Hell and Back Again was a documentary about Marines fighting in Afghanistan and what happens when one, Sergeant Nathan Harris, returns with an injury. The movie wasn’t an anti-war movie, but it showed the reality and lack of reasoning for the war. Since it wasn’t full of interviews, just candid monologues and rants about life, pain, and war, the audience came to their own conclusion about the current state of U.S. military power.
The producer, Danfung Dennis, followed the Marines through Southern Afghanistan for seven months total. He had planned on ending his filming then, but when a bullet struck Sgt Harris in his hip, he followed him home to see the aftermath of returning. The result was striking, as Sgt Harris became clearly enraged, addicted to pain medicine, and pessimistic about not being able to return to duty. Doctors inserted a metal pole through his leg, as the bullet had fractured his hip and completely destroyed his thigh. The audience cringed in pain as he tried simple tasks like bending his knee and was incapable.
The most amazing part of this documentary was the cinematography. Dennis had never shot in motion before; he had a successful career as a photographer for publications such as The New York Times and Time Magazine. This was his first film and that is what made it amazing. You could take any single frame of the movie and it, by itself, could be featured in National Geographic, they were that good. This makes a beautiful film, just in itself, but was amazing was that he was able to get this frames in the battlefield of Afghanistan. He didn’t just shoot at the base; most of his shots were in the middle of rapid fire and bombing. In the Q&A portion, Dennis said that he had fashioned a steady cam with all the audio equipment on him chest so that he was able to run through the middle of a warzone, with his only protection being his pocketknife.
When I began thinking about the title of this film, to the Marines portrayed in it, the “Hell” part is being at home in America. Sgt. Harris’ wife at the end mentions that they have been “to hell and back again” in regards to his injury and tumultuous relationship it has created for them. I think “Hell” is more a general, being back at their home with no fellow Marines with them. Some may think that being in Afghanistan is too risky or unscheduled, but for these soldiers, being back in the states without a common mission or target to aim for is hell.
Check out the trailer here