Film Interview: HELL AND BACK AGAIN director Danfung Dennis

NY Times reporter/filmmaker Danfung Dennis discusses his searing portrait of a young Afghan war veteran’s road to recovery, both physical and emotional, in the Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning documentary Hell and Back Again

Vegas Outsider: How did you first come to arrive in Afghanistan to begin shooting footage that would eventually begin the process for Hell And Back Again?

Danfung Dennis: I have been working as a photojournalist for The New York Times since about 2006, in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Even though my stories were being published, I felt like they weren’t having any impact after all these years of war; society just became numb to these pictures and the impact wasn’t getting through. I knew I needed a new medium and that’s when I started shooting video. That was the beginning of this story in 2009, when 4000 Marines were dropped into an insurgent stronghold within southern Afghanistan and I was embedded with Echo Company, 2nd Marine Division. They were dropped 18 km behind enemy lines primarily to capture this key crossing.

Shortly after landing though, the helicopters left and [these Marines] were suddenly surrounded by insurgents and attacked. The fighting was extremely heavy; one Marine was killed, many more collapsed from exhaustion, and nearly all of us had run out of water. I found myself within a pile of rubble that became known as ‘Machine Gun Hill’ which is that’s where Sgt. Nathan Harris first handed me a bottle of water. I can tell you that he’s an exceptional leader who was at the very front of this operation. So I followed him as they pushed further into this insurgent stronghold; that’s essentially how we first met as well as how this story began.

VO: The sequences in Afghanistan are intriguing in that they often display a boredom of war until suddenly an attack is sprung on the troops. Was this a fairly common cycle and if so, how does it affect your mental attitude and focus, shifting so violently from one extreme to the next?

DD: That was often how it went; you would go from this sense of peace when the sun was out and then in an instant, complete chaos would open up. It got to be where you simply had to be ready for that at all times. So even if you were relatively calm, you always knew at some point you could be attacked. As a result, almost unconsciously, you always look for places to take cover in case you need to evade incoming fire. Almost unconsciously, you walk long distances away from each other because if you aren’t all clumped together, then you don’t make for easy targets. And then when an attack does start, that’s when the mind switches into this other state and becomes hyper-focused, after that first crack of gunfire. That’s when it starts; and I wanted to convey that in the film, that your attention goes from zero to sixty in an instant. And then it’s very difficult to know what’s happening, you try to get as much understanding as to what’s happening as possible but in the end it’s simply about trying to stay alive. I was focused on operating the camera and capturing what was going on around me.

VO: I was also taken by the constant tension between the villagers and Marines as they were clearly weary of one another, as one tried in sincerity to help the other but almost always appeared to create more damage than aid. How was it observing these interactions and did the situation ever improve in terms of growing trust?

DD: In this particular region within southern Afghanistan, the situation is extremely tense. Western forces had never been in this area since the beginning of the war; this place had been considered a safe haven by the Taliban as one of its strongholds, so when Echo Company landed there, the entire village there fled because the inhabitants there knew there was going to be very heavy fighting in that area. They knew that the Marines had landed in the middle of a hornet’s nest and were left living out in the desert as refugees. Slowly though, they trickled back into the village and the scenes in which Nathan and the other Marines are interacting with the villagers, these are the first times these Afghans are meeting Americans so they were naturally suspicious. They knew that the Taliban were in their midst and that the Americans were going to eventually leave, perhaps not for a few years but they will leave.

They also didn’t want the Taliban back though, the Taliban are so harsh that they don’t have any support amongst the people there. So these villagers were essentially stuck in the middle; they don’t want to really support either side because if they do, they’ll face retribution one way or another. That’s why they say they want to live their own lives, but really can’t because the fighting is happening in their homes and fields. So there is this genuine sense from the Marines that they’re there to help, but the villagers want them to leave. From that this growing frustration was built; on the Afghan side, they’re disheartened by the fighting and how it has gotten worse every single year since 2001. On the other side, the Marines find that the villagers aren’t very forthcoming or are resistant to what they wish to give, because the Taliban presence in the area is strong so they don’t want to be seen as working with the Americans. In the end, it’s a tough position for everyone involved.

VO: What was your reasoning for focusing on Nathan specifically while the Afghan footage itself featured many troops, of which he was one? What made him important enough to isolate?

DD: Yeah, I actually didn’t know that this film was ultimately going to be about one Marine, Sgt. Nathan Harris, at first; about six months later, after this initial operation, I was back in North Carolina. The other Marines were returning home as well to an emotional homecoming to their families. I realized that Nathan didn’t step off one of the buses the other soldiers were on; I asked where Sgt. Harris was and was told in return that he’d been shot two weeks before. I then called Nathan up and he was just being released from the Naval hospital after being hit by a Taliban machine gun round. He was in extreme pain from this very serious injury but was also feeling incredibly guilty about leaving his men behind. He invited me up to his hometown of Yadkinville, North Carolina. Once there, he introduced me to his wife Ashley, his friends and family as “this fella’ was over there with me”.

I was accepted then into this community and lived with Nathan and Ashley during his recovery and transition back into a society that had very little, if no, understanding of what he had just been through. And so the story came into focus then as a specific, psychological portrait of how difficult that transition is and what it’s like coming back from this world of life and death, blood and dust, into one in which everyone seemingly is shopping. It can be very difficult reconciling those two worlds and isolating as well, since no one around you has seen or knows what you’ve really done. I used sound design as a way to engage some of incommunicable feelings of guilt, emotional numbness, and the state of mind that Nathan may have been in.

We had never sat down together in front of the footage and talked about what he was feeling at any particular times; I had to rely on my own feelings and experiences about what it had been like to return from war and then going through some of the same things that he did. So it was this highly subjective, experiential look into the mind of someone coming back into this normal, suburban world. Ultimately, the film shows that the fighting doesn’t stop when you come home; it changes into something else that’s very personal and psychological.

VO: Besides Nathan himself, the other real fascinating character in this story is his wife Ashley, who unflinchingly cares for and supports her husband. What did you thing about her personally given the amount of stress on her and her ability to cope with it? Did she ever reveal moments of cracking?

DD: Yeah, Ashley is this amazing woman; she’s so patient, so supportive, so calm, and stuck by him in this very difficult experience. She learned to cope and accept his rage and issues; she’s managed to stay together with him. She really is this heroine of a woman who helps him through this tough time, but is truly tired and worn out. It takes everything out of her to be his full-time caretaker. There was also this story about military f

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