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What does it mean to lead men in war? What does it mean to come home? From his embed with US Marines Echo Company in Afghanistan, photojournalist and filmmaker Danfung Dennis reveals the devastating impact a Taliban machine-gun bullet has on the life of 25-year-old Sergeant Nathan Harris. The film seamlessly transitions from stunning war reportage to an intimate, visceral portrait of one man’s personal struggle at home in North Carolina, where Harris confronts the physical and emotional difficulties of re-adjusting to civilian life with the love and support of his wife, Ashley. Masterfully contrasting the intensity of the frontline with the unsettling normalcy of home, HELL AND BACK AGAIN lays bare the true cost of war. In 2009, U.S. Marines launched a major helicopter assault on a Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan. Within hours of being dropped deep behind enemy lines, 25-year-old Sergeant Nathan Harris’s unit (US Marines Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment) is attacked from all sides. Cut off and surrounded, the Marines fight a ghostlike enemy and experience immense hostility from displaced villagers caught in the middle. Embedded in Echo Company during the assault, photojournalist and filmmaker Danfung Dennis captures the frontline action with visceral immediacy. When Sergeant Harris returns home to North Carolina after a life-threatening injury in battle, the film evolves from a war exposé to the story of one man’s personal apocalypse. With the love and support of his wife, Ashley, Harris struggles to overcome the difficulties of transitioning back to civilian life. In immense physical pain, Sergeant Harris grows addicted to his medication. His agony deepens as he attempts to reconcile the gulf between his experience of war and the terrifying normalcy of life at home. The two realities seamlessly intertwine to communicate both the extraordinary drama of war and, for a generation of soldiers, the no less shocking experience of returning home. An unprecedented exploration of the moving image and a film of uncommon intimacy, HELL AND BACK AGAIN comes full circle as it lays bare the true cost of war.


'A masterpiece in the cinema of war'

Hell and Back Again is a cinematically revolutionary film that asks and answers these questions with a power and intimacy no previous film about the conflict in Afghanistan has been able to achieve. It is a masterpiece in the cinema of war. From Director Danfung Dennis: This film is to remind us that this country is at war. It easier to look away, to think of it as an abstraction. But when we forget the young marines and soldiers dying in the dust, forget the Afghan people killed in the crossfire and forget the parents mourning the loss of their children, we deny their sacrifice and deny our own humanity. Let us remember the consequences of war and the greatest evil is that of indifference. This is to honor Echo Company, 2/8 and those who have fallen. With the steadfast support and guidance of my producers Mike Lerner, Martin Herring, Dan Cogan, Karol Martesko-Fenster and editor Fiona Otway, I was able to make this film. I also want to thank Susan Margolin, Lois Vossen and Erin Owens for bringing this film to light. And most of all, for having the tremendous courage to share their story, I want to thank US Marine Sergeant Nathan Harris and his wife Ashley. From Executive Producer Dan Cogan: As a country, we just do not want to look at the wars we have been and are fighting. We do not want to see the sacrifices around us, the lives forever cut short and changed from their fated courses -- and the fact that these sacrifices are not being made equally by all people in our democracy. It is a travesty, and a failure of our cultural mettle. But is also a condition we can all combat, in one way or another, with our participation in this film, and our fight to get it seen and understood by the American people.


Nathan and Ashley Harris

US Marine Sergeant Nathan Harris, 27, grew up in the small town of Yadkinville, North Carolina and married his high school sweetheart, Ashley, before his first of three deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. A champion wrestler, he was trained from a young age by his father to be a fighter. Decorated for his service, Nathan is now in the Wounded Warrior Regiment at Camp Lejeune recovering from a gunshot wound to the hip. Ashley is a veteran of supporting her husband and his difficult transitions back home. They live with their two dogs in Jacksonville, NC.

Best War Movie of the Year -

There have been plenty of combat documentaries over the last 10 years, but photojournalist Danfung Dennis’ “Hell and Back Again” adopts an original conceit. Dennis follows Marine Sgt. Nathan Harris, a gruff 25-year-old who was stationed in Afghanistan, during two seminal moments in his life. During an assault on a Taliban stronghold, Harris received a bullet wound in his rear that prematurely sent him home. Back in North Carolina with his wife, temporarily unable to walk and unsure of his military future, Harris drifts through his mundane life dealing with echoes of the past. Rather than letting his subject attempt to explain the trauma, Dennis shows it, repeatedly cutting between the two periods. The events speak for themselves. The flashback has become a cliché in fictional cinema and when Dennis applies the same technique to reality, it initially comes across as presumptuous. No matter what his subject approved, the idea of combining footage from two periods of Harris’ life assumes an outside observer can get inside the exmarine’s head. However, Dennis doesn’t overplay each transition and the bold concept eventually plays off. In the field, negotiating with local Afghanis and barking orders in the heat of battle, Harris looks much older and assertive than the withered young adult who returns to North Carolina. Wheeling around town -overmedicated, depressed and in constant pain -- he struggles to maintain the assertiveness of his former life. By cutting back to the rough masculine environment he dominated overseas, the film shows just how remote he feels from his current life. The battlefield imagery grows increasingly unsettling, building toward the incident that sent Harris home. With its fine-tuned approach, “Hell and Back Again” is possibly the best war movie of the year (unless Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” pulls off a miracle), but it’s certainly the one that gets closest to the heat of the battle. Dennis’ revealing access to the Echo Company’s second platoon in Afghanistan places “Hell and Back Again” alongside a spate of recent documentaries that show the Afghanistan war in detail. These include “Restrepo,” “Severe Clear” and “Armadillo,” where the camera gets intimate with the combat but rarely shows the aggressors, leading to the appearance of a one-sided action movie in which the soldiers are really at war with themselves. However, “Hell and Back Again” does show another side of the story. While not showing the enemy on the battlefield, it examines the damage to Harris’ psyche. Dennis uses several effective transitions between the now and then: The sight of Harris, on the hunt for new real estate and wandering through an empty house with his wife, abruptly shifts to a scene of Harris bursting through the door of an occupied Afghani home. On his couch, Harris lazily plays military shooting game “Call of Duty 4,” a moment that segues into scenes of his actual run-and-gun tactics in the field. Some juxtapositions are obvious, but Dennis doesn’t ruin them with extended or overly sentimental montages. The story moves swiftly forward. While sympathetic to Harris’ plight, “Hell and Back Again” doesn’t avoid passing judgement. The former marine’s sense of heroism runs counter to the document of his platoon’s experience, which largely involves placating angry Afghani villagers or yelling at them when they withhold information. “We can’t resist against you or the Taliban,” one of them says. In an opening speech to the troops, the platoon leader announces that the soldiers must “force the Taliban to react to us rather than us reacting to them.” But that perspective fails to take into account the soldiers’ eventual reaction to themselves. “Hell and Back Again” dwells in that uncomfortable purgatory and finds no easy escape.


'Wheeling around town overmedicated, depressed and in constant pain'

To Hell and Back Again  

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