A Spotlite on Oscar-Nominated Documentarian DANFUNG DENNIS

By Tyler Malone

February 2012

If you take an honest picture of war, it’s an anti-war picture.”
- James Nachtwey

That’s the line documentarian Danfung Dennis said to me as part of an extraordinary answer to my question about the politics of his Oscar-nominated film Hell And Back Again. I brought up Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, as I had when I interviewed another photohournalist, Tim Hetherington, about his Oscar-nominated documentary Restrepo just before he died about a year ago. As with Hetherington, I was surprised yet satisfied to discover that Kurt Vonnegut’s book hadn’t been far from Dennis’ mind either.

The image from the book that stuck with Danfung Dennis is that stunning display of missiles in reverse, reassembling from the explosions and flying back up into their planes, which Vonnegut describes from watching a war film played backwards. It’s an image that has a lot to do with Hell And Back Again, which is a brilliant rumination upon the psychological aftereffects of war. The film follows one specific soldier, Sergeant Nathan Harris, wounded just before his return home, and examines how he copes with his return to America, the land of shoppers. In that sense, Hell And Back Again resembles that one great scene from The Hurt Locker, where Jeremy Renner’s character stands in the cereal aisle of a supermarket and is overwhelmed by it all. Danfung Dennis has taken that scene–the moment in the fictional Hurt Locker that rang the most true–and as though it were salt water taffy, he’s pulled on it and stretched it to make a feature-length film. It gives that psychological moment of a soldier lost in a world he once knew, filled with its inherent isolation and alienation and desperation, all its necessary poetry. The film explores what it means for a soldier to return home from the frontlines, and deal with both the physical and mental wounds that war has saddled him with.

I skyped with Danfung Dennis after he got back from the Oscar luncheon, an experience he called “quite surreal,” and just about as opposite an undertaking as one could imagine from photographing on the frontlines in Afghanistan.

Tyler Malone: I saw you just tweeted the picture of all the nominees from the Oscar luncheon–and you’re at the very center of the picture underneath the giant Oscar statuette! Brad Pitt is way over in the back, at the side. How did that happen that you got to be the center of attention?

Danfung Dennis: [He chuckles] That’s right, that’s right. I was looking a little dazed and confused, so the usher told me to just sit right there, and I did.

TM: Fair enough. So why don’t we start by you tell me a little bit about Hell And Back Again and how it happened that you were embedded with these troops in Afghanistan in 2009.

DD: Sure. I had been working as a photojournalist, mostly for Newsweek and The New York Times, since 2006 in Iraq and Afghanistan. My images were being published, but I felt like they were losing their impact. After so many years of war, it seemed like society had become numb to these pictures, so I wanted to move into a new medium. So that’s when I started shooting video with a camera system and a rig that I built, based around a Canon 5D Mark II.

In July of 2009, I became aware of a very large operation in southern Afghanistan where 4,000 marines were going to be dropped behind enemy lines in to Helmand Province. This was going to be the largest air assault since Vietnam. I was embedded with Echo company 28 of the second Marine division, and they went 18 kilometers into this stronghold and were dropped by helicopter where they moved into a small village. Shortly after landing we were surrounded by insurgents and attacked in a very intense battle. This battle focused around this pile of rubble that became known as Machine Gun Hill. This is where on the first day one marine was killed, over a dozen collapsed from exhaustion, and we had all run out of water.

That’s when Sergeant Nathan Harris passed me his bottle of water. This was when we first met. I could immediately tell he was an exceptional leader, and very experienced. So I followed his platoon as they pushed further into this stronghold. And I got to know him quite well.

But I didn’t know it was going to be a story about just one man until about seven months later when I was back in North Carolina waiting for the marines that were returning to get off the buses for a reunion with their families. It was this very emotional homecoming, with the families embracing their sons. I quickly realized that Nathan didn’t step off the bus. So I asked some of the other men, “Where’s Sergeant Harris?” They said he had been hit two weeks before and was medevaced out.

I called him up, and he was just being released from a naval hospital. He had undergone multiple surgeries and was in quite a bit of pain, as well as distress from having left his men behind. Yet he still invited me up to his town of Yadkinville, North Carolina. That’s where he introduced me to his friends and family, and his wife Ashley. He would say, “This guy was out there with me.” So instantly I was accepted into this rural Baptist community, and essentially lived with Nathan and Ashley during his transition back into a society that had very little understanding of what he had been through.

TM: So when was the exact moment that you knew that the movie would be about Sergeant Harris? Was it at the bus? Or sometime before or later?

DD: It was at that moment by the bus when I realized that he had been shot. I knew that the story would continue in a very different way. I didn’t know this was going to be a story about coming home from war until that moment. I just felt I had to continue down that path.

