Hell and Back Again
Moving but occasionally muddled documentary about the war in Afghanistan
Constant television coverage of the Vietnam War so shocked American households that it is said to have helped turn the tide of public opinion against the conflict. The war in Afghanistan has received saturation coverage across all media and yet the general public seems largely indifferent to what has happened there. The contrast feels like a significant sign of the times.
Photojournalist Danfung Dennis’ Hell and Back Again is an attempt to put a face to the human consequences of the war in Afghanistan. It follows Sergeant Nathan Harris on the front line of conflict and once he returns home, wounded, adrift and struggling to readjust to civilian life. It is a documentary with a dramatic arc that recalls defining classics of American cinema from The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946) to The Deer Hunter (1978) with a dash of Taxi Driver (1976) thrown in as Harris reveals his casual fascination with guns in some chilling scenes set in the family home.
Danfung’s combat footage has the operatic quality of Apocalypse Now as helicopters swirl in the sky and a lone gunner fires randomly through the dust and haze. He also appears to have become another member of the Harris family in the way he has gained the trust of Harris and his wife Ashley. The film is sketchy and impressionistic in places, leaving a lot of unanswered questions about elements of Harris’ life and marriage. We never really gain much of Ashley’s perspective on events and what her husband’s injuries and attitudes have meant to her.
The film is very emotional as Danfung unflinchingly captures casualties and a moving mass funeral. There is the sting of truth in the film’s best moments that allow it to stand alongside Restrepo in the canon of exceptional documentary work inspired by an often unfathomable conflict.
GFT, Glasgow and selected release from Fri 23 Oct (premiere on Sun 18 Oct).