Hell and Back Again – documentary review

March 13, 2012

by Matt Palmer

I’ve been fascinated by war films since I was young. Not really sure why, and I don’t watch lots of them, but good ones stick with me. I recall the first time I saw “Apocalypse Now” when it first came out, and even subsequent screenings. It is a film that is so much more than a war film, but a deep meditation on humanity, and depths of crisis some souls endure, particularly soldiers.

I had been interested to watch “Hell and Back Again” by Danfung Dennis because it was shot using the Canon 5D Mark II DSLR. This will not be significant to many, but for us filmmaker types, the new dslr cameras equipped with HD video open huge artistic capabilities. I don’t want to start a debate over the technology, because there are so many opinions as to the best technology and competing technology. The visual quality of “Hell and Back Again” is extraordinary. Dennis uses the Canon 5D to create amazing texture and feel that adds so much to the narrative.

“Hell and Back Again” follows the journey of Echo Company, 2nd Battalion 8th Marines working in the southern portion of Afghanistan during the “summer of decision” in 2009. In the opening the commander spikes up the troops with the importance of the mission they are about to embark on. “We are experts in the application of violence.” Those words are a chilling omen of what is to come, not only in the battlefield, but the violence that remains with the soldiers returning home, and in particular Sgt Nathan Harris.

The film is one of the most raw, viscerally gripping war films I have ever seen. Powerfully shot, edited, and incredible sound design. It is particularly nice to see great use of depth of field in the visuals. I love the look that the Canon 5D brings to the story. The razor-thin depth of field brings tremendous dynamics to the storytelling. In one scene, as the soldiers talk with a local Afghani, the camera racks focus between the marines and the man, add tremendous tension, and accentuating the separation between the two cultures.

The story cuts back and forth between Sgt Harris in the war zone, and then at home recovering from a gun shot wound to his hip that creates tremendous pain and immobility. We watch as he struggles to deal with the pain, a descent into drug dependency, despite warnings from his doctor, and the strains that his mental and physical condition take on his wife and their relationship. The costs of war are high in the battlefield and at home, and this film shows that powerfully.

In Afghanistan, we see the challenges that the marines face in winning “hearts and minds” of the Afghani people. The Afghani’s distrust the marines as much as they despise the Taliban, creating a heart wrenching situation where they are truly caught in the middle.

I also love this film because it uses the verite style incredibly well. Having made a verite style film myself www.lettersfromlitein.com I know how hard it is. Danfung Dennis has done a masterful job. I’m in awe of the courage it takes for a filmmaker to go into a war zone to document a story like this under incredibly difficult circumstances. His artistry reveals amazing depths of human reality of people entangled in war. Dennis also did the sound design for the film, and in itself it’s extraordinary.

Although, not an easy film to watch, it is an important film, and I highly recommend it.


About Unintended Consequences Documentary Project

I'm Producing and directing a multi-platform documentary project on global energy called "Unintended Consequences".
This entry was posted in Movies that Matter to Me, Opinion and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Hell and Back Again – documentary review

  1. Carla Smith says:

    Hi Matt. I am deep into PTSD research on vets for a character in my story. I watched a PBS doc called A Soldier’s Heart and a book called War and the Soul. War starts in the imagination, they say and between the decrees issued by politicians, basic training and feet on the ground a transformation is complete. However, there is a numbing that occurs in the dehumanization of the enemy and the soul knows the difference between good and evil at a very profound level. The effects of personal responsibility for the taking of another life are a loss of faith in one’s own humanity. A loss of your essential self. “In the moral and spiritual carnage caused by a scorched earth policy and modern technological warfare, in this much destruction the only meaning that remains is mere survival and survival, now reduced to an accident in the midst of global carnage is laden with a sense of unworthiness and guilt. We are trapped in a terrible tension between the soul’s craving for the realizatiion of the warrior archetype and the realities of a warfare that devastates the soul who seeks it.” On a very deep level we know that no matter how we try to justify it killing involves a disconnect, a separation of humanity into us and them. We do violence to ourselves in emptying even a single death of personal meaning.

    Thanks for the post. I will definitely watch the doc.

    • Very interesting Carla. I did a very short stint in officer training, but rejected the process because it would have meant reprogramming everything that was me. “Hell and Back Again” is a beautiful distillation of the processes you describe. The loos of self, the spiritual carnage, and Sgt Harris’s complete disconnection from himself and those around him. The internal and spiritual violence is devastating. It would be a great film to watch for your research.

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