TM: Now I wasn’t as big a fan of Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker as a lot of people, but there was one great scene that I think everyone raves about, including myself. It’s that scene where the main character is in a supermarket and he’s overwhelmed by the cereal aisle. I feel like what you’ve done here intentionally or not is to take that scene and expand it into a whole feature-length documentary, to explore it from different angles, and take it in different directions. Does that description resonate with you?

DD: I agree with you in general about The Hurt Locker, including that there was really just that one scene that does resonate. So, yeah, I think that that was an area that hadn’t really been explored much–the psychological trauma of the return home. We’ve seen a lot of what the battlefield looks like–whether it’s incorrect or correct. Most of the time it’s sort of this falsified, romantic, heroic version that we think war looks like. The return home though, especially in documentaries, isn’t something we usually see, because it is something that’s very personal, and very psychological, and something that’s difficult to get a glimpse into. There are these psychological invisible wounds that are harder to detect. I think it is really only because of all the time I had previously spent with Nathan in Afghanistan that he let me back into his life, and was willing to show me all the darker sides of what coming home from war entails.

TM: What was Nathan’s reaction upon seeing the film? And what was his wife’s reaction?

DD: They hadn’t seen much of the footage until it was absolutely finished. They had to simply trust me to tell their story. They were the first ones to see it; we watched it in a screening room, just the three of us. I was very nervous as to what they were going to think. It was very emotional for them to watch it. These were very traumatic moments.

At the end of it, when the lights came up, there were tears streaming down Ashley’s face. They just looked at each other and kept saying, “It was perfect!” I felt this flood of relief come over me knowing that they felt this was an honest portrayal of what they were going through.

Nathan does have one complaint. The film is only 90 minutes, and he says it should be 30 hours.

TM: How many hours of footage did you have?

DD: Probably over 100 hours. One third of which was probably Afghanistan, and the other two thirds from North Carolina. I was in Afghanistan for seven months, but there were a lot of constraints of working in the field with this technology.

TM: I can imagine. Now I know you kind of built your own camera system, could you tell me about that?

DD: Yeah. I wanted to transfer the aesthetics and the methods of photojournalism and combine it with the narrative aspects of film. The Canon EOS 5D Mark II allowed me to do that. It was a small, compact camera, with very high image quality, but there were all these downsides. It was, first of all, never intended to shoot a feature-length film, so the audio and stabilization all had to be corrected with a rig that I built. It had the sound equipment and the camera mounted on to a steadycam-like device. This allowed me to be running and the marines to be running, but to still get these great steady tracking shots (which are normally more associated with a narrative film).

Also, the camera would just overheat after a couple of minutes of continuous shooting in that 130 degree Afghan heat. It would just shut off, and there was really nothing I could do about it.

TM: Last year, just before the Oscars, I interviewed Tim Hetherington, a photojournalist and filmmaker whose documentary Restrepo was nominated for Best Documentary at the Oscars a year ago. It ended up actually being one of the last interviews he did before he died in Libya. And one of the things we talked about was the politics behind his documentary Restrepo–and we went on a bit of a tangent discussing Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. In that book, Vonnegut discussed the futility of writing an anti-war book. He says it is as useful as writing an anti-glacier book. But then, of course, Vonnegut goes ahead and writes an anti-war book. Slaughterhouse Five can, at least on one level, be read as such. I’m wondering what you think of the political context of your film? Do you consider it an anti-war film?

DD: I see the film as non-political, as in that it doesn’t have a left-right agenda. I think I’ve taken the approach of a photojournalist by just documenting what is in front of me and letting events unfold in front of the lens. But I have given quite a bit of thought to that really poignant scene from Vonnegut’s novel, where he has those missiles going in reverse. So they’re flying up from the houses, the houses rebuild themselves, the missiles go back into the planes, the planes land backwards, everyone unloads them, buries them deep in mountains. You get this picture of just how senseless it all is. We’re just going to such great lengths to kill our fellow human beings.

There is another line that is quite relevant to this question of yours. James Nachtwey said, “If you take an honest picture of war, it’s an anti-war picture.”

TM: That’s a great quote. I think it’s true. And I think Vonnegut would agree. Switching gears a little bit, tell me what it was like to be embedded with the troops. How did you deal with the fear, with the danger? What were your emotions?

DD: When I first went to war at 22 or 23, I was terrified. I had no training and no experience. I just had to learn as I went. As I got more experienced with it, I learned that the hardest part for me is actually before going. That is when I still have the option of staying somewhere safe and not taking those risks. Once you’re over that hurdle though, and on the ground working, it’s all very mechanical, it becomes second nature. It’s what you know how to do, and do well. So in very difficult situations, I simply focus on the camera.

