"My intention was just to give an intensely personal, subjective experience of what it's like to go to war -- and what it's like to come home from it," director Danfung Dennis says of his new documentary, Hell and Back Again
Ashley Harris helps Sergeant Nathan Harris, her husband, in Hell and Back Again / Courtesy Docurama Films
"We are experts in the application of violence," a commander tells a line of soldiers before they deploy. The camera cuts to men sitting in the cabin of a helicopter anxiously checking their guns and, seconds later, to a young marine bellowing on the battlefield as order disperses into the shouting chaos of war. Shot literally from the hip, the first five minutes of the documentary Hell and Back Again take place outside a remote village in southern Afghanistan, where the audience is dropped into the scuffle of Echo Company, 2nd Battalion of the 8th Marines, landing behind enemy lines and launching into battle. After the firefight, the camera quietly centers on a marine watching a heavy body bag carried by.
It is this kind of empathetic and poignant construction that won filmmaker Danfung Dennis the Sundance Film Festival Cinematography and Grand Jury Prizes for the documentary. The fight scenes screen like Platoon -- but they actually happened. Having the weight of verisimilitude, Hell and Back Again also delves into the inglorious aftermath of war, exploring the pains and challenges that face the marines both in Afghanistan and back home. The film's well-composed sequences, which have drawn comparisons to the work of Terrence Malick, flash from Dennis' time embedded with Echo Company in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, to his time living with Sergeant Nathan Harris in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, as the young veteran recovers from a severe hip wound.
Some of the most affecting scenes are off the battlefield. In North Carolina, Harris comes across as a boy with an unnerving attachment to guns, a youthful exuberance, and a faith in God and his country that is just beginning to be challenged. At home, Harris wears an Ed Hardy-style shirt with the bold text "Affliction," tottering on his walker and joy-riding in the electronic wheelchair cart at the local Walmart. He pulls his sweat pants down to show a realtor the jagged scar across his bottom as he limps with his young wife through a prospective house.
As Harris contemplates his future, struggling to come to terms with the length of his convalescence, the audience gets a rare glimpse into the sort of identity crisis that many veterans face upon returning home. From a slump on his couch after a physical therapy session, he says, "I wanted to be a roughneck, to spit tobacco, and to kill the enemy. I was a young cowboy." It's a hard sentiment to hear, and yet somehow easy to understand. He continues, "Being a grunt is over, and that's the only thing I want to be."
Hell and Back Again is already provoking conversation. During a Q&A after a screening in New York City, a woman wanted Dennis to renounce the soldiers' violence walked out when he wouldn't. Several veterans later stepped up to shake Dennis's hand. One of them thanked him, saying in a rough voice, "I never would have thought being in Iraq would have been the easy part. I don't think anyone wanted to kill civilians, but we were put over there to do our jobs. And I appreciate you portraying what we had to go through."
Nothing about the film is sugarcoated. In one jarring scene, an Afghan soldier cut in half by a mine disintegrates on camera as marines attempt to lift him into a body bag. In another, Harris threatens his own wife with a gun. Such scenes will be new to the average American viewer, even if they're not to the thousands of American veterans of Afghanistan.
Perhaps Harris himself describes the last ten years of war the best. In a haze of painkillers, still aching from the bullet wound that shattered his hip, he tells the camera, "It costs a lot."
Yet Dennis carefully avoids preaching, focusing instead on innocuous details, whether it's the glaring lights of the pharmacy where Harris' wife picks up his medications or the sand plumes from the Marines' footsteps as they sweep surveillance in the desert. Hell and Back Again may well be the closest to the war that many Americans ever get.
After a screening on the night of the tenth anniversary of the war, I met director Danfung Dennis. He was polished and his hair neatly combed -- not what you might expect from the director of such a gritty film. The entire documentary was shot with a hand-held Canon 5D Mark II, at f2.8, on a 24 to 70 mm zoom lens with a depth of field of mere inches, a remarkable technical feat.
How did you go from taking still images to film?
