Hell and Back Again had me crying in seconds. It is a documentary feature that follows a group of marines in Afghanistan in 2009. Within minutes the team is on the ground and under fire. As a warning, I would suggest that anyone who has a deployed family member not watch this film, and if extremely sensitive, I would also advise against reading this review.
One of my best friend’s husbands is a marine who was deployed to Afghanistan last month. It is his second deployment since joining the Marine Corps and because he only got home in June of 2012, it was really hard to say goodbye to him again so soon. Does it ever get easier? Watching my friend go through such heart break while having the strength to continue life at home and attempt to nurture her relationship from such a distance is very inspiring. It also brings a reality to the sacrifice our service members and their families make. Because of this, the film was much more personal to me, magnified by the fact that it was a documentary.
The marines in the film were serving on the front line during one of the most violent times during America’s occupation. Within minutes we see one of the marines get shot and then succumb to his wounds. The marines are not only there to eradicate the Taliban, but they also want to protect the Afghani people and enrich their lives with commodities that we take for granted–running water and electricity being the most simple of examples. The photojournalist, Danfung Dennis, shows both sides and can make firm believers in the cause wonder if the Afghani people actually want the help, especially after the marines occupy their homes for a time.
Dennis makes a bold choice to utilize the almost over-done non-linear timeline concept in his editing. Sergeant Nathan Harris is shot in the leg on his second to last mission with the marine corps in Afghanistan. After filming him and his company during the time he spent in Afghanistan, Dennis follows him home to show his rehabilitation process and the effects of PTSD on the Sergeant and his family. The style of the documentary has very few interviews and instead usually lets the footage speak for itself. As Nathan goes through the difficult process of recovery, his bouts of pain can often times be debilitating, which is why the doctors tale of caution is always about addiction to pain medication. Whenever he is overcome by a wave of pain, Dennis takes the time to cut in another scene from Afghanistan, be it a firefight or a conversation with the Afghani people. The difference between the two worlds of the marines is jarring. The adrenaline, action packed, heart stopping moments in a ditch at the side of the road, and the slow and quiet moments at home while Nathan is undergoing physical therapy or braving an outing to Walmart. The devastating opening scenes of the implications of war are furthered when Sergeant Harris, his wife, and the men he served with attend a memorial service in North Carolina for the thirteen who did not return home with them.
Although every documentary will be shot, edited, and shown through the lens of the director, Dennis does a very good job of staying out of it and letting what happens happen. Although he has the choice between shots and he decides what story to tell, ultimately, his tale was very naked and honest. It is something that I struggled to watch, but was also in a style that I greatly admire. Interviews, if done in excess, can drag down a documentary and add a lot of opinions into the story. Dennis’ style adds more freedom for interpretation. It almost just lays it all on the table and says, “here, watch what our men and women go through.” Although Sergeant Harris and his wife Ashley are only one story, they give insight into what many are not privy to, and what many might rather discard or forget.