Filmmaker Danfung Dennis Explains Technique, Storytelling Strategy of ‘Hell and Back Again’

Film Artwork for 'Hell and Back Again'

Film Artwork for ‘Hell and Back Again’

A decade of war scenes on TV news does not depict the toll on soldiers as they are under fire or when they return home, says filmmaker Danfung Dennis. His award-winning documentary, Hell and Back Again, aims to do just that, examining the life of one marine’s re-entry to family life after three tours of duty and a serious injury.

Dennis spoke to students and faculty Tuesday afternoon at the IU Cinema as the cinema’s Jorgensen Guest Filmmaker Lecturer. Later that evening, the cinema showed the documentary as the final screening in the Photojournalists at War series, which was sponsored by the IU Cinema and the School of Journalism.

Dennis began covering Iraq and Afghanistan in 2006, and his work has been featured in Time, The New York Times, Le Figaro and other publications as well in Frontline’s “Obama’s War” program.

Those years of experience provided the footing for the project that became Hell and Back Again, which follows Marine Sgt. Nathan Harris of Echo Company in the 2nd Battalion 8th Marines in Helmand Province in 2009. The film juxtaposes the soldier’s experiences in combat on the warfront with the difficulties he suffers while attempting to adjust back to civilian life in North Carolina following a debilitating injury.

“I was embedded with Echo Company 2/8, and we were dropped deep behind enemy lines,” Dennis told the audience under the soft light in the dim cinema. “And within a few hours, we were surrounded and attacked on all sides. The fighting was extremely heavy.”

Armed with a Canon 5D Mark II outfitted with shotgun microphones and mounted onto a customized Glidecam connected to his bullet proof vest, Dennis was embedded in Helmand Province with Harris and his comrades. He began capturing what would be nearly 100 hours of steady cinematic tracking shots of soldiers under fire.

Dennis said his goal was to capture Operation Enduring Freedom and the burgeoning militant insurgency in Afghanistan, using Echo Company’s experiences.

“By the end of the first day, one marine had been killed, a dozen had collapsed from heat exhaustion, and nearly all of us had run out of water,” Dennis said. “And that’s when I first met Sgt. Nathan Harris.”

Harris handed Dennis his own water bottle that day. On his third combat tour, Harris had a passion for being nothing else but a “grunt” fighting on the front lines in the 8th Marines infantry, Dennis said.

“He was an exceptional leader — and really fearless. So I followed him as he pushed into this platoon,” Dennis told the audience. “And it became a story about one man going to war and coming home from it.”

Shortly before embarking on one of the final missions of his tour, Harris was wounded by enemy fire. His injuries added to the difficulties of transitioning back to civilian life for him and his wife, Ashley.

That’s the story Dennis wanted to tell, and he had unrestricted access to the personal lives of Harris and his wife after the soldier’s return to North Carolina. The couple became accustomed to Dennis and his camera, always in the background of their lives, as they dealt with the physical and psychological challenges, and the strain on their marriage.

In the film, Dennis wove footage of Harris and his platoon on the warfront, unloading heavy machine gun clips into enemy positions and ducking away from IED blasts, with scenes of the soldier and of his wife relaxing at home, shopping at Walmart and going to medical appointments.

“The goal was to bridge the reality of the conflict with American consciousness back home,” Dennis explained. For many citizens, their country’s wars are far removed from their day-to-day lives, and the film, Dennis said, could show the sacrifices and hardships of soldiers and their families at war and at home.

Hell and Back Again premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, where it earned the World Cinema Jury Award and the World Cinema Cinematography Award. The film was nominated earlier this year for a 2012 Academy Award for best feature documentary.

Dennis also talked about his next project, a technological innovation that futher melds photography with computers and gives viewers a panoramic, three dimensional and immersive experience. His company, Condition One, is working on this technique.

Before the lecture, associate professor Jim Kelly introduced Dennis and moderated a short panel discussion that included professors Claude Cookman and Steve Raymer. Lecturer Dennis Elliott also helped organize Dennis’ appearance.

The other two films that were part of the series, War Photographer about photographer James Nachtwey, and James Longley’s Iraq in Fragments, were shown earlier this spring.



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