I worked for a number of years as a still photojournalist in Iraq and Afghanistan and even though my images were being published in magazines and newspapers, I felt like they weren't having any impact. People were numb to these images, and I was frustrated with the medium and decided to move into a different way to tell the story.
In July 2009, I knew of a very large operation that was happening. Four thousand Marines were being dropped behind enemy lines in the largest helicopter assault since Vietnam. I asked to go with the Echo Company because they were going the furthest behind enemy lines, to seize a key canal crossing. After we landed we were surrounded by insurgents. Extremely heavy fighting broke out, focused around this pile of rubble that became known as "Machine Gun Hill." This is what you see in the first scene [of the movie]. That first day a marine was killed and a dozen collapsed from heat exhaustion. Almost all of us had run out of water and it was 130 degrees. This was one of the most dire situations I'd been in. That's when Sergeant Harris passed me his last bottle of water and we first met.
I didn't know it was going to be a story about one marine or a story about coming home from war; it was just a natural progression. It wasn't until 6 months later, when the marines were stepping off the buses that I realized Nathan [Harris] wasn't there. I asked, "Where's Sergeant Harris?" and the guys said, "He was hit two weeks ago." So I called him up, just as he was leaving the hospital. He'd been medevac'd back to the U.S., he'd had half a dozen surgeries, he was in extreme pain, and feeling very guilty for leaving his men behind.
He invited me back home to his hometown in North Carolina and introduced me to his wife, his friends, his family, as "this guy who was over there with me." And that carried a lot of weight. Instantly, I was accepted into this very rural Baptist community, and I essentially lived with him and Ashley during his recovery and his transition between this world of life and death, blood and dust, and this world where it feels like everyone's at the shopping mall. The story became much more about this psychological personal struggle and what it's like to transition. I knew I had that structure and so worked very closely to build those two worlds together.
Have you had people interested in what your political message might be?
This film is completely non-political. I didn't have a message, left or right. I wanted to bring this tradition from photojournalism where you simply let what happens in front of the lens unfold. My job is to witness and show others in the most honest and truthful way. I'd say I have the same number of people who see this film that are very pro-military and think this is pro-military, and others who think it is an anti-war film. I think we achieved something by creating something that is almost a Rorschach ink test, where you see what you want to see. My intention was just to give an intensely personal, subjective experience of what it's like to go to war -- and what it's like to come home from it.
What was the response from the military?
I'll start with Nathan's response -- he didn't see any footage during the process, he really had to trust me to tell the story. It wasn't until the film was finished that Ashley, Nathan and I sat together in a theater and watched it. It was very emotional, very difficult for them to see. At the end when the lights came up, they looked at each other and said, "It was perfect." I've had very strong responses from many veterans and servicemen who see it. While it's the story of just one marine, they identify with it. They finally have a way to convey something that's very difficult to communicate. These experiences are extremely difficult to talk about; they're so traumatic. So I've gotten a lot of thanks for trying to tell their story.
To watch what you saw and recognize you're getting so close to the violence was impressive. What was shooting it like?
I built a custom camera system. I knew I'd be in very difficult conditions. I wanted to bring the power of the still image that I had been trained to convey, so I used a Canon 5 D Mark II. It's a stills camera that shoots very high quality HD video. But it has tremendous downsides. It was never designed to shoot film. It would overheat after a couple minutes of filming, and so I'd just have to shut down and wait for it to cool down before I could shoot again. I attached mounts and microphones, and put all of that onto a steady-cam-like device with weights on it, balanced in such a way that I could be running, and the marines could be running, and [I'd] still get steady tracking shots. I wanted to borrow from the language of cinema, combined with the power of photojournalism and photo-documentary film making. When I came home, I had about 100 hours of footage.
How's Sergeant Harris doing now?
