"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 president declared his own inauguration a national holiday. But the language he used says something more.
You could be forgiven for forgetting the National Day of Patriotic Devotion—technically, it happened before it was ever declared. Donald Trump established it with a stroke of a pen sometime after his inauguration; the official proclamation appeared Monday in the Federal Register.
That bit isn’t all that unusual. Presidents christen National Days Of Things all the time. Since 2009, for example, Barack Obama has annually declared September 11 as “Patriot Day.” But “Patriotic Devotion” strikes a different note—flowery, vaguely compulsory. And then there’s the date Trump chose: January 20, 2017, the day of his inauguration.
Here’s the proclamation:
A new national pride stirs the American soul and inspires the American heart. We are one people, united by a common destiny and a shared purpose.
Freedom is the birthright of all Americans, and to preserve that freedom we must maintain faith in our sacred values and heritage.
Our Constitution is written on parchment, but it lives in the hearts of the American people. There is no freedom where the people do not believe in it; no law where the people do not follow it; and no peace where the people do not pray for it.
There are no greater people than the American citizenry, and as long as we believe in ourselves, and our country, there is nothing we cannot accomplish.
NOW, THEREFORE, I, DONALD J. TRUMP, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim January 20, 2017, as National Day of Patriotic Devotion, in order to strengthen our bonds to each other and to our country -- and to renew the duties of Government to the people.
Press Secretary Sean Spicer continued to suggest on Monday that the media is attempting to undercut the president.
After harshly condemning the media over the weekend for its coverage of President Donald Trump’s inauguration, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer struck a less combative tone during a press conference on Monday. But he nevertheless continued to argue that the media is trying to undermine the president, and stood by a debunked statement that the inauguration drew the “largest audience” of all time.
“I believe we have to be honest with the American people,” Spicer said at the briefing, responding to a reporter’s question about his commitment to truth-telling. He added: “I’m going to come out here and tell you the facts as I know them, and if we make a mistake I’ll do our best to correct it.” Later, however, he lamented that there is a “constant theme to undercut the enormous support” he said Trump has. “There’s an overall frustration when you turn on the television over and over again and get told that there’s this narrative.”
With a penstroke, President Trump withdrew the U.S. from Trans-Pacific Partnership, imposed a federal hiring freeze, and reinstated the ‘Mexico City policy’ on defunding international abortion-related services.
President Trump marked his first full business day in office with three major executive orders, each one aimed at fulfilling campaign promises he made last year.
His most significant order immediately withdrew the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multilateral free-trade agreement between the U.S. and eleven other Pacific Rim countries. The pact, aimed at counterbalancing China’s growing economic clout in east Asia, was among the Obama administration’s signature foreign policy achievements and a cornerstone of the pivot to Asia.
But the agreement also drew its share of domestic criticism on both sides of the campaign aisle. Both Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who initially supported it, and her primary rival Bernie Sanders criticized the pact for not doing enough to support American workers. Trump was among its most vociferous critics, at one point calling it “a continuing rape of our country.”
Saturday’s unprecedented show of opposition punctured a core myth of the Trump presidency. Will it change his behavior? And can it be sustained?
George W. Bush campaigned as a uniter, not a divider, then presided for eight polarizing years, provoking protests like the one against the Iraq War on February 15, 2003, that sent hundreds of thousands of Americans into the streets of major cities. Those protests stopped neither the Iraq War nor the reelection of the president.
Months after Barack Obama was sworn in, on April 15, 2009, protesters associated with the Tea Party held rallies in 350 cities, attracting more than 300,000 Americans. They were angry about the financial crisis, the Bush administration’s response to it, and the progressive agenda of the polarizing new president and Congress. The following year, 84 Republican freshmen joined the House during the 2010 midterms. By 2012, the Tea Party had fueled victories for politicians including Rand Paul, Mike Lee, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Scott Brown, and Nikki Haley. President Obama’s ability to advance a domestic agenda was all but finished, though he retained enough popularity to be reelected easily in the 2012 campaign.
The HBO documentary delves into the disturbing 2014 case of two Wisconsin girls who say they stabbed their friend to appease a bogeyman-like figure.
