The Wall Street Journal.
PBS's Frontline opened its 2009 fall feature program, Obama’s War, with Dennis’s footage. The immersive nature of that footage prompted a flurry of comment and inquiry from the Pentagon, the White House, veterans' groups, and others, and the program was nominated for a 2010 Emmy award.
In 2010, Dennis won the Bayeux-Calvados Award for War Correspondents. He also was named one of the 25 New Faces of Independent Film by Filmmaker Magazine and one of the 30 New and Emerging Photographers by PDN Magazine.
The founder of an immersive video startup, Condition ONE, Dennis studied Applied Economics and Business Management and consulted with small and medium-sized enterprises in Uganda and South Africa prior to his filmmaking career.
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**IDA AWARDS - JACQUELINE DONNET EMERGING FILMMAKER AWARD** **NOMINEE - GOTHAM INDEPENDENT FILM AWARDS - BEST DOCUMENTARY** **NOMINEE - BRITISH INDEPENDENT FILM AWARDS - BEST DOCUMENTARY** **NOMINEE - CINEMA EYE HONORS - OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT IN DIRECTION** **NOMINEE - CINEMA EYE HONORS - BEST DEBUT FEATURE** **NOMINEE - CINEMA EYE HONORS - OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT IN BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY** **NOMINEE - CINEMA EYE HONORS - OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT IN PRODUCTION** **WINNER World Cinema Jury Prize Documentary – Sundance Film Festival 2011** **WINNER World Cinema Cinematography Award– Sundance Film Festival 2011** **WINNER – Best Film of the Documentary Competition — Moscow Int’l Film Festival** **WINNER Harrell Award for Best Documentary- Camden International Film Festival 2011**
Interview with Danfung Dennis, Director, by Steffie Kinglake
t21: What inspired you to make Hell and Back Again?
Danfung: I have been covering the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan for many years as a stills 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 to combine photojournalism with the tradition and narrative structure of filmmaking.
t21: What do you want viewers to take away from the film?
Danfung: 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?
t21: How did you first connect with Sergeant Nathan Harris?
Danfung: Accredited as a New York Times photographer, I was dropped deep into enemy territory with the U.S. Marines Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment to seize a key objective. Within a few hours of landing, they 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, Nathan 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 2nd platoon deeper into the insurgent stronghold. Six months into the 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 his 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 welcomed into a rural, conservative, Baptist community and lived with Nathan and his wife Ashley.
t21: What can be learned from his experience?
Danfung: 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 has 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. The film’s story became less about counterinsurgency 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; 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 feels he have a responsibility to share Nathan’s story and help shake people from their indifference to a long war.