Hell and Back Again: Telling Truer Stories of War

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Danfung Dennis’s Academy Award-nominated documentary Hell and Back Again shields the audience from nothing in its portrayal of the war in Afghanistan and an injured Marine’s return home. Now Dennis is taking his quest to capture raw reality a step further with Condition One, an iPad app that allows users to navigate images from battlefield and beyond.

We reached Dennis via Skype in California, where he’s awaiting the Academy’s decision this Sunday night.

Lauren Feeney: What’s wrong with traditional portrayals of war?

Danfung Dennis: There’s this mythical version of war that’s romantic, that portrays it in a heroic light, with honor and glory. It’s a deeply ingrained representation that has been around since the beginning of war — after the war is over, there’s this storytelling which focuses on the side of it that is exciting and adventurous. The stories commonly focus on a very small aspect of war, that of combat, and for a young man it’s very intriguing — this idealization of a man defending his country.

When I first went to war at age 23 — I went to Afghanistan as a freelance photojournalist — I had a lot of these romantic visions in my head as well. Many of them were from film. But over the years, I realized that the images I was making were completely different from the fictional representations of war. What I saw was much darker, much more painful; the level of suffering was immense.

The spectrum of war is much wider than what is commonly portrayed in movies. War isn’t simply what happens on the battlefield but what happens when the combatants come home, what happens to the civilians caught in the crossfire, to the families that are left behind.

Feeney: Is romanticizing war a problem for society?

Dennis: Absolutely. When we embark on going to war, these mythical versions are what we think of, and it can impair our judgement. It’s important to think back on those truer representations we have, like the iconic image from Vietnam of the young girl running away from the napalm — that’s burned into our conscious, so when we think back to Vietnam we do have this glimpse of what war actually is. If we don’t have those counterbalances, then we’re left with this romanticized version displayed on millions of screens in video games and Hollywood movies.

Feeney: How was your film Hell and Back Again different?

Dennis: The story evolved as things happened. I had been filming in Afghanistan for quite awhile, but it wasn’t until July 2009 that I became aware of a very large offensive in southern Helmand province. That’s where the story really began. I embedded with the Marines Echo Company as they were dropped deep into this stronghold, and followed one platoon that was led by Sergeant Nathan Harris, and I could tell that he was this exceptional leader. But it wasn’t until about seven months later that I knew it would be about him. I didn’t even know that this would be a story about coming home from war until I learned of his injury.

There are these incredible acts of bravery that happen in the battlefield, but no one feels like a hero when they get back. They were just doing their job, trying to keep their friends alive and get home alive. And so when we apply this label of hero, it doesn’t fit for them. It’s hard for them to reconcile that role as a hero, because most of them don’t feel that way.

I think — maybe not consciously at the time, but looking at the film now that it’s finished — we’re so accustomed to seeing heroes in our war films that when we don’t see that, it contradicts things we think are real.

Feeney: You started out as a combat photographer, then made an Oscar-nominated documentary film, and now you’re working on a project called Condition One — an iPad app that gives viewers a 180 degree view of the action. What’s propelled you though this series of different mediums, from still photographs to interactive video?

Dennis: It’s an evolution. It began with this one book called Inferno by James Nachtwey. He’s this legendary war photographer, and I remember when I first opened that book I could only look at about 10 pages at a time. The images were just seared into my mind. It was the first time I saw what evil actually looked like and could begin to comprehend the level of injustice that happened in these wars. So I wanted to follow in that tradition of bearing witness to try to prevent it from happening in the future.

I had been working as a stills photojournalist, and my images were getting published, but I felt like they were losing their impact, that society was numb to these images, that we had been at war for so long that they no longer shook people from their indifference. I moved into filmmaking to try to convey the reality that was there, and that’s the same reason I’m moving into a new medium. Film is limited; it’s still this flat screen. So I’m hoping to combine photojournalism and filmmaking with new technology to create these immersive experiences to get us even closer to really understanding someone else’s human experience. It’s an experiment in trying to come up with a new visual language that is looking to new technologies to better express ourselves.

Feeney: How does it work?

Dennis: There’s a huge shift towards mobile and tablet, everyone is developing their apps, but they’re simply putting their existing content onto these devices and then failing to innovate and failing to capture an audience. Failing to move people. We want to offer the tools and technology and the platform so that they can maximize the capabilities. We see these tactile devices as an entirely new way to tell a story. The transitions that are happening now are on the same scale as when radio was transitioning to television. At first, they simply recorded radio shows and put them on the television. But it was a different medium and they had to come up with a different language. I think we’re at that same point now, where we’re moving towards these mobile and tablet devices but there hasn’t been a new visual language adapted yet. So we’re still at the very beginning of this.

The rapid pace of technological change is extremely exciting. Even from the original iPad 1 to the iPad 2, they added gyroscopes which enabled a very different experience of the Condition One technology. On the first iPad you could only move the image by touching it. But with the gyroscope, you can simply move the device in any direction and it creates this virtual window into this video. It’s extremely intuitive and at the same time very new. It also presents some great challenges. The way you tell an effective story and maintain a high level of narrative with that interactivity — this is a challenge. The syntax and the grammar is only just being developed.

Feeney: Two Western journalists were killed in Syria this week; colleagues of yours have been killed in Libya and Afghanistan — why risk your life to report on war?

Dennis: Someone needs to tell these stories of pain and suffering from these very dangerous areas or they’ll continue in darkness. That’s how horror is allowed to spread — either we don’t know about it, or we’re indifferent to it. I think good journalism can shake people from that.

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  • Anonymous

    Amazing technology used in a powerful and moving way.  I sincerely hope it will have an impact on  “old school” TV technology, media spin/brainwashing that help create and perpetuate these despicable wars. I’m afraid that low tech flag waving still trumps even the latest technology.