One late spring day in 2014, three girls entered the woods in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Two walked out unharmed. A 911 call made not long after revealed the hazy outline of a vicious attack—one of the girls had been found by the side of the road covered in blood, having crawled there to get help. In the days and weeks that followed, details emerged that were no less disturbing: The three girls, all 12 years old, were best friends. The victim had been stabbed 19 times with a 5-inch blade and had barely survived. After being taken into police custody, the other two girls told interrogators what had happened: They had lured their friend into the woods to kill her so that they could appease someone called Slenderman.
How reporters around the world cover leaders hostile to them
Here is a short list of the ways President Donald Trump has attacked the media recently:
The day after his inauguration, he told a crowd of intelligence officers he has “a running war with the media,” whose members he called “the most dishonest human beings on Earth.” He then accused news outlets of lying about the size of his inauguration crowds.
During inauguration week, the Trump International Hotel in Washington banned journalists from the building—Trump’s ownership of which is a controversy in its own right.
After going a record-long span without press conferences, he used his first to berate a CNN reporter, calling him “fake news,” and Buzzfeed News, dismissing it as a “failing pile of garbage” for its release of an unverified dossier containing damaging allegations about Trump.
His transition team said it was considering a plan to evict the media from their traditional roost in the White House press room. “They are the opposition party,” a senior official told Esquire. “I want ‘em out of the building.”
He used one of his first post-election meetings with reporters and editors, held in Trump Tower in November, to insult their “outrageous” and “dishonest” coverage.
An ethics watchdog group is suing President Trump over his continued failure to distance himself from his company.
Updated on January 23 at 4:02 p.m. ET
Despite assurances that he would do so before assuming the nation’s highest office, President Donald Trump has still not taken any of the steps he promised in order to mitigate his conflicts of interest. Though Trump has repeatedly stated that he would remove himself from the day-to-day operations of his businesses—a step that, as has been repeatedly noted, would actually do little to resolve his many conflicts—publicly available documents related to his businesses suggest that Trump has not even filed the requisite paper to do so.
Due to the size of the Trump Organization and its many offshoots, the president removing himself from his positions of authority would leave a long paper trail, requiring Trump to file “a long list of documents in Florida, Delaware, and New York,” according to ProPublica. But as of the afternoon of Trump’s inauguration, none of the authorities ProPublica reached for comment on the subject had received the requisite paperwork. Moreover, looking at the publicly available records on Trump’s largest companies, including his namesake organization and foundation, which are based in New York; his Mar-A-Lago Club, golf course, and holding company, which are operated out of Florida; and his recently opened hotel in Washington D.C., revealed that no changes had been made to their purported ownership structures. And though Delaware’s laws regarding limited-liability companies makes information regarding Trump’s many LLCs difficult to attain, ProPublica was able to confirm with state officials that no changes had been made to the ownership structure of Trump’s largest businesses there.
Narcissism, disagreeableness, grandiosity—a psychologist investigates how Trump’s extraordinary personality might shape his possible presidency.
In 2006, Donald Trump made plans to purchase the Menie Estate, near Aberdeen, Scotland, aiming to convert the dunes and grassland into a luxury golf resort. He and the estate’s owner, Tom Griffin, sat down to discuss the transaction at the Cock & Bull restaurant. Griffin recalls that Trump was a hard-nosed negotiator, reluctant to give in on even the tiniest details. But, as Michael D’Antonio writes in his recent biography of Trump, Never Enough, Griffin’s most vivid recollection of the evening pertains to the theatrics. It was as if the golden-haired guest sitting across the table were an actor playing a part on the London stage.
“It was Donald Trump playing Donald Trump,” Griffin observed. There was something unreal about it.
If the president and his aides will tell easily disproven falsehoods about crowd sizes and speeches, what else will they be willing to dissemble about?
One of the many things that is remarkable about the Trump administration is its devotion, even in its first days, to a particular variety of pointless falsehood.
Mendacity among politicians and the spokespeople hired to spin for them runs across eras and aisles, though it is true that some are more honest than others, and Donald Trump was a historically dishonest presidential candidate. But the Trump administration has displayed a commitment to needlessly lying that is confounding to even the most cynical observers of American politics.