EIFF 2011 Second Look Film Review: Hell and Back Again

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The Internal War

(Hell and Back Again, Danfung Dennis, US/UK/Afghanistan, 2011, 88 mins)

Despite what you might first assume, red is not the colour of conflict; grey is. Morality, ethics, justness – the truth is, warfare offers very few absolutes. But, throughout man’s entire experience of waging war, there has been one undeniable truth – the human body is a fragile thing.

Indeed, both of these points are highlighted by Danfung Dennis’ feature-length documentary debut, Hell and Back Again, in which there is a dark, painful area between living and dead, and a single sliver of lead can cut down even the strongest man.

Embedded in Afghanistan with the US Marines’ Echo Company, Dennis follows Sergeant Nathan Harris, a 26-year-old North Carolinian, as he leads his platoon in an assault on a stronghold deep in Taliban territory. So far, so familiar, you may think. But, where Hell and Back Again differs from most other Afghan War essays is in the way it goes beyond the confines of combat. Even after a bullet rips through Harris’ hipbone and cripples him, Dennis’ camera continues to follow him, back to the US, his wife, therapy, and ‘normalcy.’

Effectively fusing a war exposé with a chronicle of rehabilitation and reintegration, Dennis utilises two parallel story threads, interspersing footage of the deployment with scenes of Harris’ home life. The key to the effectiveness of this approach is in Fiona Otway’s superb editing. Full of metaphorically-loaded juxtaposition and startling jump-cuts – flashing from Afghanistan to Harris playing Call of Duty is sure to raise some uncomfortable chuckles – Otway’s work results in some incredibly effective images.

House-hunting with his wife, Harris can only navigate the cavernous property with the aid of a zimmer-frame, his every shuddering, stunted movement resulting in a loud squeal of rubber which echoes off the bare walls. Then, as he reaches for a closet door, we’re back in Afghanistan in the midst of an aggressive search operation. As Harris and his men kick down steel gates and clear rooms in an impressive display of speed, training and power, it’s easy to forget this is the same man who, mere seconds ago, was struggling to open a door, let alone break through one. The contrast between the two scenes couldn’t be more striking, acting as an extremely effective, rather poignant reminder of the physical cost of war.

But, in a move that may rankle documentary purists, editing isn’t the only area in which Dennis utilises some stylistic tricks. In-keeping with Hell and Back Again’s theme of showing Harris’ memories of his tour intruding on his home life, sound designer J. Ralph frequently overdubs the day-to-day goings-on of North Carolina with the soundscape of combat. As Harris’ attention wanders during a conversation with his doctor, or he grows visibly disturbed by the time taken to place a fast-food order, gunfire and barked orders replace conversation. The metaphors are undoubtedly strong– the effects of war continue to be felt even after the last bullet has been fired, and soldiers find the everyday as difficult as a civilian would find a firefight – but the technique does strike as somewhat manipulative, especially as Dennis maintains an impressively neutral stance throughout the rest of the piece.

Of course, Hell and Back Again’s chronicle of war and rehabilitation wouldn’t be half as effective if its subject wasn’t so charismatic. A motormouthed exhibitionist, Harris – whether racing a mobility scooter around Walmart (‘It better be fast!’) or enthusiastically explaining his injury (‘It blew my ass cheek off’) – is eminently watchable. Certainly, it’s Harris’ intense likeability makes his darker moments – his battles with rehabilitation, a ‘normal’ life, and PTSD – all the more affecting.

A natural leader who initially joined the Marine Corps ‘to kill people,’ Harris indulges a growing painkiller addiction and an obsession with weaponry to counteract the pain and powerlessness he feels following his injury. Indeed, the sight of him playing Russian roulette in his living room, obviously high and equipped with a hand-cannon plucked straight from Dirty Harry, is one of the most symbolic and distressing images of Dennis’ film – the pistol compensating for his shattered leg and masculinity; the deadly game for his comparatively mundane home life. When seemingly normal men like Harris can be reduced to mimicking scenes from The Deer Hunter in front of their families, it raises some pertinent questions regarding the effects of war on the psyche, and of the effectiveness of the US’ rehabilitation and reintegration schemes.

No less affecting is Hell and Back Again’s footage of the Afghan deployment. Opening with a stark and striking shot of helicopters clearing the dusty Marine base in the early morning light before throwing the viewer into a confusing and deadly firefight, Dennis combines visceral scenes of combat with some surprisingly beautiful cinematography. But, the real story that emerges from these segments is a human one – the plight of the Afghan civilians caught in the middle of a dirty, drawn –out war.

The admittedly noble intentions of the US troops – ‘the Afghan people deserve freedom,’ says one soldier – mean little to the farmers whose livelihoods have been destroyed, or the families who are forced from their homes. Met with a mixture of indifference, derision and outright hostility, the Americans’ reception is not that of liberating heroes. As one village elder tells Harris, ‘I don’t care about you or the Taliban,’ it becomes clear that both sides, no matter what their methods, intentions or nationality, are unwanted by the Afghan civilians. With threats, aid, empathy and overwhelming shows of force doing little to convince them to fully support the US’ aims, Hell and Back Again touches on one of the key questions of the ten-year-old Afghan War – how will it end?

But, like the best war documentaries, grand military and diplomatic strategy are not the focus of Dennis’ film. In essence, Hell and Back Again boils conflict and its aftermath down to a series of profound human moments – an Afghan soldier’s tears for his dead friend; an elderly woman asking to hug Harris after learning of his profession and injury; Ashley, Harris’ wife, tearfully speaking of his now ‘soulless eyes.’

It’s Dennis’ focus on these moments – his recognition that war’s impact on the people within it is infinitely more important than lines moving on a map or a faceless series of numbers depleting – that renders his debut such an profound work. At turns tender, harrowing, beautiful and comical, Hell and Back Again sits alongside Restrepo and Armadillo as an immensely important document of the Afghan War, and of the personal battles fought by the men and women affected by it.


For a different insight into Hell and Back Again, have a gander at Paul Kelly’s original review at http://theoohtray.com/2011/06/eiff-2011-film-review-hell-and-back-again/

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