At 23, Danfung Dennis bought a one-way ticket to Kabul to work as a freelance photojournalist and cover the war in Afghanistan, and eventually landed assignments for The New York Times and Newsweek.
By 2009, he’d decided the still image couldn’t convey the gravity and emotional impact of war on those that experience it. So, he built a custom camera rig for his digital SLR and filmed the front line action in a way that would render the harsh realities of the battle with uncomfortable intimacy, and grab the waning attention of an American public seemingly desensitized to the far away conflict.
The resulting documentary, Hell and Back Again, gives viewers a terrifyingly intimate view of the battlefield and the psychological toll it takes on one soldier, 26-year-old Sgt. Nathan Harris (pictured) of U.S. Marines Echo Company, by cutting back and forth between the war and his life in North Carolina upon returning home to recover from an injury. A technically impressive and surreal cinematic experience, the film won the World Cinema Grand Jury Award for Documentary and a cinematography prize and has earned the first-time director an Oscar nomination. (New Video’s Docurama Films picked up the North American distribution rights and PBS acquired the TV window.)
Despite all the industry accolades, filmmaking isn’t on Dennis’ radar in the immediate future. Last year, he and three business partners co-founded the tech start-up Condition ONE to create an “immersive,” virtual reality-esque application for tablet devices that allows users to scroll around video footage with a wider field of vision. The app, available to download for free, is the latest step in his quest to give viewers a more visceral and meaningful connection to images on screen. Aside from video journalism and documentary, he also sees applications for the technology in scripted film, large-scale events and advertising.
Ahead of the Oscars this weekend, Dennis spoke with realscreen about war reporting, blurring documentary and narrative film techniques, and his future in the tech field.
What have you been working on post-Hell and Back Again?
I’ve been working at a technology start-up called Condition ONE. We’ve been developing immersive video applications to create a new type of technology to immerse viewers into stories. We’ve developed that app, also named Condition ONE, and we’ve created this video where you can move the device in any direction and it knows which way it’s tilting and pointing, and as you move the device, the video changes and you feel like you are looking around inside a video as it’s playing. We’re trying to create a sensation of actually being there.
Why did you start the company?
I’d moved from stills photography into filmmaking because I wasn’t able to convey those experiences in a still image. While in a feature-length film I could convey much more narrative and complexity of story, I was still [working with] a traditional frame and I wanted to go beyond that. I wanted to remove that emotional gap between a flat surface and someone watching it and now start merging the power of the still image, with narrative filmmaking with virtual reality.
Listening to you describe moving from still photography to documentary to this tech start-up, I’m sensing a kind of perennial dissatisfaction. Is that something that drives you and the work you do?
It’s not dissatisfaction, it is a natural evolution. It’s borrowing different mediums and now being able to merge them to hopefully create a new visual language to express what someone else is experiencing and share that. It’s still in its very beginning stages. We’re just beginning to learn the grammar and the syntax of how to tell an effective story. We do hope that the next generation photojournalists or filmmakers will be able to have new tools and technologies to be able to tell their stories.
Are you still working as a photojournalist and filmmaker in addition to this endeavor?
I’m 120% engaged in Condition ONE.
How do you feel about the Oscar nomination?
It’s certainly surreal. I’m only beginning to comprehend the scale and scope of what it means. The Oscars are the furthest thing away from the deserts of Afghanistan, which is where I’ve spent most of my adult years working. I’m going in with a very open frame of mind to learn about the tradition of what the Academy stands for and am just incredibly excited. It’s a tremendous honor and opportunity to engage a wider audience with the film.
How big an audience would you say the film has had thus far? There is a lot of imagery in it that would seemingly hold it back from a wide commercial release.
It’s a difficult film to get people to see. We’ve been at war for over 10 years and a lot of people are tired. It’s a lot easier to look away from this war that’s distant and far away and think it’s some complex insurgency that doesn’t touch our daily lives. It’s when we forget about that young Marine bleeding in the dust, that child that’s been caught in the crossfire or the parents burying their children, we deny their pain and we, in essence, deny their humanity. So I think it’s just important that we remember that this country is at war and it’s something that will affect us in ways that we don’t quite understand.
In what ways did making this film challenge your personal assumptions about the war?
