HELL AND BACK AGAIN (2011) – Documentary Retroview

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Returning from War

When Sgt. Nathan Harris was deployed to Afghanistan with his fellow Marines in Echo Company, he was a gung ho grunt who was secure in his belief that he and his mates could and would bring liberty to the Afghan people. They were accompanied by photojournalist Danfung Dennis, who was embedded with Echo Company to document the troops’ mission. The result is Hell and Back Again, a war documentary that spans the globe from Afghanistand to North Carolina, while centering on Sgt. Harris’ particular — yet no doubt typical — experiences during his deployment in Afghanistan and after returning home from war. While deployed, Harris is quite disillusioned to discover that the Afghan people don’t consider American troops to be their liberators and don’t, in fact, want them to be station in theit towns and villages, or even in the country, for that matter. Then, Sgt. Harris suffers a crippling wound that causes him to be sent home to North Carolina for treatment and, then, rehabilitation — neither of which are easy for the once macho Marine.

Dennis used his time in Afghanistan well, gathering very well shot footage that show Harris and the other Marines — both commanders and grunts — trying to safely, effectively negotiate complex political and cultural terrain that they clearly don’t understand. Time after time, we are privy to conversations between troops and Afghans — communicating through a translator — are saying things to each other that show that they are completely at odds in how they see the immediate future unfolding. The American presence seems the result of political machinations rather than in response to Afghans’ needs, or what they see to be their needs.

Dennis’ Afghanistan footage is beautifully shot and well woven into the film’s overall narrative arc, even as flashbacks as Dennis follows Harris home to North Carolina and, there, chronicles the Marine’s life after war.

A Period of Adjustment

Harris’ difficulties in adjusting are exacerbated by his being in constant and devastating pain from his injuries. Doctors warn him that he is in danger of becoming addicted to opiates and other painkillers. He distracts himself by spending an inordinate amount of time playing war-oriented video games. And, although he’s able to strike up acquaintances at the mall, he has problems relating to his loving and dutiful wife, friends and family, all of whom dutifully attend to his needs. It is certainly clear to the audience that Harris’ life will never be the same, and it’s heartbreaking to watch him come to that realization, too — and to see the difficulty his wife has in accepting the fact that the husband who came home from combat in Afghanistan simply isn’t the same man who proudly marched off to deployment with Echo Company. In one scene, where Harris is trying to teach his wife how to shoot a gun that she can barely bare to touch, it’s clear that they are miles apart emotionally. She is certainly loyal to him, but you wonder whether she’ll be able to sustain that, and if not, what will become of Harris, who is now quite dependent on her?

Harris is Everyman

Dennis doesn’t get preachy in telling Harris’ story. He’s an empathetic yet objective observer who gives you access through his lens. But, without Dennis framing it as such, you can see that, by extension, Harris’ story is the story of any Marine who’s faced combat chaos in Afghanistan and came home, hoping to pick up where he’s left off. Similar stories are chronicled in other current war documentaries such as Where Soldiers Come From, Restrepo, The Battle for Marjah, Body of War, and Armadillo, among others, that, grouped together, provide a heavy-hitting arsenal of arguments that should convince any and everyone that finding a nonmilitary solution to international conflicts would be a lot more effective — in the short and long term — all around.

Film Details:

Title: Hell And Back Again
Director: Danfung Dennis
Theatrical Release Date: October, 2011 (limited)
Running Time: 88 mins.
Locations: Afghanistan and North Carolina
Language: English, Pashtun with English translation
Distribution Company: New Video

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