"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.
A new survey suggests the logistics of going to services can be the biggest barrier to participation—and Americans’ faith in religious institutions is declining.
The standard narrative of American religious decline goes something like this: A few hundred years ago, European and American intellectuals began doubting the validity of God as an explanatory mechanism for natural life. As science became a more widely accepted method for investigating and understanding the physical world, religion became a less viable way of thinking—not just about medicine and mechanics, but also culture and politics and economics and every other sphere of public life. As the United States became more secular, people slowly began drifting away from faith.
Of course, this tale is not just reductive—it’s arguably inaccurate, in that it seems to capture neither the reasons nor the reality behind contemporary American belief. For one thing, the U.S. is still overwhelmingly religious, despite years of predictions about religion’s demise. A significant number of people who don’t identify with any particular faith group still say they believe in God, and roughly 40 percent pray daily or weekly. While there have been changes in this kind of private belief and practice, the most significant shift has been in the way people publicly practice their faith: Americans, and particularly young Americans, are less likely to attend services or identify with a religious group than they have at any time in recent memory.
The Republican nominee is pledging to follow an approach that resembles President Obama's.
Donald Trump is stepping back from one of the main themes of his presidential campaign: a promise to crack down on illegal immigration. He is now pledging to pursue an immigration policy that resembles President Obama’s.
On Monday night, Trump said in an interview on Fox News that “the first thing we’re going to do if and when I win is we’re going to get rid of all of the ‘bad ones.’” As for the immigrant population as a whole, “we’re going to go through the process,” Trump said, adding, “What people don’t know is that Obama got tremendous numbers of people out of the country. Bush, the same thing. Lots of people were brought out of the country with the existing laws. Well, I’m going to do the same thing.”
Two decades ago, Osama bin Laden officially launched al-Qaeda’s struggle against the United States. Neither side has won.
Exactly two decades ago, on August 23, 1996, Osama bin Laden declared war on the United States. At the time, few people paid much attention. But it was the start of what’s now the Twenty Years’ War between the United States and al-Qaeda—a conflict that both sides have ultimately lost.
During the 1980s, bin Laden fought alongside the mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. After the Soviets withdrew, he went home to Saudi Arabia, then moved to Sudan before being expelled and returning to Afghanistan in 1996 to live under Taliban protection. Within a few months of his arrival, he issued a 30-page fatwa, “Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places,” which was published in a London-based newspaper, Al-Quds Al-Arabi, and faxed to supporters around the world. It was bin Laden’s first public call for a global jihad against the United States. In a rambling text, bin Laden opined on Islamic history, celebrated recent attacks against U.S. forces in Lebanon and Somalia, and recounted a multitude of grievances against the United States, Israel, and their allies. “The people of Islam had suffered from aggression, iniquity and injustice imposed on them by the Jewish-Christian alliance and their collaborators,” he wrote.
A hotly contested, supposedly ancient manuscript suggests Christ was married. But believing its origin story—a real-life Da Vinci Code, involving a Harvard professor, a onetime Florida pornographer, and an escape from East Germany—requires a big leap of faith.
On a humid afternoon this past November, I pulled off Interstate 75 into a stretch of Florida pine forest tangled with runaway vines. My GPS was homing in on the house of a man I thought might hold the master key to one of the strangest scholarly mysteries in recent decades: a 1,300-year-old scrap of papyrus that bore the phrase “Jesus said to them, My wife.” The fragment, written in the ancient language of Coptic, had set off shock waves when an eminent Harvard historian of early Christianity, Karen L. King, presented it in September 2012 at a conference in Rome.
Never before had an ancient manuscript alluded to Jesus’s being married. The papyrus’s lines were incomplete, but they seemed to describe a dialogue between Jesus and the apostles over whether his “wife”—possibly Mary Magdalene—was “worthy” of discipleship. Its main point, King argued, was that “women who are wives and mothers can be Jesus’s disciples.” She thought the passage likely figured into ancient debates over whether “marriage or celibacy [was] the ideal mode of Christian life” and, ultimately, whether a person could be both sexual and holy.
Intensely emotional and uncompromising, the singer’s long-awaited new album meditates on the passage of time.
Frank Ocean is still thinking about forever. One of his two new albums is called Endless, even though its songs all seem to end too soon. The more significant release, called either Blonde or Blond depending on where you acquire it, repeatedly laments nights, season, and years that can never be retrieved. The first time his unadorned vocals appear on that album, Ocean sings, “We'll let you guys prophesy / We gon' see the future first.” The line comes across as a challenge to get on his level and unhitch from the present—a necessary step before accessing the deep pleasures of his uncompromising new music.
