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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