Hell and Back Again (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)

February 12, 2012 by  

“Hell and Back Again” is a raw, real and riveting documentary worth watching!  Definitely recommended!

Images courtesy of © 2010 Danfung Dennis/Roast Beef Productions. All Rights Reserved.

TITLE: Hell and Back Again


DURATION: 88 Minutes

BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: 1080p High Definition (1:78:1), English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

COMPANY: docudrama Films/New Video


RELEASE DATE: January 24, 2012

Directed by Danfung Dennis

Produced by Danfung Dennis, Martin Herring, Mike Lerner

Executive Producer: Thomas Brunner, Gernot Schaffler

Music by J. Ralph

Edited by Fiona Otway


The Marines of Echo Company, 2nd Battallion, 8th Marine Regiment

Sergeant Nathan Harris

Ashley Harris

Currently garnering critical acclaim in theaters and film festivals across the country, HELL AND BACK AGAIN is Danfung Dennis’s first feature film and the first  ever to be shot entirely with a highly customized Canon 5D Mark II digital SLR camera rig. Despite widespread publication of Dennis’s pictures as a photojournalist for several international news outlets, he found that he was unable to convey the brutal realities on the ground – either the public was numb to these same images of war or traditional media outlets were not committed to coverage of the conflicts. This drove Dennis to explore the medium of the moving image. Whereas before he was simply making pictures with movement, now he has combined photojournalism with the tradition and narrative structure of filmmaking.

“Hell and Back Again” is a raw, real and riveting documentary worth watching!

Danfung Dennis is a photojournalist who has captured the war on Afghanistan for a variety of major news publications, but having documented the war and risking his life to show how things were in the battlefield, Danfung also knew how some people have their lives changed after coming back.

Having shot so many photos, he wanted to bring out the emotion through video and this time using a Canon 5D Mark II camera, a 35mm and 50mm lens and a rig, Danfung Dennis joined the Marines of Echo Company 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment and documented the battalion and the challenges they faced in Afghanistan (with actual footage of the soldiers dealing with civilians but also fighting against the Taliban and also taking care of soldiers who were injured in combat), but also the life of Sergeant Harris who was wounded and nearly bled to death, but was rescued and now having to deal with his injury.

But there is more to the story of “Hell and Back Again”, as the soldiers face a war in the middle east, wounded soldiers, soldiers who finished their tour of service  are facing an upward battle with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Hell and Back Again” is a documentary which was well-received by film critics and was nominated for an Academy award for for “Best Documentary Feature”.

With the permission of Sgt. Harris, Danfung Dennis was able to capture the life of Harris and his wife Ashley as he deals with his new life with new disability, medications that he is having to take to deal with the PTSD but also the challenges faced by his wife during this challenging time. But for this couple who have been together since their teens and now having to face a new life of uncertainty, the two take on their new life as they both have gone through hell and back again.


“Hell and Back Again” is a film that is rather intriguing because it is entirely shot on a Canon 5D Mark II.  Dennis was limited to the equipment he had while in Afghanistan but he made do with what equipment he had, including dealing with the camera’s limitations as well.  Bare in mind, while in Afghanistan, the camera would overheat due to the 130 degree weather but needless to say, this is fearless guerrilla filmaking at its finest.  Working with what you have, no film crew, just you and limited equipment that would allow one to run with the soldiers, hide from being shot and if anything, being mobile yet capturing everything on camera, making sure the camera was stable and using a mic that would capture the dialogue.

With that being said, Danfung learned a lot about the camera’s limitation and tried to work with it, while others, such as one scene where they are in the room starts to show some blurrying and softness, as well as some white pixelation issues, considering with the challenges that Danfung had in capturing the footage by himself, the film still looks quite impressive.  Not pristine, but still better than what I expected and I was very impressed with the final cut.

Just a sidenote that Dangfung Dennis goes into discussion about the gear used in a special feature and the audio commentary.


“Hell and Back Again” is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and yes, this film was shot on a Canon 5D Mark II camera but by no means does that mean this film doesn’t sound great on lossless because not only was Danfung able to get clear audio among the soldiers but during battle, he caught the explosions and yes, you get a fair amount of LFE.

While this is mostly used during the Afghanistan scenes, still the dialogue is clear, even stateside during the scenes focusing on the Harris family.  Good dynamic range and for the most part, once again, I was quite impressed with the soundtrack because it was much more than I expected and that’s a positive!