Ocean’s obsession with time has been well-documented by now. His 2011 debut had the self-explanatory title Nostalgia, Ultra and his 2012 breakout, Channel Orange, was inspired by a teenage summer that, he said, seemed “orange.” He’s like the memory machine in Pixar’s Inside Out, processing the past into gemlike objects that can be sorted by visual cue and emotional essence. The blonds and blondes of Blond(e) are, on one level of interpretation, ex-boyfriends and ex-girlfriends. He references car models—Acuras, Ferraris, X6s—as shorthand for life phases. And on the luminous new track “Ivy,” he describes a callous breakup but keeps saying that when he thinks about the relationship, “the feeling still deep down is good.” Good: one simple word explains and colors all the complexity he’s sung about elsewhere in the song.
Polling within the margin of error among African Americans, the Republican tries new outreach—but his approach seems doomed to failure.
Although Donald Trump has long claimed to “have a great relationship with the blacks,” the polls tell a different story, with Trump frequently polling in the single digits among black voters. Over the last few days, the Republican nominee has added a new passage to his stump speech, reaching out to the African American community.
Our government has totally failed our African American friends, our Hispanic friends and the people of our country. Period. The Democrats have failed completely in the inner cities. For those hurting the most who have been failed and failed by their politicians—year after year, failure after failure, worse numbers after worse numbers. Poverty. Rejection. Horrible education. No housing, no homes, no ownership. Crime at levels that nobody has seen. You can go to war zones in countries that we are fighting and it's safer than living in some of our inner cities that are run by the Democrats. And I ask you this, I ask you this—crime, all of the problems—to the African Americans, who I employ so many, so many people, to the Hispanics, tremendous people: What the hell do you have to lose? Give me a chance. I'll straighten it out. I'll straighten it out. What do you have to lose?
We’ve been flying around the country for the last three years, visiting dozens of towns that are reinventing themselves after some kind of big economic or demographic change. I have also, in a way, matched those flights stroke by stroke in America’s public swimming pools. On our first day on the ground in any town, I search for a public pool. I started swimming around the country as a way to maintain some sense of normal in my physical activity after all that flying. And then I came to appreciate it as another window into the culture and spirit of the towns we visited. I wish Ryan Lochte could share some of my experience.
Like much of America—and I’m betting most of the many hundreds of kids I have seen swimming in pools around the nation, too—I was glued to the Olympic swimming events. Katie Ledecky, Maya DiRado, Michael Phelps, truth-teller Lilly King. And then, enter Ryan Lochte.
Chain restaurants, which for so long used their decorations to celebrate America’s past, are now focusing on a (clutter-free) future.
T.G.I. Friday’s is losing its flair. In place of the casual-dining restaurant’s traditional, signature look—a little bit Antiques Roadshow, a little bit Hoarders—the chain announced earlier this year that it would be adopting a new, modernized aesthetic: blond wood, clean lines, bright-but-soft lighting. In appearance, decidedly sleek; in vibe, decidedly Upscale Cafeteria.
In that, Fridays’ is going to be looking a lot like … Applebee’s, which recently announced a similar update to its front-of-the-house situation. And Chili’s. And Ruby Tuesday. And Olive Garden. And also like fast-food chains, which are, like their up-market competitors, embracing the strategically pared-down style that you might call “high meh-dern”: McDonald’s recently unveiled a series of new “design concepts” for its stores, all of them replacing the chain’s signature primary-colored formica with, yep ... blond wood, clean lines, and bright-but-soft lighting. Burger King has been giving its restaurants similar facelifts. So has Wendy’s. And Arby’s. And KFC. And Taco Bell.
A look at the many conflicts over the precious, tasty mineral that humans need to survive
Salt is a magical substance. It reduces bitterness, enhances sweetness, boosts flavor, and preserves perishable foods. Without it, we would die: The human body can't make sodium, but our nerves and muscles don't work without it. It was considered rare until quite recently, so it's hardly surprising that, throughout history, salt has been the engine behind empires and revolutions. Today, there's a new battle in the salt wars, between those who think that we eat too much of it and it's killing us—and those who think most of us are just fine. Join us for a serving of salt, seasoned with science, history, and a little politics.
The president, facing criticism that he remained on vacation during the historic flooding, toured some of the worst-hit areas on Tuesday.
NEWS BRIEF President Obama visited Louisiana Tuesday, the site of recent historic flooding that has displaced tens of thousands of people, damaged scores more homes, and is blamed for the death of 17 people.
The president arrived in Baton Rouge, the state capital, amid criticism for not cutting short his annual vacation to travel to affected areas and see the damage firsthand; when the flooding was at its worst last week, Obama and the first family were in Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. They returned to Washington on Sunday. (Governor John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, had said he’d prefer Obama to wait a “week or two” to visit because of the resources that would need to be diverted for a presidential visit.)