When Are Films Political? Hell and Back Again

by Sydney Levine
October 6, 2011 2:00 AM
1 Comment
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Hell and Back Again, the feature documentary by Danfung Dennis that won the World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury Award and the World Cinema Cinematography Award at the Sundance Film Festival 2011 opens on October 5th at Film Forum in NYC and on October 14th at Laemmle Monica in Santa Monica. New Video is the U.S. distributor and this is one of four films inaugurating its new theatrical distribution initiative. Dogwoof is the international sales agent.

From his embed with U.S. Marines Echo Company in Afghanistan, photojournalist and filmmaker Danfung Dennis reveals the devastating impact a Taliban machine-gun bullet has on the life of 25-year-old Sergeant Nathan Harris. The film seamlessly transitions from stunning war reportage to an intimate, visceral portrait of one man‟s personal struggle at home in North Carolina, where Harris confronts the physical and emotional difficulties of re-adjusting to civilian life with the love and support of his wife, Ashley. Masterfully contrasting the intensity of the frontline with the unsettling normalcy of home, Hell and Back Again lays bare the true cost of war.

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.


Director Danfung Dennis created unique camera gear to create this film. Why he created this incredible machinery, notable in its own right, he goes on to say,



Visual imagery can be a powerful medium for truth. The images of napalmed girls screaming by Nick Ut, the street execution of a Vietcong prisoner by Eddie Adams, the shell-shocked soldier by Don McCullin - these iconic images have burned into our collective consciousness as reminders of war's consequences.

But, this visual language is dying. The traditional outlets are collapsing. In the midst of this upheaval, we must invent a new language. I am attempting to combine the power of the still image with advanced technology to change the vernacular of hotojournalism and filmmaking. Instead of opening a window to glimpse another world, I am attempting to bring the viewer into that world. I believe shared experiences will ultimately build a common humanity.

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?

It is these possibilities that motivate us to risk life and limb.


Hell and Back Again is the first feature film to be shot entirely with a highly customized Canon 5D Mark II digital SLR camera rig. Canon most likely did not intend people to shoot feature films on it and certainly nobody could have envisaged the results this rig would achieve on the front lines.

Danfung Dennis has been covering the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan for many years as a stills photographer for newspapers and magazines. Despite widespread publication of his pictures, he found that he 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 him to explore the medium of the moving image. For some time, he was simply making pictures with movement. It was a natural progression to combine photojournalism with the tradition and narrative structure of filmmaking. He needed new tools, so he built customized camera rigs using still cameras that allow him to follow the same methods and ethics of being a photographer - purely being an observer and letting events unfold in front of the lens - while building sequences and anticipating the next event in the story.

I’ve been inundated with questions asking what camera rig was used, so I will keep this technical to try to answer them. The Canon 5D Mark II is capable of unprecedented image quality, but since it is a stills camera, there are several limitations that I had to address before using this camera in a warzone.

The first problem is with audio. I used a Sennheiser ME-66 shotgun mic and G2 wireless system running into a Beachtek DXA-2s (I’ve since upgraded to a Juicedlink DT-454), which converts professional XLR mics into a minijack suitable for the 5D. I built custom aluminum ‘wings’ to hold this audio setup.

The second problem is stabilization. The design of the Canon 5D Mark II makes hand-held video shooting difficult. I mounted my whole system onto a Glidecam 2000 HD with custom rubber pads on the mount and a foam earplug to suppress the vibration of the lens. The rig is very heavy and it took about two months to get my arm strong enough to shoot extended shots. I cut up a Glidecam Body Pod to make it fit with my body armor and used it to rest my arm when I was not shooting.

To achieve a cinematic look when shooting in bright daylight, I shot at f2.8 at 1/60th or slower, which requires a drastic amount of reduction of light that hits the sensor. I used a Singh Ray Variable ND filter. While the filter can reduce the amount of light by 2 to 8 stops, I had serious problems with uneven coverage, so part of my frame would be darker than others. I have tried Fader ND filters, but also have the same problem.