  • Anonymous

    After reading/watching the “Hell and Back Again” segment, I took the time to view the now 5 year old interview with Christian Parenti. Talk about deja vu. Here it is 2012 and we are making the same basic mistakes wrt Afghan sensibilities and religion as we were making back then. That’s like 5 years of recruiting rural Afghans into the Taliban … and somehow we have the nerve to  say that we are winning this war? Have we learned absolutely nothing? It certainly seems that way. And now Obama/Panetta want a ‘face-saving’ and ‘honourable’ withdrawl. You really have to wonder what planet the are on.

  • Veritas

    I recently read quotes from US troops currently/recently serving in Afghanistan.  It’s telling that they refer to  their theatre of duty as “VIETSTAN.”

    As a twice-wounded, permanently disabled Vietnam veteran, student of domestic politics and History, and one who has traveled to 30 countries – many in the Middle East, and who lived in Iran, I concur with critics of our continued presence there. 

    Apparently unlike many Americans, however, I also am aware of the underlying causes of the events that led us to attack Afghanistan after 9/11, particularly our uncritical support for, or at least ineffective influence on, Israel’s hard-liners who are manifestly stalling implementation of a just two-state solution.  I am saddened and worried for the viability of my nation and, particularly, my 11 yr. old son’s future, when I realize that our policymakers, especially three-of-the-four Republican presidential candidates, and those of both parties who seem to be willing to risk the suicide of their own nation for what they perceive is the interests of the citizens of Israel.

    For those who consider Ron Paul’s views on a wise contemporary foreign policy “extreme,” I suggest reading Paul Kennedy’s prescient, RISE AND FALL OF THE GREAT POWERS, included among them, the United States of America!  Published in 1989, you would think it was written in 2012 . 

    I only hope Reason prevails (as evidenced by the Obama administration’s preference for dialog with and sanctions against Iran vis-a-vis the Republican sabre-rattlers’ reckless calls for military action) and that the U.S. navigates this difficult world using example, suasion, economic incentives, etc, i.e., soft power, to achieve principled ends.

  • http://profiles.google.com/dancewater2 dancewater water

    I would like to see war movies and war books done from the point of view of civilians.  I think putting the fighters front and center is a big reason that war is romanticized in the USA.  What we need is a clear understanding of what our wars of aggression are doing to the INNOCENT people who are not picking up weapons and just trying to live their lives.

    People in the US military made choices.  Children in Afghanistan and Iraq had no choice.

  • Gjrobins

    The American People must finally awaken and face facts:  as long as the military is a voluntary service, meaning that a small fraction of the populace suffers the burden of political decisions made by politicians, in most cases, whose own children  do not serve (vs. e.g., the British Royal Family, whose sons, as a matter of tradition and honor, also serve in the military, even in combat roles, as in the recent past and currently is one of Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s sons (Wm/Harry? is serving in a front-line  combat role in Afghanistan while the other is (also?) a combat helicopter pilot), there will never be sufficient opposition to preemptive, ill-conceived, and self-destructive military interventionism that has characterized much of US military involvement overseas since WWII.

    Ron Paul has it right-  about this subject, and more! – the policymakers (the neo-con sabre-rattling armchair warriors, i.e. the likes of Cheney, Wolfowitz, Pearl, and currently Romney, Gingrich, and Santorum, et. al. who want to send Americans – OTHER THAN THEIR OWN FAMILY MEMBERS -into combat, then abide by the U.S. Constitution and require a legal declaration of war, institute an equitable draft (and don’t forget to observe the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, e.g., women, e.g. Pres. Geo.W. Bush’s daughters, college students, “fortunate sons” like Geo. W. Bush, must be drafted and serve in combat too, and simultaneously put the entire US economy on a war footing, e.g with fuel rationing, etc.

    PS- Wars notwithstanding, Rep. Charles Rangle et. al. are correct: America’s youth and our entire nation would benefit by legislating min. two-year compulsory national service, at least one yr. of it military basic training and specialized M.O.S.(military occupational specialty),  schooling immediately  upon graduation from high school/upon reaching age 18.  A h.s. diploma notwithstanding, G.E.D. achievement is available – and should be compulsory for h.s. dropouts – while completing the compulsory two yr. national service citizenship duty.

  • leftofcenter

    Part of the problem is admitting which war is justified and which one isn’t. Intl. law says that the Iraq and Afghan wars are illegal. How many times do we see politicians (many of whom are lawyers) back Israel’s siege of Gaza no matter what? Watch almost sports event, and what commercials do you see? War video games, spots for the military and others. There’s even a “survive nuclear war” reality series.

    If you criticize any of this, what are the usual responses:

    “Entertainment” is a business.
    If you don’t like it. turn it off. No one’s forcing you to watch.
    If you dare to criticize the president and these wars, you’re “unpatriotic”.

    If you really believe in a war being justified, then why not show what’s really happening? If your answer is there are issues of “good taste” involved, then please that to the vets and civilians who are injured, damaged for life or killed.

  • leftofcenter

    Another part of the problem is the “we must get that million dollar shot or soundbite” to gurantee ratings. Be honest for a second. If you’re a news editor and your station/network’s ratings are down, which will you go with? Another boring standup shot that’s done on the terrace of some hotel in a safe zone? Or, a closeup of the reporter trying not to get killed on the front line?

  • Unsanitorial

    “Hunger Games” is being compared to the Japanese hit “Battle Royale” when it should actually be compared with “Koni.” All three are about child soldiering. Actually, I would not be surprised to find out “hunger Games” has been partially underwritten by our National Security State apparatus.  Digital trash like “Act of Valor” pales as a recruiting tool beside it. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000902612186 Fred Cata


  • Steve

    No need to say anything because you said it all, and said it right.