These days, any documentary film maker looking to tell any kind of Iraq story is entering a bloated genre full of award winning stories covering almost every aspect of war. It would perhaps therefore be foolish to try and create anything that would try to add to the genre without it being lost in the background but photojournalist and first time film maker Danfung Dennis has managed to create something that feels unique and therefore relevant by telling the story of just one marine.
Sergeant Nathan Harris, a commanding marine officer of Echo Company 2nd Battalion 8th Regiment, was in the summer of 2009 leading a new counter-insurgency operation behind enemy lines. After a successful tour, Harris was shot in the hip and suffered a badly shattered leg causing him to be repatriated to the US for treatment and rehabilitation.
His story is told via a blended mixture of footage from the tour itself and his home life and rehabilitation. With no narration at all, and only a handful of subtitles explaining the whereabouts of the marines, the whole run time is simply raw footage. Whilst initially it feels a little unfocussed, as it moves along switching between war and home life, the ‘Hell and Back Again’ of the title is starkly illustrated.
The war elements of Hell And Back Again are brutal and you feel like you are lying in the dirt along with the marines ducking enemy fire. Fatalities go on around us [Be warned – these are unflinchingly shown without censorship] and horror of war is quite clear. When war has been raging for a decade and the media flooded with reports from the front line, it is easy to be desensitized to the whole process and some of the terrible images here remind us that life and death are a split second apart for these men.
The home elements show the struggle dealing with the pain of the injury and the pain of being invalided when all Harris wants to do is go back to the front line and continue to serve with his comrades. He is not a gung ho Rambo style character but having shared the front line, he understands more than anyone that he needs to be back out there. His wife’s support and his own spirit are tested by his injuries but his courage is clear and at times his situation heartbreaking.
What makes this stand out from the crowd is the truly brilliant editing, particularly the audio. Without feeling like an overly arty attempt to sew two opposing elements together, Danfung will bridge the gap between home and war by filtering in some audio from the field whilst we are watching Harris in a doctor’s office and then segue into the next Iraq segment. Done poorly this would have seemed wrong but the final result is perfectly realised and a true master stroke.