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Meet the 2011 Sundance Filmmakers | “Hell and Back Again” Director Danfung Dennis

Meet the 2011 Sundance Filmmakers | "Hell and Back Again" Director Danfung Dennis

In 2009, U.S. Marines launched a major helicopter assault on a Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan. Immediately upon landing, the marines were surrounded by insurgents and attacked from all sides. Embedded in Echo Company, filmmaker Danfung Dennis captures the action with visceral immediacy. As he reveals the devastating impact a Taliban machine-gun bullet has on the life of 25-year-old Sergeant Nathan Harris, Dennis’s film evolves from being a war exposé to becoming a story of one man’s personal apocalypse. From the bloody battlefields of Afghanistan, to his home in North Carolina, Harris struggles to conquer the physical and mental fallout of war. A shell of the man he once was, will Harris ever return to the happy life he shared with his loving wife, Ashley?

Contrasting the horrors of the battlefield with the battle back home, “Hell and Back Again” is a transcendent film that comes full circle as it lays bare the true cost of war. [Description courtesy of Sundance Institute]

[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the Sundance U.S. Dramatic & Documentary Competitions as well as the World Dramatic & Documentary Competitions and NEXT section to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. To prompt the discussion, iW asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]

“Hell and Back Again”
World Cinema Documentary Competition
Director: Darfung Dennis
Executive Producers: Dan Cogan, Karol Martesko-Fenster, Gernot Schaffler, Thomas Brunner
Producers: Mike Lerner, Martin Herring
Editor: Fiona Otway
Music/Lyrics/Sound Design: J. Ralph
Original Song Performed by: Willie Nelson

Responses courtesy of “Hell and Back” director Danfung Dennis.

When still photography isn’t enough to catch the reality of war turn to the moving image…

I became a filmmaker in Afghanistan when I realized still photography was no longer enough to convey what I was seeing. I have been covering the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan for many years as stills photographer for newspapers and magazines. Despite widespread publication of my pictures, I found that I was unable to capture the brutal realities on the ground, the public was numb to these same images of war and the traditional media outlets were not committed to their coverage of the conflicts.

This drove me to explore the medium of the moving image. For some time, I was simply making pictures with movement. It was a natural progression, and I’m still very much learning, how to combine photojournalism with the tradition and narrative structure of filmmaking.

The strange, slow creation of a film that never was…

I needed new tools, so I built customized camera rigs using still cameras to allow me to follow same methods and ethics of being a photographer — purely being an observer and letting events unfold in front of the lens — while building sequences and anticipating the next event in the story.

I didn’t go to Afghanistan with the intention to make a film. I had no script, no shot list, no financing. I simply had body armor, a backpack and a camera to try to convey what was happening there as honestly and truthfully as I could. The story only began to emerge after many trips to different provinces with various units and when I learned of a major offensive that was going to take place in the Helmand River Valley.

Finding a friend, finding a subject…

Accredited as a New York Times photographer, I was dropped deep into enemy territory with The US Marines Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment to seize a key objective. Within a few hours of landing, we were surrounded by Taliban insurgents and attacked from all sides. The fighting focused on a pile of rubble that became known as Machine Gun Hill.

Despite the raging battle and 130 degree heat, a Marine handed me his last bottle of water. This is how I first met Nathan. By the end of the first day, one Marine was dead, and a countless number had collapsed from heat exhaustion. Cut off and isolated, I spent the night in a one room mud compound, with a Marine kneeling at the door with his weapon raised in case of an attack.

Over the next days and weeks, I followed Nathan as he led 2nd platoon deeper into the insurgent stronghold. We came to trust each other as we ate the same instant meals, slept in the same dust, and endured the same difficult experiences. I watched his growing frustration turn to desperation as he lost buddies during a protracted and violent fight with a ghostlike enemy that was invisible, yet everywhere.

Six months into his tour, and days away from rotating out, Nathan was shot in the hip during an ambush. He nearly bled to death before he was medivaced out and underwent blood transfusions and multiple surgeries.

On coming home…

I rejoined Nathan when he returned to his hometown of Yadkinville, North Carolina. He was in incredible pain and distress from having his left his men behind, even more upsetting to him than his injury and the recovery process. He introduced me to his friends and family by saying, “This guy was with me over there.” With that, I was accepted into a rural, conservative, baptist community and essentially lived with him and his wife Ashley.

The story naturally became less about counter insurgency doctrine as I began to document Nathan’s most difficult mission: his struggle to transition back into a community that was completely disconnected from his experience; his transformation from a warrior and leader, to a shell of man who required help with even the smallest daily tasks, while clinging to the dream that one day he would rejoin his men in combat.

This story juxtaposed with the inner turmoil that his wife, Ashley, was dealing with. While his was the obvious story, she also has a journey of adjustment ahead of her. As a witness of the difficult struggles of just one Marine, I feel I have a responsibility to share Nathan and Ashley’s story and help shake people from their indifference to a long war.

Dennis’s new project: an exploration of digital possibilities…

My colleagues and I are thinking about some long form projects and I’m launching Condition ONE, a start-up media company forging a new model for independent filmmaking that uniquely leverages the latest innovations in mobile devices, digital video technology and distribution, with the goal of communicating powerful stories that have significant political, social or economic relevance.

I’ve developed a specialized camera system that fuses the ethics, method, and aesthetics of photojournalism with the tradition of cinematic filmmaking with virtual reality. The entire human field of view is captured on these camera systems to create a truly immersive experience.

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