We're still in very close touch. He's still an active duty Marine. He's in the Wounded Warriors Regiment. He's still going through a lot of physical therapy. He's not off his medication. A lot of them are no longer having the same impact as his tolerance has [been] raised. He still has quite a lot of pain. It is a pressing problem -- you come back with these horrific injuries. The body armor and the medical systems in the field have gotten so good that many of these men are coming back with injuries we've never seen before -- both physical and psychological, especially in repeated deployments. So they do need these meds, but they're the equivalent of heroin and morphine in their synthetic forms -- the [veterans] need the [drugs], but they're extremely addictive. His doctor says he's too young to be addicted to opiates. It's an entirely different struggle that comes with that form of injury.
Courtesy Docurama Films
He just recently started psychological counseling and he's still together with Ashley. She's an amazing woman, so patient, always there for him, but she's been through a lot. She's really tired. He's probably going to retire with medical benefits. But he's struggling with his identity. He was a shepherd of men; he had this purpose, a mission. He came back home badly wounded and he realizes he can never do what he did before. He's not quite sure what could fill that same sense of meaning.
By using non-documentary, feature-film techniques, were you ever worried you might lose the reality of the experience?
When I first started showing people footage without much context, almost the first thing they would ask is, "Is this real?" because they hadn't seen anything like this before. I was trying to use a lot of photography techniques: shallow depth of field, shooting in low light, and composition, making something aesthetically powerful. There are times when people almost forget this is a documentary so when it hits them -- "This is real" -- it hits them that much harder.
You can have your politics, but [veterans] should get the support they need when they get back. One of my hopes for this film is that it starts discussion about the war. That was one of the most disturbing things when I got back -- no one talked about it. We had just come back from this extremely traumatic, violent world, and back here it was something distant, far away. People thought of it as an idea, it was maybe two minutes on the news once in a while, and it was easy to think of it as an abstraction -- it wasn't real. That was very disturbing to me, it was hard to reconcile. It was very disorienting to come back and not be able to communicate.
Hillary Clinton wrote something for The Toast today. Are you sobbing yet?
Either you’ll immediately get why this is crazy, or you won’t: Hillary Clinton wrote a thing for The Toast today.
Are you weeping? Did your heart skip a beat? Maybe your reaction was, “What. Whaaaat. WHAT,” or “Aaaaaaahhhhhhh!!!” or “OH MY GOD,” or simply “this is too much goodbye I'm dead now.”
Perhaps your feelings can only be captured in GIF form, as was the case for someone commenting on Clinton’s post under the name Old_Girl:
Reader comments like the ones above are arguably the best part of Clinton’s post, because they highlight just how meaningful hearing directly from Clinton is to The Toast’s community of readers. The Toast is a small but beloved feminist website known for its quirky literary humor. It announced last month it couldn’t afford to continue operating. Friday is its last day of publication.
In a 60-page ruling, a U.S. district-court judge stopped enforcement of a law providing religious exemptions for LGBT discrimination.
Why doesn’t anyone care about Mississippi?
This spring, the state’s legislature passed H.B. 1523, an extensive law written to protect people who believe any of the following: that marriage is between a man and a woman; that sex should only happen in the context of marriage; and that the words “male” and “female” refer to “an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth.” The law claim these protections are a form of religious freedom.
It provides that religious organizations can refuse to rent out their social halls for a same-sex wedding, for example, and that clergy can refuse to perform a same-sex marriage ceremony. These groups can also fire a single mother who gets pregnant, or, in the case of religious adoption agencies, decline to place a child with a same-sex couple. Doctors and psychologists can refuse to get involved with gender-reassignment procedures or take cases that would violate their religious beliefs. Schools and other public agencies can create “sex-specific standards” for dress code, bathrooms, and more. State employees can also refuse to sign same-sex-marriage licenses, and they can’t be fired for saying they believe homosexuality is wrong, for example.
On Wednesday on CNN, Marco Rubio said the Islamic State, which Turkish officials believe carried out this week’s attack at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport, had two motivations. First, “they ultimately want them to be a part of the caliphate.” Sure, but “ultimately,” ISIS wants every place on earth to be part of its caliphate. That doesn’t explain why the organization struck Turkey now. Rubio’s second explanation was more convincing: “They’re looking to punish Turkey for allowing U.S. airstrikes to be conducted from an airbase within Turkey. … They’ve made that abundantly clear.”