I first went to war when I was 23 and I had this romantic, glorified version of war in my head that, I think, is ingrained deeply in young men by the movies, photos and by even the statues that we have representing war. I was trying to match those images when I first went but as I spent more years working I realized war is completely different; it’s pain and suffering and losing your friends. That representation of war isn’t replicated nearly as many times. We see far fewer images of the long-lasting consequences of war.
Something that’s stayed constant through the ages of this ancient human behavior is the storytelling that happens afterwards. It generally focuses on the very heroic actions that happen on the battlefield. There is immense bravery that happens on the battlefield but that’s just a tiny part of what it actually means to be at war. I realized that the experience of war isn’t simply what happens in combat but everything else and I tried to bring that into this film by looking at what it means to come home from war. What are the psychological impacts, not only on the combatants, but on the civilians and the families of military members? I was hoping to give something more honest and more real.
What do you think about war movies, such as The Hurt Locker, that use genre conventions to tell stories about war in order to reach a mass audience? Do you think there’s merit to that approach?
I’m very interested in that space between narrative and documentary. There are many films that explore that. We now have these tools to start borrowing from the language of once separate types of filmmaking. With documentary, we now have the camera technology to create cinematic images that match the visual representations from narrative films. I feel like there is a crossover where narrative films borrow from documentary films to give them a grittier, real feel. Documentary films are now able to go that other direction and borrow from narrative films.
Now there’s this space in between where this question of ‘Is this real?’ comes up and I think when someone can transcend that place where they’re so immersed in the story, they actually feel like they’re there. We as filmmakers achieve something when we’ve conveyed an emotion.
How did you borrow from narrative film techniques when making Hell and Back Again?
I built a custom camera system based on the Canon 5D Mark II. It’s a stills camera that was never designed to shoot feature-length films but it had this incredibly powerful censor in it that could create these beautiful images. I could, for the first time, bring the ethics of photojournalism, of simply being an observer, and combine that with the narrative of film to create an immersive, visceral experience.
That camera system was mounted on a quad cam set-up and was balanced in such a way that I could be running as the Marines were running and still get these relatively smooth tracking shots. Tracking shots are normally only associated with narrative films. They usually required very large, heavy set-ups and give a sense of fluidity that documentary is not normally associated with.
Also, the dreamy sequences where Sgt. Nathan Harris is having these auditory hallucinations seem inspired by narrative cinema, especially in terms of the sound design. Did that come from your cinematic influences?
Sgt. Nathan Harris and I never actually sat down and talked about individual scenes, whether he was experiencing those [hallucinations] or not. I had to borrow from my own experiences of coming home from war; that sense of complete isolation, disorientation and emotional numbness from the rest of society that had no idea what I’d just seen or had been through. I tried to convey those feelings through sounds and through certain editing techniques.
I would take very emotional sounds like crying or war-like sounds of metal grinding, all recorded in the field, and slow those down to 2% or 4%. At those speeds they would create these low drones that underlay certain scenes and convey some of that numbness and disorientation. I also used that as a way to transition between the terrifying normalcy of North Carolina with the battlefield and the life-and-death-world of Afghanistan.
What did Nathan Harris think of those sequences in the film?
He never saw much of the footage of the film while it was in editing. He trusted me to tell his story. He was the first one along with his wife Ashley to see the film and I was very nervous as to what they were going to think of it. It was very emotional for them watching it. Ashley had tears streaming down her face but at the end when the lights came up they looked at each other and said it was perfect. And I just felt this flood of relief that they felt this was an honest portrayal of what they went through.
What sequences in the film are you most proud of?
There are a lot of highly-technical scenes that never made it into the movie. I had the privilege and honor of working with the editor, Fiona Otway, and there were certain scenes that did not advance the story. They’d be two, three minute-long tracking sequences where I had to use intense concentration to be running yet keeping the subjects in focus and the shots smooth. I knew how difficult they were to achieve so it was very, very painful in the end to cut them out.
More painful than shooting them?
A different type of pain.
Do you have a future as a filmmaker?
I’ve just been really following this natural evolution of trying to communicate and express human emotions and so I’m very interested in technology and storytelling and the intersection between them. Right now, I’m fully engaged in this tech start-up and definitely less on the film side. It feels like a natural trajectory. In the near future, it’s hard to say where I’ll be.