Photojournalist Danfung Dennis has captured the brutalities of the war in Afghanistan for The New York Times, Newsweek, The Guardian and The Washington Post. But as the war stretched on, he started to feel that the images were losing their impact.
"After so many years of war," he tells NPR's Neal Conan, "society's become numb to pictures of conflict, and so I felt like I had to move into a new medium to try to shake people from their indifference."
Dennis embedded with the U.S. Marines Echo Company in Afghanistan and created the documentary Hell and Back Again. The film, which was nominated for the 2012 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, follows the story of a wounded Marine. Sgt. Nathan Harris' was injured by fire from a Taliban machine gun and then struggles to transition back to life in North Carolina.
Dennis says he first met Harris on one of the worst days of fighting Dennis had experienced. One Marine had been killed the day before, a dozen had collapsed from exhaustion, and water was running low.
"That's when a Marine handed me his bottle of water, and this was Sgt. Nathan Harris. And I could tell he was this exceptional leader, completely fearless," says Dennis. "And so I followed his platoon as they pushed further into this stronghold."
Dennis says he didn't realize that Harris would be the film's central character until about seven months into filming. After Harris was injured, Dennis essentially lived with Harris and his wife, Ashley, during his recovery.
The story shifted to capture the challenges of returning from war, and Dennis says Harris openly and honestly shared his life with the camera.
"I think it's because we went through such traumatic experiences in Afghanistan that he trusted me, and I trusted him. He showed me the darker aspects of coming home, of being in the armed ... forces. We sort of went through that same struggle of coming back and trying to readjust," Dennis says.
Harris was able to stay on as an active-duty marine in the Wounded Warrior Regiment in Camp Lejeune, N.C. He continues to undergo physical therapy to regain the use of his legs. Harris, who joined the Marines at 18, continues to cope with the realization that he won't return to Afghanistan in combat.
"In a combat zone ... it's simple. You sleep, walk, fight — do it again the next day," says Dennis. "And then when you get back and you're trying to deal with complex relationships, doing your taxes, just the everyday things of life, that can almost be more difficult than being out in the field."
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.
In May 2009, the Marines 2nd Battalion of the 8th Regiment deployed to Helmand Province in Afghanistan as part of the surge ordered by President Barack Obama. As Echo Company hit the ground, they got a briefing from Lieutenant Colonel Christian Cabaniss.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "HELL AND BACK AGAIN")
LIEUTENANT COLONEL CHRISTIAN CABANISS: I want you to understand I picked you specifically to be the company that goes the furthest south in the battalion's AO. I know that you'll be able to overcome any challenge that you'll face. Some days you'll have good days, and some days you'll have bad days. But the same question I posed months ago is what should really drive your action. Is what I'm doing going to move the Afghan people closer to their government or further away?
CONAN: A film called "Hell and Back Again" follows Sergeant Nathan Harris as he and his men try to carry out those orders. We'll also follow him and his wife Ashley back home in North Carolina after he's severely injured. He remains in the military. The film is one of five nominated for best documentary feature at the Oscars this year. Last month, we spoke with the filmmakers behind "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory." There's a link to that conversation on our website at npr.org where we will also archive conversations with the directors of all of the other nominees that we're having this week.
If you came home injured from Iraq or Afghanistan, what were your options? 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Danfung Dennis both directed and filmed "Hell and Back Again." He joins us from our bureau in New York. And congratulations on the nomination.
DANFUNG DENNIS: Thank you, Neal. Thanks for having me.
CONAN: How did you end up choosing your subject, Sergeant Dennis - Sergeant Harris, excuse me.
DENNIS: I've been working in Afghanistan as a photojournalist mostly for The New York Times and for Newsweek. And even though my images were being published, I felt like they were losing their impact. After so many years of war, societies become numb to pictures of conflict, and so I felt like I had to move into a new medium to try to shake people from their indifference. And so in the summer of 2009, I was embedded with Echo Company, two-way to the 2nd Marine Division and began filming this story.
And this company was dropped 18 kilometers behind enemy lines into extremely hostile territory. It was a known insurgent stronghold. And shortly after landing, they moved into a village, and it was very quiet. Soon after that, they started taking some fire, and it increased very quickly. And soon they realized that they were surrounded, and the fighting became extremely intense, focusing around this pile of rubble that became known as Machine Gun Hill.
And after that first day, one Marine had been killed, a dozen had collapsed from exhaustion, and nearly all of us had run out of water. In my years of working there, this was one of the most dire situations I had been in. That's when a Marine handed me his bottle of water, and this was Sergeant Nathan Harris. And I could tell he was this exceptional leader, completely fearless. And so I followed his platoon as they pushed further into this stronghold. And I got to know him quite well. And so I, sort of, followed him as he went through and continued pushing into this stronghold.