Yes, they have. ISIS may eventually wish to conquer the entire world. But in the here and now, it generally attacks countries that are attacking it. The Georgetown University terrorism expert Daniel Byman has noted that until the U.S. and its allies began bombing the Islamic State in the summer of 2014, the group “focused first and foremost on its immediate theater of operations” in Iraq and Syria. A study by the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment detected only four ISIS-related plots in the West from January 2011 to May 2014. Then, between July 2014 and June 2015, the number spiked to 26.
Sharing platforms are meant to scale seamlessly throughout the world, but they’ve faced a different knotty set of rules in nearly every city they’ve colonized.
For years now, Airbnb, the popular home-sharing platform, has featured this line of copy at the end of a company mission statement that mostly pledges to promote a sense of adventure and discovery: “And with world-class customer service and a growing community of users, Airbnb is the easiest way for people to monetize their extra space and showcase it to an audience of millions."
It’s a business model condensed into a coda, casually set off with an “And.” The subtext is that the revenue-making potential of the platform is an afterthought, which implies that its appeal lies in its ease of use. Sign up and rent out your apartment or guest room. It’s easy.
Easy, that is, unless you live in Chicago, where regulations passed last week will require hosts to register with the city, impose a tax on each transaction to pay for the city’s homeless services, and limit the number of apartments that can be rented out in a particular building, depending on its size. Or in San Francisco, Airbnb’s hometown, where a law that went into effect in 2015 limits the total number of days an apartment can be rented out per year and similarly requires hosts to register with the city. (This week, the company, which coincidentally helped draft the 2014 law, decided to sue the city over it.) Months after San Francisco imposed those limits, Santa Monica passed regulations requiring hosts to get business licenses and restricted them from renting out entire properties.
“This western-front business couldn’t be done again.”
On this first day of July, exactly 100 years ago, the peoples of the British Empire suffered the greatest military disaster in their history. A century later, “the Somme” remains the most harrowing place-name in the annals not only of Great Britain, but of the many former dependencies that shed their blood on that scenic river. The single regiment contributed to the First World War by the island of Newfoundland, not yet joined to Canada, suffered nearly 100 percent casualties that day: Of 801 engaged, only 68 came out alive and unwounded. Altogether, the British forces suffered more than 19,000 killed and more than 38,000 wounded: almost as many casualties in one day as Britain suffered in the entire disastrous battle for France in May and June 1940, including prisoners. The French army on the British right flank absorbed some 1,600 casualties more.
It happened gradually—and until the U.S. figures out how to treat the problem, it will only get worse.
It’s 2020, four years from now. The campaign is under way to succeed the president, who is retiring after a single wretched term. Voters are angrier than ever—at politicians, at compromisers, at the establishment. Congress and the White House seem incapable of working together on anything, even when their interests align. With lawmaking at a standstill, the president’s use of executive orders and regulatory discretion has reached a level that Congress views as dictatorial—not that Congress can do anything about it, except file lawsuits that the divided Supreme Court, its three vacancies unfilled, has been unable to resolve.
On Capitol Hill, Speaker Paul Ryan resigned after proving unable to pass a budget, or much else. The House burned through two more speakers and one “acting” speaker, a job invented following four speakerless months. The Senate, meanwhile, is tied in knots by wannabe presidents and aspiring talk-show hosts, who use the chamber as a social-media platform to build their brands by obstructing—well, everything. The Defense Department is among hundreds of agencies that have not been reauthorized, the government has shut down three times, and, yes, it finally happened: The United States briefly defaulted on the national debt, precipitating a market collapse and an economic downturn. No one wanted that outcome, but no one was able to prevent it.
Boris Johnson stabbed David Cameron in the back. Michael Gove stabbed David Cameron in the back. Michael Gove stabbed Boris Johnson in the back. It’s very simple.
“We have really everything in common with America nowadays,” Oscar Wilde wrote in the Canterville Ghost, “except, of course, language.” And, apparently, political intrigue.
