One of the best documentaries of last year (an after the fact statement backed up by its Academy Award nomination and a successful showing at Hot Docs 2011), Hell and Back Again finally gets a belated Toronto release and the work of photojournalist Danfung Dennis still stands head and shoulders above most other verite styled films released in its wake. This apolitical look at one man’s struggle to readapt to civilian life following a harrowing, life altering experience in Afghanistan has an uncomfortable and visceral impact on the viewer that will leave them stunned and in awe of what they’ve just witnessed.
Told through two separate timelines masterfully cut together by editor Fiona Ottway, Dennis follows 25 year old American Marine Sergeant Nathan Harris, both on the ground as a dutiful soldier who questions his job overall but not the value of his being there and back home in North Carolina following his honourable discharge after a horrific assault nearly claims his life (which Dennis was on hand to capture in the film’s not to be missed opening ten minutes). Overseas, Harris lives in constant fear and confusion from locals who see his unit as a nuisance while wondering when they will find themselves once again pinned down. Back home, Harris has enormous emotional and physical pain that he goes through every day that might even be worse.
Hell and Back Again isn’t the story of the nature of war or an academic treatise on the pluses and minuses, but rather a fly on the wall look at one young man’s journey into a darker aspect of human life than the one he originally signed up for by fighting for his country. It’s hard at times to tell where the actual “hell” of the film’s title really begins, but while the embedded journalistic elements are straightforward, they find ways to eerily parallel the present hardship Nathan and his supportive, but undeniably stressed wife Ashley is feeling. Through a creative use of sound editing, the sounds of battle transition along with Ottway’s work as an editor and Dennis’ work as a top notch visual stylist to form almost what amounts to Nathan’s interior monologue. It’s not an easy sight to take watching Nathan break down simply from being put on the spot at a fast food drive thru, but as it transitions excellently back to his previous experiences it all becomes perfectly clear why he can’t deal with even life’s simplest of pressures. Sequences like these are the reason the film deserves the big screen release it’s finally getting here since Dennis’ scope, craft, and technique need to be experienced on the largest canvas possible to be fully appreciated.
The relationship between Nathan and Ashley drives most of the second half of the film, and that’s when Dennis’ work as a documentarian ascends to levels of true greatness. Ashley can only watch as her husband grows progressively worse and his demons begin to push him towards suicidal thoughts. The final thirty minutes of the film are likely as harrowing as anything audiences will see in any fictional film that tries to terrify audiences. What makes it even harder to handle is that viewers will immediately identify even in these times of hardship that neither Nathan or Ashley has done anything wrong. It’s the heartbreaking capture of a slow descent. It doesn’t make for entirely happy viewing and there’s no way to not end it on an ambiguous note, but it’s quite exhilarating.