Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Final Five

The Academy Award Nominees for Best Documentary Feature were announced and it is down to 5...
"If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front" (Netflix)
"Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory"
Hell and Back Again
Let's look at Hell and Back Again...Director Danfung Dennis is a war photojournalist, covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2006. Hell and Back Again, his first feature-length documentary, focuses on the war in Afghanistan and life back home with a wounded and very angry soldier. What makes Hell and Back Again so mesmerizing is that the footage is brutally real and immersive.

Danfung Dennis followed a Marine infantry unit based out of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Dennis captures the Marines commander on film reminding the troops that, "we are experts in the application of violence." The Marines know that they will be in close-combat, but clumsily board the massive helicopter that will drop them deep into enemy territory without comment, much less complaint.

We meet Sergeant Nathan Harris, 27, who joined the Marines at 18 with the disturbing desire to kill. Through the spectacular camera work of Dennis, we follow the infantry soldier deep into battle where he is badly wounded by those he sought to destroy. Through brilliant flashbacks and crosscutting by editor Fiona Otway we learn that after three deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan and a marriage to aggrieved but tender-hearted Ashley, Nathan is beginning to see the complexities of war and the consequences of his choices. However much he wanted to be a Marine -  a grunt - Harris now unequivocally knows, war is a peculiar hell that follows you back home. Take a look.

(For those reading on email go to You Tube or click

One of the few quasi-zen moments in the film comes at a most unexpected time as Harris is lying wounded on the field willing himself to breathe.  He explains that he didn't know if he would live or die, but he looked upward to the sky and told himself, You're going home. Keep breathing. Breathe slow. BREATHE.

Whether it's due to physical pain, PTSD, a troubled upbringing or damaged self-identity, Harris seems to possess a troubling fondness for gun play and video game violence. He poses with guns for online media and  plays a disquieting game of roulette, pointing his weapon at his young wife. Another time, he teaches his reluctant wife to load and shoot, telling her that North Carolina is a castle state, she can even shoot through the door, just not in the back. Before they say their prayers together, he demonstrates his gun ritual. "I put one in the chamber like that. I put it on my right side with the pistol grip pointing out... and all I have to do is flip off the safety. Done."Washington Post critic Michael O'Sullivan suggests that Harris is "forever carrying around a piece of unexploded ordnance in his head."

Young people thinking of enlisting should watch this film. Anyone who loves a soldier should see this film. And parents should see the film to learn more about our young soldiers, their impossible missions and preposterous interactions with the people of Afghanistan.  THEY DON'T WANT US THERE. That's clear.

See the film if you are a documentary filmmaker. I promise that you will marvel at how Dennis was able to accomplish the absurdly problematic task of filming under fire. It gives new meaning to the term "run and gun." See below for a list of equipment used by Dennis.
Nathan, now 27, is recovering from his serious gunshot wound to the hip, as Ashley tries to quiet his rage and help him readjust to civilian life. BREATHE NATHAN. BREATHE.

Danfung Dennis used a DSLR Canon 5D Mark II with Canon lens 24-70mm f2.8 with ND filters and ND faders. This has a CMOS sensor with outstanding ISO sensitivity. Yes, manual focus. This guy is VERY GOOD! Academy Award good.
Audio - He used external Sennheiser ME66 Shotgun and Sennheiser G2 Wireless microphones, a camera mounted Juiced Link (DS214) preamp and recorded onto the 5D.
In looking for a great photo of his film package, I came across a Documentary Tech article (great blog) with lots more info on all this.

Support your local Film Festivals! Beaufort International Film Festival gets underway Feb 15-19th, 2012. Great folks and great fun.

Charleston International Film Festival is celebrating their 5th year and they will open on April 11, 2012 and run until April 15th. They have terrific theaters lined up and it should be a terrific time. Great after parties hosted by Brian and Summer in a great party town.

What is your favorite film festival? I'd like to hear from you, so please drop a comment. 

Thanks for reading. Welcome new followers. I'm so glad that you are here.