CONAN: And we cut back and forth of the story of him and his men in Afghanistan and the story of him and his wife struggling to deal with his injury. He is severely injured almost as the deployment ends and, well, dealing with pain, dealing with emotional upset. He's able to stay in the Army as part of a injured warrior program.
DENNIS: Yeah. I didn't know he would actually be the central character of the film until about seven months after that operation began. And I had returned back to the U.S., and I was in North Carolina. And there was this very emotional reunion with the Marines of Echo Company reuniting with their family members. And they stepped off these buses to cheering and hugging and crying. And I soon realized that Nathan didn't get off the bus. And so I asked the men: Where's Sergeant Harris? And they said he was hit two weeks ago. He was medevaced out. And so I called him up, and he was just being released from a naval hospital. He had undergone multiple surgeries, had lost six pints of blood and had a - also, was just feeling quite guilty from having left his men behind.
Yet he invited me back up to his hometown of Yadkinville, North Carolina, and that's where he introduced me to his friends and family and his wife, Ashley. And he would say: This guy was out there with me. And so instantly, I was accepted into this rural Baptist community, and I essentially lived with Nathan and Ashley during his recovery. And even more difficult was that transition back into society that had very little understanding of what he had just been through. And so it became a story about this one man coming home from war and how difficult that struggle is.
CONAN: We're going to play an excerpt from the film. Sergeant Harris, as I think you said, is not always an easy person to like, and we listen to this quote, and people who don't grow up in the culture can recoil.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "HELL AND BACK AGAIN")
SERGEANT NATHAN HARRIS: When I was 18 years old, all I wanted to do was kill people, you know? And they used to ask me when I came into the Marine Corps, you know, why did you come in the Marine Corps? You know, why did you come into the Marine Corps Infantry? And I always told them, because I want to kill people. And they always said, you know, that's the best answer I've ever heard. That's all they want. That's, you know, that's all they ever wanted.
CONAN: You say you wanted to tell the story in a way that had more impact. A lot of people might have chosen to humanize the story. You tell the story of a very difficult man.
DENNIS: Nathan is one of the most open and honest people I've ever met. He will share everything with you. And I think it's because we went through such traumatic experiences in Afghanistan that he trusted me, and I trusted him. And so he showed me the darker aspects of coming home, of being in the armed service - forces. And we sort of went through that same struggle of coming back and trying to readjust.
And Nathan was trained from a young age to be a warrior. His dad had always wanted to be in the Marines, but never made the cut. And he trained Nathan to run, to shoot from a very young age. And he was a champion wrestler in high school and joined the Marines at the age of 18. And he did three deployments, two to Afghanistan, one to Iraq. And he was extremely gung-ho in the beginning. But as he went through these experiences, he did realize that war changes you. It changes you as a person, and he didn't have the same feelings about it leaving after that third deployment.
CONAN: We don't see that change, though. We don't see that human experience. Here's a review, a very laudatory review from a fellow photojournalist by the name of Michael Kamber that was published in The New York Times. He ends by saying, "Hell and Back Again" gives the viewer nothing back. One leaves empty, frustrated at the wait for redemption that never comes.
DENNIS: I think it's a very difficult war to make some - make it simple. The more time I spent there, the more I realized just how complex it is. And so my intention wasn't to make a left, right or a political film at all. It was simply to bare witness and convey as honestly and truthfully as I could what it felt like to go to war and what it felt like to come home.
CONAN: We want to hear from those who were injured in Iraq or Afghanistan about the options they had, and the number is 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. Mike is on the line, calling us from Lodi in Wisconsin.
MIKE: Yeah, good afternoon. When I came home - I was in Iraq from May of 2004 to March of 2005, basically - I never discovered that I had any injuries. I had lung damage from the burn pits in Balad and the other bases that I was at. And, you know, not your typical wartime injury. And I also had mental issues. And I'll second the notion that war definitely changes you because I know I was so much different when I came back.
CONAN: We're losing your phone a little bit, Mike. You're saying it changes you. You know you were different when you got back. Your options were...
MIKE: Basically, I was kind of left on my own. For one thing, I was a mid-level officer, so they don't expect you to, you know, to be - I guess officers are expected to be sort of self-sufficient. And I never discovered the mental issues until after I retired and I was going to the VA for treatment of the physical injuries and happened to be talking to one of the mental health counselors, and she referred me to one of the VA psychiatrists. And I'm actually on meds since 2009 for mental issues, and I actually have my second psychiatrist.
