Review (text version)
Dust, snipers, pills, dodging bullets, more dust, have another pill dear, chopper overhead, grab the gun, another pill?, we are experts in the application of violence, man down – war is hell and as for coming home?
It’s 2009 and a photographic journalist, Danfung Dennis is airlifted into the Taliban-controlled Helmand River Valley in Afghanistan. He’s there to cover the unfolding events of Echo Company, just one small part of an operation involving nearly 4,000 US marines.
What he captures, and perhaps more importantly HOW he captures it, is a turning point in the production of documentary films. Not content with just taking photos, Dennis is armed with a Canon 5D camera. It’s basically a slightly larger cousin of this camera and it’s capable of recording video in High Definition with excellent results.
His customised, highly mobile, one-man movie making rig (incorporating the camera, a 24-70mm lens, a microphone and a small audio mixer on a Glidecam stabilizer) takes him right to the front lines and into the battle field with a new level of intimacy.
The images and sounds he captures are visceral – it’s totally “you are there stuff”.
We’ve seen feature films like “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty” spend tens of millions trying to recreate a look – Dennis just went there and did it for real.
So capturing war images is all good and well but then how does that movie engage an audience beyond just watching guys fire guns for a while? We are creatures that love a story and we love characters and we want to know what happens to them.
Enter Marine Sgt. Nathan Harris. He’s in a position of some authority, after all he’s the kind of recruit the Army really wants and needs – a guy who wants to kill people.
Please, don’t assume I’m being harsh or judgmental, Nathan tells us this himself plain and simple.
So what does the army do with this guy in Afghanistan? They put him into a situation where he has to negotiate with a group of Afghani farmers who have been driven out of their village that is now occupied by the Americans, who are there to protect the locals from the Taliban, who largely seem not to be bothering the locals as much as the presence of the Americans. Again…. no judgement, just see this unfold in the film with comments from the protectors like, “The Muslim radicals… they wanna stay living’ in mud houses with straw roofs,”
Plot point. Nathan is severely injured, sent home to the US and so begins an arduous and painful recovery process.
Through a constant stream of doctors appointments, physiotherapy sessions and bags full of pills, Nathan attempts to readjust to life in the burbs with his very devoted wife Ashley, but for Nathan the war isn’t over, the bits don’t fit, he seems totally adrift and no one is handing him an instruction book for this part of his life.
I felt deeply sorry for this guy, completely under equipped emotionally to deal with the war situation, then sent home, equally under equipped to deal with the numbing banality of middle America.
There’s no narration, no interviews to tell you what to think. You need to do the work. It’s cinema vérité all the way, making its points as strongly as any scripted drama, and it’s definitely an “E” ticket ride.
It’s inevitable that HELL AND BACK AGAIN will be compared to other higher profile docos, about the war in Afghanistan like the Danish ARMADILLO and the American RESTREPO – both have their merits, both tackle their subject matter in different ways but also both use a much larger canvas. Difference here is the singular point of focus – one man – his story.
Danfung Dennis and his editor, Fiona Otway, have created a subtly layered nightmare that uses juxtaposition of the two worlds – this is film editing in its purist form – to present contrast, to present comment, to present debate in our minds AS we watch the film.
It’s not an easy ride. It’s inviting you to think… and repeated viewings – I’m up to my fourth as of last night – reveals more and more.
This is an intimate and at times frightening insight into the mind of a young man whose allusions of war are as shattered as his body, parallel with a comment on consumerism and “what the hell are we fighting for” BUT without ever telling the audience what to think.
We watch this happen. We see Nathan caressing a loaded gun as his wife looks on, stunned into silence by what he might do next.
She’s living life on a hair trigger with an overly medicated man who thinks loaded firearms ARE truth, justice and the very best American way.
There’s a wonderful scene where Ashely and Nathan approach a fast food drive in and go through the agonising first world problem of what to order – slam – bang – we’re suddenly back on a battlefield where life and death is a bullet screaming past your head. Yeah, I’ll have fries with that and super-size my coke!
In an article on zacuto.com, critic Shirley Baugher provides insight…
“Layers of sound both separate and unite the two worlds; tanks thundering over the ground, a car engine purring, screams of battle and his wife’s loving voice. Realisms collide as the viewer is bounced between these worlds until the two are finally brought together by the brilliant editing of Fiona Otway.”
Of special mention is the sound design and this really elevates the film.
Gary Rydstrom, multi Academy Award winning sound designer with Saving Private Ryan, a couple of Star Wars movies and the Horse Whisperer as notches on his bed head… Said of HELL AND BACK AGAIN it’s “…. using real sounds and treating them in a way like music… Real people, real crying, real military equipment slowed down and processed in weird ways and used like music so it gets to you emotionally but it’s all made from real stuff.”
The fact that it was shot by one man using the most minimal equipment is a testimony to Danfung Dennis’ great ingenuity, commitment to the project and skill.
He opens up two worlds to us and proves conclusively that, YES, war is hell and suburban USA appears to be running a very close second.
Strong and weak points…
I can hear complaints already… “the audio is sometimes distorted… And some of the pictures are out of focus”, and I say, “So where’s the documentary YOU personally shot in a trench in Afghanistan while bullets were flying over YOUR head?”
The editing, the editing, and the editing. Shaping a “story” out of nothing but cross cutting events and sound effects is no easy task – there is no script to follow, the possibilities, the choices, are endless, just making a decision of “what should come next” is a daunting task and I can’t praise the end result highly enough. Fiona Otway, three cheers.
And a final point, give yourself the big sound, big screen experience if you can. The images off high definition Blu Ray are, at times, breathtakingly beautiful. It’s stunning photojournalism with the added experience of motion and audio. Hollywood would be hard pressed to recreate some of this… From the faces of the Afghani farmers to the greyness of the endless dust in the battle fields, the images are at times beautiful, seductive, crafted and art directed and… but hang on… It’s all real.
Review © 2015 Greg Punch
Reference Blu-ray copy of film used for this review:
© 2010 Danfung Dennis / Roast Beef Productions
Danfung Dennis with 5DmkII and Glidecam custom rig (x3 images)
(Photos by Joe Raedle/Getty)
Freeze frames are taken directly from DVD copy of the film and the
officially released trailer of the film
(see “Copyright” section below)
Officially released posters / promotional images
(see “Copyright” section below)
Other photos taken during shooting of “Hell and Back Again”
and previously published in relation to promotion of the film
(Photos by Danfung Dennis) www.danfungdennis.com
Select Sound effects:
Machine Gun Fire Distance
Sound License: Attribution 3.0 | Recorded by JKirsch
License: Attribution 3.0 | Recorded by Navaneetha Kris
Gun battle Sound
License: Attribution 3.0 | Recorded by ReamProductions
- Modern Battle Field Sounds
- 50 Caliber Machine Gun Sound
- Bullet whizzing by sound
License: Attribution 3.0 | Recorded by Mike Koenig
Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
“For the Fallen”
“Danse Macabre – Big Hit 1”
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/
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