In summer 2009, while photojournalist Danfung Dennis was embedded in Afghanistan with the Marines of Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment, a soldier handed Dennis his last bottle of water in the midst of a fierce firefight. That soldier was Nathan Harris, who would become the focus of "Hell and Back Again," a documentary Dennis made that screened Thursday night at the Sundance Film Festival.
The intense fighting on the battlefield in the film is only part of the story. Wounded in an ambush shortly before he was to be sent home, Harris returned to the United States for physical therapy and recovery, but his battle was only starting. The camera follows Harris as he deals with physical pain and emotional trauma, and tries with his wife, Ashley, to move forward. The film moves back and forth between Harris in combat and back at home, giving a sense of the tremendous pull of battle on the psyches of soldiers.
Speaking during a Q&A after the screening, Dennis described what brought him to shoot in such a dangerous environment.
"I've been profoundly moved by the images from past wars: World War II, Vietnam, Bosnia, Rwanda," Dennis said. "It's how our society views these very distant, complex battles. It's very easy to ignore them and look away and these images are a window into these places so we don't forget. These faraway wars become these abstractions, these ideas, that don't affect out daily lives."
"Hell and Back Again" has a surprisingly glossy, cinematic look, be it the bright sun of Afghanistan or the neon and streetlights of North Carolina. For his time in Afghanistan, Dennis designed a custom steadicam rig for the Canon camera he was using to capture video -- the shadow outline of the compact camera system can be seen in a few shots -- and he served as his own soundman.
The film has an intimacy and directness that brings a heightened sense of emotion to such everyday things as going to Wal-Mart or ordering take-out, as the rigors of fighting are contrasted with the commonplace struggles of daily life. The film cuts directly from images of the firefight in which Harris was wounded to a drugstore parking lot at night, a transition that is shocking and disorienting, just as it must be for soldiers returning home.
"When you come back from these places, it's very hard to switch these things off," Dennis said, "which I was trying to convey through that jumping back and forth between these two worlds, to really bring the war closer to home and show that it's just one experience, the fighting doesn't stop when you get back. This whole new battle begins, it's very psychological, very personal."
-- Mark Olsen in Park City, Utah
Photo: "Hell and Back Again." Credit: Sundance Film Festival