| October 5, 2011

Skillfully and fluently, photojournalist and director Danfung Dennis presents us with a poignant panorama capturing the phantoms of the battlefields in rural Afghanistan and those facing a young wounded Marine at home in North Carolina. With polished imagery, unmuddled matter and harsh truths, Hell and Back Again is a salient composition on the war in Afghanistan and the soldiers who live it.
Marine Seargent Nathan Harris is part of a small group of top-notch soldiers (US Marines Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment) anchored in a farming community and Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan. Dennis follows Harris and his team on this mission–the daily firestorms with a ghost-like opponent, the struggle to communicate with civilians and the death–and then follows Harris home after he is seriously wounded, where he continues to struggle mentally and physically.
25-year-old Seargent Harris goes from flying bullets on all sides to intense physical therapy and a growing dependency on pain medication, trying to find a sense of normalcy with the help of his young, patient, and loving wife Ashley. The simple life of small-town America suddenly seems too complicated compared to the life he was accustomed to in Afghanistan. His threshold for pain is wearing, as is his patience, and he holds his pistol regularly and hopes for the day he can return to life as a soldier.
Dennis, an acclaimed photojournalist who has covered both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2006, brilliantly entwines the two worlds, transitioning from war coverage–bullets, limbs and refugees–to a deeply personal battle of a soldier returned home to his wife. Without infusing any facts, figures or political rhetoric into the film, we feel we understand the essentials. Scenes where soldiers engage in discussion with the locals of the villages they are breaching are so important in exhibiting the humanity and the efforts that most people do not think about, and never get to see. We see the hardships of hard-working farmers forced to leave their homes for long periods of time and the way that American soldiers stumble between understanding and helping and still doing their jobs.
Items of Harris’ home life are equally telling as he tries to live his life in a fog constituted by the memories of war, the desire to fight and be with his brothers again, and the physical pain that consumes most of his day. Especially moving is the relationship with his wife, a young woman entirely devoted and in love with a man she barely recognizes anymore.
Hell and Back Again is a striking visual experience (winner at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival in the World Cinema Cinematography category, as well as Winner of the World Cinema Grand Jury Award in the Documentary category) that reminds us in real-life, gritty terms what war really is, what it really means for everyone.

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