Director Danfung Dennis discusses his evolution from photojournalist to documentary filmmaker as he uses the moving image to bear witness to one Marine's fight, both overseas and at home.
Photo credit: Danfung Dennis
In July of 2009, the US Marines Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment was dropped eighteen kilometers behind enemy lines into a Taliban-controlled territory of Afghanistan. While the American soldiers raised their weapons to fight off an attack they would not all survive, photojournalist Danfung Dennisraised his camera alongside them, which he had rigged anew for the purpose of capturing moving images, no longer stills. In 130-degree weather upon a pile of rubble that would become known as Machine Gun Hill, as nearby troops began collapsing from heat exhaustion amidst an enemy assault that threatened from all sides, Sergeant Nathan Harris turned towards Danfung to hand him his last water bottle. This was his introduction to the 25-year-old Marine, a talented leader who would direct his men with sound resolve over the ensuing months, but eventually return home prematurely as the result of a devastating gunshot wound to the hip.
As the subject of Dennis’ first documentary film, Hell and Back Again, the visually arresting and immersive narrative shifts back and forth between Nathan Harris’ tour in Afghanistan and his slow recovery in North Carolina with the support of his wife Ashley Harris. Elevating the present canon of documentary works that explore the human experience of America’s current war, Dennis marries an unparalleled sense of intimacy with cinematic beauty previously reserved for large-scale fictional films. In the wake of releasing his documentary, we spoke with the first-time director about photojournalism, shaking Americans from their indifference, and using documentary filmmaking as a means to circumvent the filter of traditional media.
Photo credit: Richard Koek
Tribeca: For years you’ve been on the ground capturing the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan for newspapers and magazines. What initially motivated you to become a photojournalist?
Danfung Dennis: I vividly remember the first time that I opened this book called Inferno by James Nachtwey when I was twenty. It’s this black tome of his images from conflicts from the last three decades. I could only turn about ten pages before I had to close the book, and it had such a searing impact on me that it completely re-shifted my understanding of the world. And so I thought if I can contribute to this, if I can follow in this tradition of bearing witness to show what happens, just honestly and truthfully to try to stop it, to think of a world where this doesn’t happen. These are reminders of mistakes that we’ve made and not to repeat them.
Tribeca: And how did your transition from photojournalist to documentary filmmaker happen?
Danfung Dennis: I’d been working as a photojournalist since 2006 in Iraq and Afghanistan, mostly for The New York Times and Newsweek, but even though my images were being published quite widely, I felt that they weren’t really having any impact anymore, that society had seen so many images of war that they had become numb to them, and so I wanted to be able to convey the brutal realities on the ground that I think people weren’t seeing through imagery, through another medium, and that’s when I started moving into video and filmmaking.
That was a gradual transition because I was only really allowed to do that when the technology was there – I had never really been moved by the visual quality of documentaries, usually shot on hand-held low-res cameras, but when the Canon 5D Mark II came out, that completely opened up another world for me because I could use the same tool that I used as a stills photographer and start capturing moving images, and that had the aesthetic quality and I could convey the emotion that I did with stills. I could work the same way I did as a stills photographer, simply letting events unfold in front of the lens, and I could start combining that with the tradition and narrative of documentary film, and even start borrowing from the language and grammar from narrative films with this tool. I did have to build a custom rig for it, though, to get it working.
Tribeca: After encountering Nathan during the fighting at Machine Gun Hill, how did your relationship with him develop?
Danfung Dennis: I could tell he was this exceptional leader, very experienced and courageous, and so I followed his platoon further as they pushed into the stronghold and got to know him very well as we slept in the same dust and went on the same combat missions. It wasn’t until I learned he was shot six months later and followed him home that the story really honed in on him.
Photo credit: Danfung Dennis
Tribeca: The two linear narratives of Nathan fighting in Afghanistan and coping with his return home seem to invade and overlap one another as the film flows back and forth between them, blurring the notion that the experience of war can be left behind. Was this structure of the story intentional from the beginning or did it take shape later during the editing process?
Danfung Dennis: I had no intention of actually making a film. I had no intention of making a story about coming home from war. I didn’t even know it was going to be about one marine. And I think the approach I took as a photojournalist, of letting the story evolve and just following it, allowed me to get the full experience of what it means to go to war and come home from it. So I didn’t know it was going to be about one marine, Sergeant Harris, until I was in North Carolina and the marines were stepping off the buses to their homecoming, meeting their families, and I realized Sergeant Harris wasn’t there. So I asked the guys where he was and they said he was hit two weeks ago and medivaced out.