In the United States, the political class has been stunned by the rise of a candidate who bested more than a dozen better-qualified rivals, partly by means of rhetoric as simplistic as monikers like “Little Marco” and “Lyin’ Ted.” But that’s amateur hour. The political machinations on display across the Atlantic in the wake of Britain’s historic vote to leave the European Union are far more sophisticated, and if politics is a game, America’s would be checkers to the U.K.’s three-dimensional chess.
On Thursday, Boris Johnson, the former London mayor who championed and ultimately won the vote for “Brexit,” stunned the political establishment by saying he wouldn’t seek to replace David Cameron as head of the ruling Conservative Party (and, consequently, take the prime ministership). But that only happened after Michael Gove, Johnson’s friend and ally in the “leave” campaign, put forth his own leadership bid instead. It was, as many on Twitter pointed out, a twist worthy of House of Cards (which, after all, was a British show to begin with). The British media, of course, found a way to class that reference up, with one headline saying Gove had “done a double Brutus.”
They say religious discrimination against Christians is as big a problem as discrimination against other groups.
Many, many Christians believe they are subject to religious discrimination in the United States. A new report from the Public Religion Research Institute and Brookings offers evidence: Almost half of Americans say discrimination against Christians is as big of a problem as discrimination against other groups, including blacks and minorities. Three-quarters of Republicans and Trump supporters said this, and so did nearly eight out of 10 white evangelical Protestants. Of the latter group, six in 10 believe that although America once was a Christian nation, it is no longer—a huge jump from 2012.
Polling data can be split up in a million different ways. It’s possible to sort by ethnicity, age, political party, and more. The benefit of sorting by religion, though, is that it highlights people’s beliefs: the way their ideological and spiritual convictions shape their self-understanding. This survey suggests that race is not enough to explain the sense of loss some white Americans seem to feel about their country, although it’s part of the story; the same is true of age, education level, and political affiliation. People’s beliefs seem to have a distinctive bearing on how they view changes in American culture, politics, and law—and whether they feel threatened. No group is more likely to express this fear than conservative Christians.
U.S. Education Secretary John King will argue that interactions with children from different backgrounds prepare students for the workforce.
Perhaps no U.S. education secretary has had more personal experience with the power America’s public-school system has to lift up students who have the odds stacked against them than John King. At least when it works as intended.
A Puerto Rican and African American whose parents had both passed away by the time he was 12, King has repeatedly credited New York public schools for saving his life and shaping its trajectory. King attended P.S. 276 in Canarsie and Mark Twain Junior High School in Coney Island, at the time both diverse schools that exposed him not only to high-quality curriculum, but to students and teachers from backgrounds and cultures wildly different from his own.
“As a kid, it gave me a sense of different cultural experiences that people had and different traditions that people had, and as a parent, that has been an important part of thinking about the schools for my daughters,” King said during an interview at his Washington, D.C., office.
The relationship therapist Esther Perel thinks so—and argues that it’s time to rethink matrimony and, with it, infidelity.
Think of the last wedding you attended. Did the couple’s vows to each other involve promises to be, for the rest of their lives, friends and family and companions and lovers and allies? Did the two people vow to keep exciting each other and soothing each other and listening to each other and challenging each other, to be co-adventurers and co-Netflixers and co-owners of things and possibly co-parents of things and, all in all, pretty much all things to each other?
If so, the couple is very modern. Marriage has spent most of its existence, in the West and elsewhere, as primarily an economic arrangement; as a result, it has also spent most of its existence much less laden with the emotional expectation that we tend to heap upon it today. The current romantic conception of marriage—evident in the culture not just in the guise of hopeful wedding vows, but also in the wedding industrial complex and in pretty much every Hollywood rom-com that defines its “happy ending” according to the satisfactions of long-term commitment—is the result of historical coincidence. It arose, the Belgian relationship therapist Esther Perel argues, from a collision of several forces that collided in the 19th and 20thcenturies: among them capitalism, latent Romanticism, and the political and cultural notion of the primacy of the individual.