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SUNDANCE REVIEW: 'Hell and Back Again'

1:54 PM PST 1/30/2011 by Duane Byrge

The Bottom Line

A powerful, personal depiction of the Afghan War from the frontlines and at home.

Danfung Dennis presents a powerful depiction of the horrors and daily violence of our ongoing war in Afghanistan.

Park City -- A picture can be worth a thousand words, but a thousand pictures can be worthless. That's what war-front photographer Danfung Dennis came to realize about the impact his battleground photographs were having on a public increasingly desensitized to the up-close horrors of war.

So, photographer Danfung Dennis became filmmaker Danfung Dennis and the results are this powerful depiction of the horrors and daily violence of our ongoing war in Afghanistan.

Playing in the World Cinema Documentary Competition here at Sundance, Hell and Back Again interconnects the terrifying, frontline hell of Sgt. Nathan Harris of U.S. Marines Echo Company and the equally terrible pain he fights when he returns to civilian life in North Carolina, his hip shattered and his femur obliterated during an attack.

Filmmaker Dennis never set out to make a film as he traveled with the 2nd Battalion through the rocky, barren wasteland of southern Afghanistan. He shot on a highly customized digital SLR camera rig and captured the daily tension, heroism and frustration in confronting a ghost-like enemy in the Taliban.

Dennis' eyeballs us with more than the sheer brutality of the battle but sensitively imparts the psychological toll it takes. His camera, ever in harm's way, is also widely scoped to take in the full impact on the lives of not only these brave Marines but the rural Afghans, as well. Dennis conveys the hostility from Afghan villagers and their understandable frustration about being caught between two forces, the Taliban and the U.S. military.

Dennis' camera puts the audience in the front lines, behind the rocks and wasteland shrub, and digs into our minds the awful, gnawing fear that a bullet could take us out at any instant, from anywhere. Just like that. That's what happened to Sgt. Harris, days before the end of his deployment.

Equally painful is Sgt. Harris' return home where he endures the excruciating process of rehab. His daily regimen is grueling, repetitive physical therapy and reliance on such addictive painkillers as Oxycontin.

Blessed with a loving and understanding wife, and the firm resolve to get back into action, Sgt. Harris is, indeed, a stalwart and brave individual, both as a soldier and as a human being. But, his home-hell is akin to his battle-hell: The painkillers and the abrasions of everyday life unhinge him.

This gut-wrenching, tender film is brilliantly edited by Fiona Otway who interconnects the Afghan front-line battle scenes with the home-front struggles with coherent eloquence.

Like Taps in its power, the film's closing song Hell and Back is magnificently pitched by Willie Nelson, his voice cracking and soaring with full-dress honor.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, World Cinema Documentary Competition
Production: Impact Partners Presents a Roast Beef Production in association with Sabotage Films & Thought Engine, Channel 4 Britdoc Foundation
Cast: Sergeant Nathan Harris, Ashley Harris
Director-director of photography: Danfung Dennis
Producers: Mike Lerner, Martin Herring
Executive producers: Dan Cogan, Karol Martesko-Fenster, Gernot Schaffler, Thomas Brunner
Editor: Fiona Otway
No Rating, 88 minutes