Sergeant Nathan Harris, a U.S. Marine in his mid-twenties, returns to his rural North Carolina home after suffering severe injuries while leading his Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment in Afghanistan. At Harris' side is veteran war photographer and first-time filmmaker Danfung Dennis. Dennis has been by this soldier's side long before this troubled homecoming, going to back to his Afghan tour of duty. The intimacy of their filmmaker/subject relationship gives Hell and Back Again an emotional depth like few other Afghanistan or Iraq-based documentaries. War documentaries have a track record of modest earnings, but Dennis tells a survivor's saga as well as a coming-home story with Hell and Back Again, and its narrative distinction from many other war documentaries may help expand its audience.
Dennis has a compelling subject in Nathan Harris, an Average Joe from rural America with modest dreams for himself and his wife Ashley. Once rock solid and strong, the veteran Harris struggles to cope with the physical and emotional pain of his war wounds. You see the anguish in Harris' eyes as he sits on his living room sofa, filling countless days with first-person shooter games. Harris is a gaunt, ticking time bomb and his struggle to act right brings Hell and Back Again a sweaty tension and a foreboding sense of tragedy.
Dennis, who won a World Cinema Cinematography Award for Documentary Filmmaking as well as the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize in Documentary at Sundance, deserves extra mention for pushing technology on Hell and Back Again. Using customized digital camera rigs he built specifically for the film, Dennis captures harrowing footage of Harris in Afghanistan and maintains an unflinching presence throughout his recuperation in North Carolina. Technology itself is usually of interest only to fellow techies and cinematographers but Dennis makes dramatic use of the camera equipment. It's a level of technical commitment one expects from an acclaimed war photographer. The great surprise is just how good a storyteller Dennis turned out to be.
As Harris fights to create a normal home life with shopping trips to Wal-Mart, visits to his military doctor and afternoons reliving his Afghan tour of duty via video games, Dennis captures his pain with crystal clarity.
Fans of Dennis' still photographs know his talent for capturing extraordinary images. Hell and Back Again introduces the veteran photographer as someone capable of telling extraordinary stories.
Distributor: Docurama Films
Director: Danfung Dennis
Producers: Roast Beef Productions
Running time: 88 min.
Release Date: October 5 NY