TM: This was in the news recently, so I thought I’d ask you about it: the videos that came out about a month ago of marines urinating on dead bodies. First of all, do you think that happens a lot more than we know? And second of all, do you think that’s an inevitable by-product of these horrible situations that we put these men and women in?

DD: I think it is one of the outcomes of war. You have these incredibly dehumanizing and horrific events, and you have these, what are essentially, young boys, thrown into it. From the outside these appear horrific–and these are definitely despicable acts–but from the inside, when you’re in the situations, at the time they happen, they probably seem quite normal. I remember being embedded with a company north of Baghdad in 2008, at sort of the height of the sectarian violence, and we went on patrol. The patrol came across a beheaded head with a note on the forehead that said, “This is what happens if you work with the Americans.” The young soldiers playfully packed up the head, took it back to base, and then took pictures with it–holding it, grinning, as a war trophy.

I sent those pictures back to Newsweek at the time, and they decided not to publish them because they felt they were too incendiary. So these types of acts are more commonplace than we think because of the complete absurdity of war. It’s hard to imagine just how absurd these events are, and when they do happen, there’s no sort of rules of how you act. The moral conduct don’t sort of exist in these situations. So these acts do happen, and with the proliferation of these small cameras, we’re going to be seeing them more.

TM: In the film, though it mostly takes place after Sergeant Harris gets back to the States, you seamlessly weave back and forth between past and present, between Afghanistan and North Carolina. When did the intercutting become the way you were going to tell the story?

DD: I’ll take that in two parts. The first is the look and feel, the sort of cinematic nature of it, and then the intercutting.

It was really the technology that made me realize in the very beginning that I could shoot something really different, something that was more photographic in it’s nature, and more compelling than what existed in documentary cinematography before that, simply because the technology had advanced to the point where we could start borrowing from the language of narrative film. So even at the very early stages, when I just began filming, I was studying narrative films and asking, “Well, what is it that documentary films are lacking?” “Why was it so difficult to get that emotional impact you so often get in a narrative film?” I felt a lot of that was the cinematography. The tools that we usually associated with narrative films were now available. So I wanted to have that composition, that use of light, capturing these extended moments, and being very fluid, to give that cinematic feel.

And then to cut between the two worlds. That was sort of a process of my own. I felt that complete disorientation, that isolation, that emotional numbness, that comes with coming from a world of life and death, and blood and dust, to one where it feels like everyone is shopping. That’s very difficult to reconcile.

So it was an attempt to try to blend these two worlds together. I wanted to show that the fighting doesn’t stop when these men return home. It just continues on in a very personal and very psychological way.

TM: This is your first film: how does it feel to have your first film nominated for an Academy Award? That’s gotta feel pretty good, I imagine?

DD: It’s such an honor. I’m absolutely thrilled, and it’s so surreal. It’s probably the furthest thing away from the deserts of Afghanistan. I just got back from LA, and it’s another world.

TM: Yeah, when I interviewed Tim Hetherington, he said the exact same thing. He was going straight from my interview to try on a tux for the Oscars, and he said it was so opposite of everything that went into the filming aspect of Restrepo, being in the field, and surrounded by death and danger and the absurdity of war. Now it’s onto the absurdity of award shows.

DD: Yes, definitely. So now I’m taking it in stride, and just observing it and soaking it up, and just enjoying the ride.

TM: Do you have a next project? What else are you working on?

DD: I’m working on a tech start-up, called Condition One. This is with Peter Sung. We’re developing a new type of video technology that captures the entire human field of vision and then allows viewers on tablets to feel like they’re inside the video. They can actually move their device and look around a video as it’s playing to give them this submersive experience. So we’re licensing this video technology out to media companies that are moving content to tablets and looking for a way to innovate and capture an audience.

So we have a free app that demos the technology. That’s Condition One in the app store.

TM: My last question is one I’ve asked the other Oscar nominees I’ve interviewed this time around: Besides your own film, what was your favorite film of 2011?

DD: Hmmm…let’s see. I haven’t seen that many, but The Descendants was very powerful.

TM: Thank you, and good luck.

DD: Thanks.

Danfung Dennis is a photojournalist and documentarian. His first film, Hell And Back Again, is currently an Oscar nominee for Best Documentary.


Danfung Dennis Official Site

Condition One Official Site

Danfung Dennis interviewed by Tyler Malone

Written by Tyler Malone

Photography Courtesy of Takaaki Okada

Design by Marie Havens


Danfung Dennis, Photography Courtesy of Takaaki Okada






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