EIFF 2011 Film Review: Hell and Back Again

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A Soldier’s Tale

(Hell and Back Again, Danfung Dennis, USA, UK, Afghanistan, 2010, 88 min)

In 2009 US Marines Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine regiment launched a major assault on a Taliban Stronghold in southern Afghanistan. Joining them on their mission was photojournalist Danfung Dennis who, armed with a self-designed wearable camera and sound rig, fearlessly followed the soldiers into a series of fire-fights against enemy insurgents.

Hell and Back Again is the story of his time in Afghanistan and of what happened when the soldiers returned home to their loved ones. We follow Sergeant Nathan Harris who, having taken a bullet in the hip for his troubles, returns home to his wife to face a grueling rehabilitation programme, and battles not only his injury but an addiction to the pain medication he is put on. Flitting effortlessly between the thick of the action in Afghanistan and Sergeant Harris’ time at home, Hell and Back Again is a powerful and important study of the implications of the long standing war on terror, on a national and a personal basis.

Early on in the film we see Echo company receiving their mission briefing and what they are told stands out as a through-line for much of Danfung Dennis’ extraordinary debut feature. While they are told that part of their objective is to build and maintain good relations with the Afghan people, they are reminded that they are “experts in the application of violence”. This in many ways sums up Nathan Harris, a young man who so perfectly encapsulates the American outlook on war that Dennis could scarcely have hoped for a better character if he had written the film. On one hand we see Harris’ love for his wife, his cheeky sense of humour and his strength in the face of adversity. On the other hand he at times comes off as a gun-loving redneck who openly admits that he joined the marines because he “wanted to kill people”. He is a man who knows nothing but violence, it is hard to imagine him doing any other job and he has no intention of trying. Despite what he has been through the only thing that keeps him going through his recovery is the thought of getting back into the action. He is a complex man, one who is difficult to feel sorry for but is so damn likeable it’s impossible not to. He simultaneously re-enforces the public opinion of America as trigger happy, power hungry and ignorant, and dismantles it with his tender humanity.

The film is more than just a haunting character study however, and Dennis not only comes off as a fearless photojournalist but a highly astute filmmaker. By slipping between Nathan Harris’ home life and his experiences in Afghanistan we see that war has become his home, and he loves every minute of his time there (apart from maybe the minutes after he was shot in the hip…). Dennis gets right into the middle of the Marines’ dealings with the locals, who have been forced out of their homes not only by the retreating Taliban insurgents, but by the American soldiers who so ruthlessly and single mindedly pursue them.

This is a harrowing portrayal of the real victims of this war, the farmers whose stock has been destroyed, the children forced from their homes, left to starve and fall ill by drinking dirty water. To them it makes no difference which side they are dealing with, they only want both to be gone from their land. Another moral dilemma that the film poses falls uncomfortably into the laps of the audience. We can be as horrified and moved as we like by what we are seeing but there is no denying the excitement of the scenes of violence; of machine gun fire and bombing. Dennis presents quite simply the most intimate, intense war footage ever taken from the middle east, and puts it together with the flair of a Hollywood blockbuster. The American soldiers woop and cheer when a bomb is dropped on their enemies and it is difficult not to share their excitement. Until we see the victim’s mutilated corpse. It is an image that will live long in the memory, but one that has to be seen if an understanding of the brutality of war is to be approached.

Hell and Back Again is not an easy film to watch, far from it. But it is as important as any which has been made about the war on terror since 9/11, and is all the more effective because it is real. Danfung Dennis does not narrate his piece or try to influence us as to which side we should be on. In the end it doesn’t matter whether we take sides or not, there is human tragedy on both sides. Like the Afghan people, like Nathan Harris, we are left feeling helpless in the face of the realities of war.

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