“Hell and Back Again” comes with the following special features:

  • Audio Commentary – Director Danfung Dennis and Editor, Fiona Otway talk about the film.  How he got away with shooting the Wal-Mart footage to answering the questions about when Sgt. Harris was holding his gun and the things he said while talking in his sleep and more.  A very good commentary although there were some areas with long stretches of silence.
  • Technical Gear Demo – (5:46) Danfung Dennis talks about the gear used for the film and the challenges he had in the making of “Hell and Back Again”.
  • Willie Nelson’s “Hell and Back” – (3:14)
  • Did You Kill Anyone? – (7:09) A family liason coordinator talking to families about how they should deal with their children/husband/relative when it comes to the war or what happened, what to say and what not to say.
  • Invisible Wounds – (4:14) A speech given to the Marines of Echo Company 2nd Battalion.
  • Collateral Damage – (3:00) A scene featuring the Marines of Echo Company 2nd Battalion having a conversation.
  • Blue Star Families PSA – (:33) A PSA for those who are injured in combat that there is an outreach group for vets who are suffering from physical and emotional problems.

With every war, there have been news and some type of media coverage about how soldiers have been affected by a war and some who have been deeply affected.

We know that there are soldiers who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder but while it’s mentioned on the news or publications, sometimes to get a message out, people need to see things visually.

And this is where I feel that Danfung Dennis ha achieved efficacy with that message is through its participants and also the juxtaposition of real life video of the soldiers in combat.

“Hell and Back Again” is risky filmmaking.  This is a one-man crew on the battlefield and with Danfung having shot the war, this time capturing the war through video and we see the raw emotions of soldiers in battle but also the emotions when one of their own is killed.

This film is not some banal Hollywood version of a war, we are seeing actual combat taking place, people dying and people reacting.

In the United States, we get to have this voyeuristic view of the Harris family and how things are not easy.  Sgt. Nathan Harris is on medication, is wounded and disabled and his wife, Ashley has to take care of him but also deal with these mood changes.

For a viewer, to see Sgt. Harris grab a pistol and aim it hold it around civilians is a scary situation.  Granted, we learn from the audio commentary that Harris is a person who loves guns but for anyone who doesn’t possess one, just seeing how one can hold a pistol in bed or on a couch and casually hold it like someone holding a cup of coffee is quite alarming.

But we know that Sgt. Harris has gone through hell and back and for both he and Ashley, as well as other families around the United States, there are soldiers suffering.

And with recent news of a few soldiers actually losing it and causing harm to others, those not taking their medication or getting any help can be problematic.   We often read of family members of these people who lose it, talking about how their relative, their son, their father was not the same when they got back from the war and it has always been a contentious issue even in past wars of how much the government should help these soldiers who are suffering.  May it be PTSD or some chemical agent they caught in battle.

What “Hell and Back Again” is able to accomplish is giving the viewer a chance to see what was going on in Afghanistan but also a personal look of the difficulties that some soldiers and their families are facing.  But also to show that there are support groups out there who are ready to help these soldiers.

If anything, this film is an eye-opener but it also has an important message which I hope soldiers and their families will watch and see.  (note: This film is unrated but its important to let people know that this is not a documentary that young children should be watching due to the profanity and also injuries that were shown).

As for the Blu-ray release, as mentioned, it was pretty cool to see a film shot entirely on a Canon 5D Mark II but also to see the guerrilla (and very risky) filmmaking involved as it was a one-man crew as Danfung Dennis was the director and camera operator.  The picture quality was very good (but also showing the limitations of this full frame DSLR) but also featuring a lossless soundtrack which was much better than I was expecting.   Also, there are special features that were good and in-depth, especially the audio commentary and the technical gear featurette.

Overall, “Hell and Back Again” is a film that not many people can make.  The U.S. military doesn’t usually allow people to go and document footage for a film, but in this case, Danfung Dennis has the experience of capturing images of war for news publications.  This time around, we get a first hand look of what he experienced with the Marines of Echo Company 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment.

Also, not many military families will allow someone to come into their home and document their lives.  This took a lot of trust in the Harris family’s part but they trusted in Danfung Dennis to show how post-traumatic stress disorder is affecting soldiers and the challenges that these two are facing but yet, two people who still love each other no matter what.

“Hell and Back Again” is a raw, real and riveting documentary worth watching!

Definitely recommended!

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