And so I kind of felt like, you know, the VA was my lifeline, but the military doctors kind of, I don't know, dropped the ball on me. And I know I didn't have the standard physical injuries from wartime service, but I definitely was affected by my year in the combat zone, as we called it.
CONAN: Mike, we wish you the best of luck. Thanks very much for the call.
MIKE: Yeah. Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: All right. And then, Danfung Dennis, as you were making this film, obviously, sergeant - the sergeant we're talking about, Sergeant Harris, had the opportunity to stay in the military. This is a relatively new program. But some of those issues about dealing with his injuries were all too visible. His hip was shot and his leg broken, and he will have difficulties the rest of his life. But nevertheless, some of those issues of pain and confusion and lack of center, those are familiar.
DENNIS: Yeah. I think Nathan was also dealing with the psychological aspects of coming home from war. And so, Mike, thanks for calling, and I spent some time in Balad as well, so I know how difficult that place was. And I think a lot of the injuries, the psychological ones, they're invisible. You can't see them. They're very, you know, they're not obvious like a physical injury, where you can see it immediately. And it's something that it can take months, years to actually manifest. And they come on very slowly, and you don't even realize that you're experiencing or having trouble.
And so I remember coming back from Afghanistan, and, you know, the first feelings are euphoria. You're alive. You're back. But then there's that slow creeping up of this emotional numbness where it's very difficult to connect with others. Your experiences are so different from people back living in the civilian world that it's hard to connect. That leads to the sense of isolation. And so a lot of these feelings, I wanted to translate into the film and use sound as a way for me to convey them.
I would take these very emotional sounds like crying or very metallic, war-like sounds of metal grinding, and I'll slow those down to two percent or four percent. Now those speeds, they would create this low drones, and I would underlay those under certain scenes to really give a sense of this very difficult, almost incommunicable feeling of when you come back from war and not being able to feel anything. And so I was trying to get that across in the film by using a few different techniques.
CONAN: Danfung Dennis, a photojournalist who directed and filmed "Hell and Back Again," one of the documentaries nominated for Best Documentary Feature this year at the Academy Awards. We're talking with all of the filmmakers, and there's an archive at our website, npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And there is - we mentioned the psychological difficulties. This is another clip from the film where Sergeant Harris realizes that his injury has, well, really reduced his idea of what the rest of his life would be about.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "HELL AND BACK AGAIN")
HARRIS: I knew how bad my injury was. I know about how bad it is and how hard it is for me to walk. And for months, I've tried - I've walked without a cane a couple of feet, and fallen, and gotten back up and tried again, and fallen, and gotten back up. And I'm only going to be able to get to so good. It's not like I could ever go back to machine gun hill and be able to move around and jump around and fly around and move like that, you know? That's just not going to happen. There's no way in hell that I could go out there and do that again. That's over, being a grunt's over. That's the only thing I really want to be.
CONAN: Danfung Dennis, how is Sergeant Harris doing?
DENNIS: He's still an active duty marine. He's down in Camp Lejeune in the Wounded Warriors Regiment. He's still undergoing a lot of physical therapy to try to regain the use of his legs. He uses some devices to walk, and he's still going through that psychological transition. You know, it takes a lot of time, but he has realized that he is not going back to Afghanistan as a grunt.
CONAN: And so what is he thinking about the rest of his life at this point? There's a wrenching moment in the film where we see him put a gun to his mouth.
DENNIS: I think that's the question that many face when they come back is, you know, if they leave the military, what can they do? And they're coming back to this economy that isn't that helpful, and they're skills are hard to apply to the civilian world. And so I think there's this identity crisis of - if you're not a warrior, then what are you? And being in a combat zone and having that sense of purpose and mission, a very clearly defined enemy, it's rather straightforward. It's simple. You sleep, walk, fight - do it again the next day.
And then when you get back and you're trying to deal with complex relationships, doing your taxes, just the everyday things of life that can almost be more difficult than being out in the field. And so it does take time to try to figure out how to adjust back. And I think it's easy to forget about the war, something that's easy to think of as far away, as abstraction. But when we forget that there's Marines and soldiers dying in the dust, there's civilians being caught in the crossfire, we deny their sacrifice and we deny our own humanity. And so I think it's important to remember that this country is at war and that we need to honor those that had served.
CONAN: One final question. How did you get Willie Nelson to do the song?
DENNIS: That was through Josh Ralph who was the composer for that final song. And he asked Willie if he'd do it, and he said he'd be happy to.
CONAN: Well, good luck with the Academy Awards. We wish you the best.
DENNIS: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Danfung Dennis directed and filmed "Hell and Back Again," the documentary that's up for Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards. Tomorrow, we'll talk about savings in a bank. A CD or your mattress, Americans, may not be socking enough away for a rainy day. Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.