Another issue is that all focus must be done manually after recording begins. The only way to address this was a lot of practice racking focus. I was not able to rack focus when running, so I often had to try to stay the same distance from my subject to keep them in focus. The most frustrating problem was that the camera would overheat after about 15 minutes of continuous shooting in 120-degree heat. I had no option other than to turn it off and let it cool. I did not have a spare body.

When I returned to the US, I completely rebuilt my rig to make it as small and compact as possible so that I could work unobtrusively while in intimate situations with Nathan and Ashley. I used a Zacuto Stryker rig with custom mounts to hold the audio equipment and a custom follow focus built from a skateboard wheel by Bruce Dorn. While I had almost entirely used a single lens - a Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 - which provided versatility during combat in Afghanistan, I shot primarily with a Canon 35mm f/1.4 and a Canon 50mm f/1.2 while shooting in North Carolina. These prime lenses provided exceptional image quality and performance in low light.

The final serious problem is that the files straight out of the camera are difficult to edit with. I used a 2.93 GHz Macbook Pro 17in, 256gb SSD HD, 4 GB RAM and convert the files into Apple Prores 422 HQ using Compressor (the program often crashes when handling many files, but the quality is better than with mpeg streamclip). I used two 8TB Sonnet D400QR5’s set at RAID 5 to store the 100 hours of footage and Prores files.

I carried five 16 GB Sandisk Extreme IV cards and so many various batteries that I often felt like I was powering a small space station.

--Danfung Dennis

The people involved in the making of this film, both in front of and behind the camera, are all extraordinary. The entire film is an extraordinary event. I would publish the entire, well written press book here except that it is already available here. I don't really expect all readers to go beyond this point, if, indeed, they have made it this far, but I do want to bring attention to two production entities before losing all but the most engaged readers.


Karol Martesko-Fenster

One of four executive producers is Karol Martesko-Fenster of Thought Engine and co-founder of indieWIRE.com, FILMMAKER Magazine, RES Magazine and the media content enterprises cinelan.com and ConditionONE.com. He has a 25-year track record in the motion picture, broadcasting, publishing and Internet industries. He has produced 6 feature films, 25 television and satellite broadcast music programs. Previously, Karol was was SVP&GM / Film & Animation at Babel Networks US, Head of Film at Palm Pictures, President of RES Media Group and President/Publisher of Silicon Alley Reporter. Karol is also executive producer on Phil Cox’s THE BENGALI DETECTIVE, James Allen Smith’s FLOORED, JJ King and Peter Mann’s DARK FIBRE, and collaborating with Harry Belafonte and Michael Cohl on SING YOUR SONG. Karol is currently in production on Havana Marking's SMASH AND GRAB, THE STORY OF THE PINK PANTHERS, David Casey's AMBERGRIS and James Allen Smith's QUANT.

Another execurtive producer is Dan Cogan whose Impact Partners is a film fund and advisory service committed to financing independent cinema that addresses pressing social issues. We bring together financiers and filmmakers so that, together they can create great films that entertain audiences, enrich lives, and ignite social change. Since its inception less than four years ago, IP has been involved in the financing of over 25 films, including: THE COVE, which won the 2010 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature; THE GARDEN, which was nominated for the 2009 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature; FREEHELD, which won the 2008 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Film; and THE GHOSTS OF ABU GHRAIB, which won the 2007 Emmy Award for Best Documentary Special.

The resulting films have been shown around the world on C4, Arte, HBO and released by EMI, Dogwoof and Warners.

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1 Comment

  • Doug Block | September 29, 2011 7:01 AMReply

    Couldn't agree more, Sydney, it's an astonishing film that demands to be seen on the big screen. Really hope people will come out to support it in theaters.

    Want to also single out the brilliant work of editor Fiona Otway, who credits include another highly cinematic documentary, Iraq in Fragments.


    ---Many thanks Doug!!

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