Not to suggest that the two are in any way equivalent, but wading through Afghanistan and Iraq war documentaries, whose prevalence and grip on the psyche of the fragile American indie filmmaker is evident at festivals across the nation, is often its own kind of special hell, because sub-par storytelling technique is so often brought to bear upon legitimately heartrending stories. The deserving winner of both jury documentary and cinematography awards in the World Cinema category at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Hell and Back Again belies those notions that a nonfiction effort on the subject can’t be artistically minded, and also can’t somehow be as moving as (or even more so than) a scripted dramatic interpretation.
Photojournalist and filmmaker Danfung Dennis served as an embed with the U.S. Marines’ Echo Company 2nd Battalion in Southern Afghanistan in 2009. Footage from this time — visceral, smartly captured, on-the-ground reportage — is interspersed with homefront turbulence once 25-year-old Sergeant Nathan Harris (above left) returns to North Carolina, where he confronts the physical and emotional difficulties of re-adjusting to civilian life with his occasionally overwhelmed wife, Ashley. The result is a powerful subjective experience, in which an audience is given rich and at times uncomfortable transport into the wounded body and mind of a typical American soldier.
The number of journalistic embeds in America’s last two wars has guaranteed that we don’t need to wait on Ridley or Tony Scott to convincingly get a taste of that Middle Eastern sand in our mouths. But so many of these documentaries seem informed by a certain videogame sensibility, in which both militaristic engagement and flipside mundanity are peddled for tension and tension alone. Dennis’ war tapes at first feel like unedited B-reel, but one slowly starts to recognize and come around to the brilliance of their physical and psychological framing, which eschews wildly swung hand-held camerawork and instead focuses largely on the sorts of tasks that even low-level grunts have to concern themselves with — reaching out, through a haze of uncertainty and cultural disconnect, and trying to win the hearts and minds of Afghan citizens.
Dennis also smartly comes at Harris as a subject somewhat elliptically, opting for naturalistic interplay between Nathan and Ashley — and others, including doctors and friends — instead of more direct question-and-answer interview segments. This gives Hell and Back Again a unique, earned intimacy; nothing about its dramatic connections are cheap, or overly manipulated. Masterfully edited in concert with Fiona Otway, the movie overlays shots and sound in a manner that truly means something, and affords glimpses into the fractured thinking of combat veterans. A dozen soldiers or more can talk about the feeling of wishing they were back in Iraq or Afghanistan, but when Dennis shows Harris gazing wistfully at a Call of Duty 4 sales case in Wal-Mart, and intercuts this and game-play footage with audio and other embed material from an Afghanistan raid, it powerfully illustrates the fundamental changes in brain activity and mental health that war generates. For the full, original review, from ShockYa, click here. For more information about the movie, meanwhile, click here. (Docurama, unrated, 88 minutes)