In a world awash with images, even the most powerful can fail to draw attention. Even if that image is iconic, even if that image means or meant something more than pixels, more than a mere captured frame and a simple moment snapped in time.
No, an image that can be replaced may not be memorable, and it will neither raise the ire of society, nor silence the drone of apathy that threatens to lay waste to the emotions that photographs were once thought to retain.
But what about a string of images, knit together in time, captured in high definition from the middle of herculean feats of resilience (on both sides) in a bloody war with no end in sight and no peace in hand?
It is the power of the moving image – saved for our, and future, generation’s eyes on the memory cards of a Danfung Dennis’s Canon 5D – on display in Dennis’s Hell and Back Again.
This documentary, similar in theme to the Oscar-nominated Restrepo, places the viewer in the way of bullets, palpably close to anxious armed forces, and deep within enemy territory in a documentary merited – rightly – for its portrayal of life, focusing on one US Marine, Nathan Harris, in and out of the war in Afghanistan.
Hell and Back Again accomplishes two important tasks. First, it casts off the protective lens often fastened between subject matter and viewer – particularly the bulletproof layer that separates the public from the sharp edges of war. Second, it demonstrates the human costs – not merely in lost limbs or lives (though it shows those, too) – that come with the soldier’s culture of conditioning; a conditioning which makes life without the threat of sudden death unbearably complex – where trips to collect groceries or ordering fast food can inspire fury without reservation.
No, Hell and Back Again won’t solve America’s war problem. That problem is as much political as it is strategic, and ideology is not part of this film, according to Danfung Dennis. Instead, Hell and Back Again contributes to a truth project destined to preserve for past, present and future veterans a document of battle, sacrifice and experience.
In Afghanistan in particular, where the war has drained the blood of too many groups, and where the effects – in final body count, wounded and long-term mental illness – won’t fully be appreciated for years to come, the fact that this project shows the stark realities of war makes it even more powerful.
“Taking the death and the injury out of war, is to take that emotional part out of the conversation.” said Ashley Gilbertson, an award winning photojournalist, about the policies that limit today’s war photojournalists.
Without historical documents to capture war as it is, Gilbertson, who was embedded with the marines in Iraq, believes that today’s veterans will feel robbed in 10 to 15 years.
“What they experienced in war, what they complained about experiencing at war, and what is so hard for them to manage,” he said, is that the public at home “can’t understand. It’s because we can never see how bad it actually gets.”
Yet, the rawness of experience, so wickedly conveyed through the short lens of the DSLR, shows us the depth of war, the reach of its trauma, and the human reaction to coping – and helping someone cope – with the damage war exerts on its subjects. This elevates Hell and Back Again to a plane far higher and more honest than projects of similar type.
It also captures an important universal truth.
“The act of combat is something which takes place between two defined moments,” said Gilbertson, “but war lives with families for generations.”
Thus, it is hard not to be shocked by the artistic beauty and careful attention to the crafts of photography and cinematography on display in Hell and Back Again. Yet it is the film’s careful translation of war’s lived experience that will leave most viewers wide-eyed.