Directed by Danfung Dennis. PG. 88 min. Opens Aug. 24 at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.
The front lines and the home front bleed together in Hell and Back Again, which is one of the most arresting documentaries produced about America’s military adventures in the aftermath of 9/11. Directed by photojournalist Danfung Dennis and splendidly edited by Fona Otway, the film—which was nominated for this year’s Best Documentary Oscar—narrows its focus to the experiences of a single man: Sergeant Nathan Harris, a North Carolina native who is wounded in combat and forced to return home.
The difficulty Harris has making the adjustments from dawn-light firefights to afternoon trips to Walmart is the crux of Hell and Back Again, and Dennis manages the difficult feat of remaining journalistically unobtrusive while bringing plenty of style to the material. It’s rare for a documentary to take place in two time periods simultaneously, but there are instances where the combat footage—gleaned during the director’s stint with Harris’ unit in Afghanistan—is used in a flashback capacity. (The film also gets inside Harris’ head with some elaborately manipulated sound design.) The technique doesn’t feel like it’s being imposed recklessly, however. The back-and-forth structure helps convey the idea that a person’s experiences transcend geographical distance.
The scenes between Harris and his wife, Ashley, who does her best to help him in his transition and obviously loves him very much, are variably intense and sad, and Dennis is good about giving her some dimension as a documentary subject as well, with her own set of hopes and fears. Hell and Back Again doesn’t open up its topic politically, and it’s arguable that its themes have been addressed elsewhere (like in the last section of The Hurt Locker), but it’s an impressive, empathetic, and effective piece of non-fiction filmmaking all the same.