Saturday 15 October 2011

Homecoming: "Hell and Back Again"

After the heavy-duty bombardments of Restrepo and Armadillo, you could be forgiven for suffering from Gulf War Documentary Fatigue (GWDF), or at least a feeling of over-exposure to scenes of men in fatigues standing about fields hearing complaints from men in robes about the brusque treatment meted out to their crops and livestock: such petty border disputes have been the abiding images of the conflict in Afghanistan, as observed by our documentarists. This year's Sundance documentary prize-winner, Danfung Dennis's Hell and Back Again, features its fair share of this, certainly, but actually appears to proceed as an investigation of one of the most striking images in Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker: that of a military man on leave, finding himself ill-at-ease in the aisles of a well-stocked supermarket.

The film charts the homecoming of one Sergeant Nathan Harris, on indefinite leave at his North Carolina abode after being shot in the hip during an ambush in southern Afghanistan in the summer of 2009. A garrulous, engaging character, Harris enters said supermarket on a mobility scooter, flashing his stitches (and, as he phrases it, his "buttcrack") to the elderly female greeter as he passes. Thereafter, Dennis crosscuts between the grunt work Harris completed on the frontlines before his injury - very sharply and eloquently recorded, the photojournalism on display several clicks north of the point-and-shoot functionality of its documentary predecessors - and his life back in the States, as he adapts to a newly challenging set of routines (shopping, physio, medical appointments), and we notice the contrast between the sharp, focused warrior Harris and the doped-up walking wounded he's become.

Occasionally, Dennis insists, a form of slippage occurs between these two states. A round of Call of Duty blurs with footage of Harris in the midst of non-virtual carnage. The chaos of a drive-thru order sparks flashbacks to an incident when Harris's troop first came under fire. And during a conversation between Harris and his physician, the sound mix drops out from beneath them both, as though shellshock were setting in all over again. These are the film's most contentious choices: we're well aware that Harris, woozy on painkillers, might drift off like this, but how can we be sure he drifted off during this specific conversation? He appears lucid enough, to look at him, and doesn't subsequently communicate any issue to Dennis - is this mere edit-suite sophistry on the director's part?

Again, as in Armadillo, we're faced with sequences that bear the distinct imprint of reality television, as though key confrontations (those on the homefront, in particular) were being restaged before Dennis's camera: in the modern, battle-scarred world, it seems everyone is acting up, including those who've served on active duty. The film's successes are less objective than impressionistic: Hell and Back Again evokes confusion, trauma, uncertainty, the Afghan scenes stumbling onward to the moment of Harris's injury even as the soldier's recovery in Carolina is measured out in agonisingly small steps. This latter strand deals in dull aches and pains, anaesthetised sadness, benumbed poignancy: an Army memorial service, presided over by a sobbing chaplain, is another in the constant parade of reminders that America isn't going to be healed anytime soon.

There are points where Dennis's film itself appears concussed or disoriented, unable quite to comprehend what it is it is looking at, only for some bold, vivid detail to cut through the haze, or apparent artifice: the vast transparent bag of painkillers Harris is now obliged to lug around wherever he goes, the gradual revelation he's become closer to his guns than he is to his pretty, endlessly patient wife, as though to compensate for the temporary loss of power in his legs. In the figure of Sergeant Nathan Harris, who - for all the obstacles he faces - remains from first to last committed to getting back out to the front, we are presented with one of the starkest portraits the cinema has yet given us of how the expected march to victory over the Taliban has been slowed to a painful, limping shuffle.

Hell and Back Again is in selected cinemas.

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