At first, I didn't really want to see "Hell and Back Again." Is it yet another war story, I wondered. The film sounded like a retread of last year's Sundance hit, "Restrepo." But, without pointing out any differences between this and other recent war docs, a few folks close to the movie prevailed and encouraged me to take a look at it. So, I sat down for a Temple Theater screening at Sundance, surprisingly surrounded by a number of empty seats. I'm so glad I experienced it last week at the festival.
Danfung Dennis's first feature is an extraordinary portrait of a tormented young war veteran, capturing not only the brutality of the battlefield but the challenges of coming home.
Early on in "Hell and Back Again" I was fist struck by the distinctive use of sound, mixing the aural experience of battle with unexpected imagery. And then, as war photographer Danfung Dennis portrayed a Taliban attack in Afghanistan, I was blown away by the striking use of HD video. Dennis tricked out a Canon 5D with a makeshift steady cam set-up, transforming himself from photographer to documentary filmmaker. Running alongside Marines, the embedded filmmaker captured incredible footage (some of which was seen in the Frontline program, "Obama's War." The film was edited by Fiona Otway, best known for her work on "Iraq in Fragments."
Powerful war scenes are juxtaposed with an intimate portrait of Nathan Harris after he returns to North Carolina, wounded in ways that aren't immediately visible. As the Sergeant reconnects with his fiancé, the impact of the war on both his mind and body become brutally apparent.
"Hell and Back Again" is a cinematic non-fiction film that is hard to shake even days after experiencing it. Last night, it won the Sundance Jury Prize in the World Cinema competition. The film, and its both filmmaker, are ones to watch.
images via the film's website.