I got his number and called him up and he was just being released from the hospital. He was in extreme pain from his injury, shot in the hip. He had lost six pints of blood in twenty minutes, which led to a brain injury, and he was feeling very guilty for leaving his men behind. He invited me back up to his hometown of Yadkinville, North Carolina and he introduced me to his friends and family as ‘this guy was over there with me,’ so instantly I was accepted into this very rural, Baptist community, and essentially lived with him and his wife Ashley.
And so through this process I realized that the experience of war isn’t simply about what happened on the battlefield — it’s as much about coming home and how difficult that transition is and so I knew it would be, at that point, a story about this one marine and also that transition home. So the structure came about sort of coming to the understanding that the full spectrum of war includes this entirely more invisible personal psychological struggle when you get back, a sense of disorientiation, isolation, emotional numbness when you get back from a world of life and death and blood and dust to a country that’s at the shopping mall. And that’s very alienating and hard to reconcile.
Tribeca: Did you experience that personally, having been there and coming back?
Danfung Dennis: When I first came back it was almost more disturbing to see the complete indifference and lack of any public dialogue or discourse about the war. So it was very hard to come back and go through the same experience I think that he went through, and I think I brought in a lot of my own personal experience to be able to tell his story. And so the structure was something that evolved, and very loosely at the very beginning of the editing process, I knew I wanted to blend these two worlds to show that the fighting didn’t stop when these men came home, and so Fiona Otway [editor] and I spent a long time talking about our representations of war: what was the mythical romantic version and what was the more brutal reality, and trying to separate these two.
Photo credit: Danfung Dennis
Tribeca: There is a profound sense of intimacy in this film, in which the personal struggles on screen are not hidden or augmented by the presence of a camera. How did you achieve this?
Danfung Dennis: I think it goes back to my work as a photographer where you try to become entirely invisible, you try to become just part of the furniture, like you’re not even there, but I think, much more than that, and part of that, is just trust with your subjects. There’s always a distrust between the military and journalists, and I think that’s a healthy distrust, but after you’ve been through some difficult experiences together, you show that you can keep up, you’re not getting in the way, you know how to operate with them, and you’re willing to go through the same things that they’re willing to go through, trust between the marines and yourself grows.
Tribeca: The audience seems invited into this immersion due to the absence of interviews with outside experts and talking heads who might otherwise get in the way…
Danfung Dennis: I was very aware of the formulaic conventions that traditional journalism and traditional filmmaking have, and I didn’t want to fall into that. It seemed quite manufactured to tell a story that fits those formulas. I was very aware that I didn’t want to have something that told you what to think of the war. I wanted you just to see it, experience it, and make up our mind about it. It’s really trying to give you an experiential and visceral view into the war and what it’s like to come home from it.
I also believe in the power of the image, that the image can capture so much emotion. It’s a vehicle that can carry that emotion and communicate it across a very wide audience. So, with the tools that we have now, how can we best carry emotion? How can we best convey one’s experience to someone else? I’m very interested in how to use advanced technology or build the technology to be able to convey emotion between two people and not think in the confines of our formulas, our storytelling methods, and to think of what is possible. How can we tell a story better? So that’s my approach, understanding how it is done, and how can we take this further. A lot of my work is based on war photographers from Vietnam and their courage and their ability to convey emotion through a single image.
Tribeca: How did you reconcile what level of violence and physical horror to show on screen? Did you struggle with how to make it both palpable for an audience and honest at the same time?
Danfung Dennis: There were some very difficult decisions in the film of how much to show and what not to show. I had been consistently frustrated when working for newspapers and magazines, or any media, of their limits of what they could show. There were these sanitized versions that were approved for mass consumption, and what I was seeing and my fellow photographers were seeing was very different. It was much more brutal. We couldn’t get our images about what we really felt that war looked like. So this was an opportunity. I didn’t have that same gatekeeper that said, "No, we can’t show this." It was up to me to decide. And my feeling is that war is ugly. There is nothing romantic about it. It’s raw, there’s pain, there’s suffering, and it would be dishonest not to show that. I wanted to convey the brutal reality of what happens there. I wanted to make something that’s truthful.