"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.
The pressures of national academic standards have pushed character education out of the classroom.
A few months ago, I presented the following scenario to my junior English students: Your boyfriend or girlfriend has committed a felony, during which other people were badly harmed. Should you or should you not turn him or her into the police?
The class immediately erupted with commentary. It was obvious, they said, that loyalty was paramount—not a single student said they’d “snitch.” They were unequivocally unconcerned about who was harmed in this hypothetical scenario. This troubled me.
This discussion was part of an introduction to an essay assignment about whether Americans should pay more for ethically produced food. We continued discussing other dilemmas, and the kids were more engaged that they’d been in weeks, grappling with big questions about values, character, and right versus wrong as I attempted to expand their thinking about who and what is affected—and why it matters—by their caloric choices.
Dozens of people have reportedly been killed and injured in an assault outside the country’s capital.
NEWS BRIEF A knife attack outside Tokyo has left at least 19 people dead and 20 more wounded, the AP reported Monday, citing Japanese media.
The attack occurred in the city of Sagamihara, located about 30 kilometers, or 20 miles, southwest of the Japanese capital. Reuters reported it occurred at a facility for disabled individuals, citing Kyodo news agency. Kyodo reported police have detained a suspect.
It is about 7 a.m. in Japan. This is a developing story, and we’ll update as we learn more.
Older men without a college degree are the core of Trump’s constituency. Perhaps it’s worth seeing how their younger selves are doing now.
In February 2011, the Washington Postpublished a survey it conducted with the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University on the U.S. economy. Although black and Hispanic families were hurt by the Great Recession, it was the "non-college whites" who held the darkest view of the country. These men used to the the backbone of an economy built by brawn and rooted in manufacturing jobs. But now, nostalgic and despondent in equal measure, more than half said that America’s best days were past, and 43 percent said "hard work and determination are no guarantees of success.”
The survey feels portentous now that the category of “non-college whites” has become the core demographic of Donald Trump’s astonishingly strong coalition. Trump’s support is driven by racism, xenophobia, and other varieties of cultural unease, but it is also a reflection of a lost generation of men, enraged and adrift in an economy where a college degree is one of the few dependable life rafts.
A call from the Vermont senator urging support for Hillary Clinton was met with boos from delegates in Philadelphia.
PHILADELPHIA—The mood quickly turned from enthusiasm to anger when Bernie Sanders made a request of his delegates to the Democratic National Convention this afternoon. “We have got to elect Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine,” Sanders told a gathering of delegates inside the Pennsylvania Convention Center, a message that was met with loud boos.
Attempting to forge ahead despite the obvious show of disapproval, Sanders warned against a Donald Trump presidency. “Trump has made bigotry and hatred the cornerstone of his campaign,” the senator said. But the crowd grew so agitated that he eventually had to stop speaking as cries of “We want Bernie!” rang out.
This display could signal chaos to come at the Democratic convention later on Monday night and as the week unfolds. Presidential nominating conventions are intended to be carefully stage-managed shows of party unity, but Democrats so far seem to be in turmoil.
Ask yourself, is all that wasted time really rewarding? And other tips from Charles Duhigg, who wrote the book on productivity.
Why is it that the more work I have to do, the more the Internet beckons me into its endless maw of distraction? Oh Lord, I will say, appealing both to myself and to whatever blog-God might be listening, I have an hour to finish this article.
But first, isn’t this Tasty video fascinating? I’ve never thought about making buffalo-fried cheese nuggets before, but now that I’ve watched a pair of disembodied hands prepare them so expertly, I should definitely head over to Amazon and Prime me some buffalo sauce.
This is how I found myself, exhausted after leaving work at 8 p.m. one day recently, flopping onto my bed, still in my pencil skirt, and clicking open a horrific, traffic-mongering slideshow linked from the bottom of an article I was reading. It was about Stars Without Makeup or What Child Stars Look Like Now or some other rancid meat for my hungry lizard brain.
Democrats allege that Russian hackers stole and leaked their emails in order to aid Donald Trump. Just because they’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re wrong.
Sometimes a conspiracy theory can be true. Or, to put it another way, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.
Take the burgeoning email leaks scandal that hit the Democratic National Committee on Friday. A searchable cache of 20,000 emails showed up on WikiLeaks. The dump arrived about five weeks after the DNC announced it had been hacked. (Disclosure: I make a cameo in the cache when a staffer suggests my inventory of which Republicans are and aren’t backing Donald Trump “should be helpful.” And frankly, I agree it is. Please read it!) The dump has already claimed a major victim, Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who announced on Sunday that she would step down after the party convention this week. Her already-minor role in the convention seems likely to shrink still further.
The president’s belief in policies that can benefit all Americans is being repudiated by voters, in favor of a vision of politics as a zero-sum game.
The 2016 presidential race represents a vivid rejection of the Obama style. This is easy to miss: His approval ratings are climbing, and Hillary Clinton won the Democratic primary by running as his successor. But the two most dramatic and portentous campaigns of the year, Donald Trump’s vertiginous win and Bernie Sanders’s astonishing insurgency, both flew in the face of the Obama era’s premises.
The Obama style had two pillars. He brought to apotheosis the American political tradition of redemptive constitutionalism. This is the creed of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and Lyndon Baines Johnson’s nationally televised speech on the Voting Rights Acts of 1965, in which he promised, “we shall overcome.” Redemptive constitutionalism holds that democracy and equal freedom really are the nation’s foundations, that slavery and Jim Crow were terrible deviations from these principles, and that, if we manage to take them seriously, to live by them, Americans will finally be free together.
Physicists can’t agree on whether the flow of future to past is real or a mental construct.
Einstein once described his friend Michele Besso as “the best sounding board in Europe” for scientific ideas. They attended university together in Zurich; later they were colleagues at the patent office in Bern. When Besso died in the spring of 1955, Einstein—knowing that his own time was also running out—wrote a now-famous letter to Besso’s family. “Now he has departed this strange world a little ahead of me,” Einstein wrote of his friend’s passing. “That signifies nothing. For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
Einstein’s statement was not merely an attempt at consolation. Many physicists argue that Einstein’s position is implied by the two pillars of modern physics: Einstein’s masterpiece, the general theory of relativity, and the Standard Model of particle physics. The laws that underlie these theories are time-symmetric—that is, the physics they describe is the same, regardless of whether the variable called “time” increases or decreases. Moreover, they say nothing at all about the point we call “now”—a special moment (or so it appears) for us, but seemingly undefined when we talk about the universe at large. The resulting timeless cosmos is sometimes called a “block universe”—a static block of space-time in which any flow of time, or passage through it, must presumably be a mental construct or other illusion.
It’s known as a modern-day hub of progressivism, but its past is one of exclusion.
PORTLAND, Ore.— Victor Pierce has worked on the assembly line of a Daimler Trucks North America plant here since 1994. But he says that in recent years he’s experienced things that seem straight out of another time. White co-workers have challenged him to fights, mounted “hangman’s nooses” around the factory, referred to him as “boy” on a daily basis, sabotaged his work station by hiding his tools, carved swastikas in the bathroom, and written the word “nigger” on walls in the factory, according to allegations filed in a complaint to the Multnomah County Circuit Court in February of 2015.
Pierce is one of six African Americans working in the Portland plant whom the lawyer Mark Morrell is representing in a series of lawsuits against Daimler Trucks North America. The cases have been combined and a trial is scheduled for January of 2017.