Featured Filmmaker ~ Danfung Dennis

Danfung Dennis - Filmmaker

Written by: Shirley Baugher


“War is Hell,” William Tecumseh Sherman, a Union general during the Civil War, told a Michigan Military Academy graduating class in 1879. “I’ve been where you are now and I know just how you feel. It’s only natural that there should beat in the breast of every one of you a hope and desire that someday you can use the skill you have acquired here. Suppress it!”


One hundred thirty-two years later, Danfung Dennis, a freelance photojournalist who covered the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, echoed Sherman’s pronouncement. But he took it further. “War,” he said, “is hell and back again.” Early on, his view of war was boyish and romantic, a war based on video games and Hollywood. That view changed as he studied the honest and truthful images of war presented by great photographers: Nick Ut’s images of napalmed Vietnamese girls screaming, Eddie Adams’ shot of the street execution of a Vietcong prisoner and Don McCullin’s haunting study of a shell-shocked soldier. These images burned into Dennis’ consciousness and convinced him of the power of strong visual imagery to reveal war’s truth and to move people’s emotions.

In 2006, Danfung Dennis went to war. For four years, he crawled on his stomach and hid in ditches and behind trees to bear witness and give photographic testimony. In the summer of 2009, Dennis joined 4,000 U. S. Marines who were airlifted down into the Taliban-controlled Helmand River Valley in Afghanistan, the so-called “Fishhook”. It was to be a crucial battle of the war. Dennis wanted to record it by going beyond the still photographs taken by his predecessors and bringing the war home to the American public in a way that had never been done before. He didn’t want them to see only photographs of the battle, he wanted to take them inside the battle. Equipped with a Canon 5D Mark II, a still camera with excellent video capability, a Sennheiser shotgun mic, and a customized Gildecam mounting system; he embedded himself with Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment to shoot footage that would bridge the disconnect between the realities on the ground and the public perceptions at

home. Unlike what we saw in WWII 16mm footage, Danfung wanted to make the first theatrical film documenting a war with all of the brilliance and scope of a feature image quality recording medium, now in a capable–light sensitive– size. This is now possible with the invention of the DSLR, a smaller then 16mm film camera, with greater performance, recording length and greatly increased picture quality.

And Back Again

As soon as the helicopter dropped the unit into the Taliban-controlled territory, the company was surrounded by the enemy. Heavy fighting ensued. Danfung had seen and photographed the horrors of war and he accepted the likelihood of corpses—but from behind a photographer’s lens. Not in the air around him. Not as “mental transients”. Marines were wounded and dying and there were hostile locals who wanted nothing to do with the saviors or the rebels. Danfung Dennis, the photojournalist, became a filmmaker under the most brutal conditions. One of the casualties he recorded was Sergeant Nathan Harris, a man he described as “the perfect leader”. Harris was shot in the hip and the bullet traveled down and out his thigh. For Sergeant Harris, one war was over and another was just beginning.

Harris was flown home to North Carolina to recover from his wounds. Danfung left the fighting at the Fishhook and flew home with him. He had already filmed what he assumed would be the “Hell” part of his story. He was ready to show what “Back” was like. “Back”, he discovered, was just another corner of Hell.

Throughout the documentary, scenes shift back and forth between the dangerous world of combat and the even more lethal world of “normal”. Through Danfung’s camera, we experience Sergeant Harris’ metamorphosis from a skilled, confident leader, barking out orders and caring for his men on the battlefield to a casualty with a shattered body and a wounded mind. From being an “expert in the application of violence” to rolling around Wal-Mart in a Rascal, from raining bullets on an enemy village to holding a gun in his own mouth, from inflicting pain to becoming dependent on pain killers, from recognizing that survival hinged on constant awareness to seeking oblivion.

Layers of sound both separate and unite the two worlds; tanks thundering over the ground, a car engine purring, screams of battle and his wife’s loving voice.

Realisms collide as the viewer is bounced between these worlds until the two are finally brought together by the brilliant editing of Fiona Otway.

To Hell and Back premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011. Viewers who experienced the horrors of the battlefield and the horrors of the home front were changed forever. Danfung won both the World Cinema Jury Award and the World Cinema Cinematography Award.

What They’re Saying

A tour de force. Hell and Back Again stacks one astonishing shot atop the next: perfectly composed tracking sequences in the heat of battle; saturated moodily low-light compositions in rainy North Carolina parking lots; gorgeous rich soundscapes. Michael KamberThe New York Times

Artistic reach meets hypnotic intimacy in Danfung Dennis’ vital war documentary “Hell and Back Again”…a full circle portrait of rare psychological immediacy and even rarer aesthetic command. Robert AbeleLos Angeles Times

Hell and Back Again takes an intimate look at the price soldiers pay both in battle and at home in the service of their country. Christiane Amanpour, ABC News

An astonishing technical achievement in war journalism and documentary filmmaking that may very possibly change the way conflicts are reported forever.”The Hurt Locker”, “Control Room”, “Gunner Palace”, “Restrepo”…Many are exceptional, moving, and award-winning pieces of work…but of those that I have seen none pack the visceral, emotional, and artistic wallop that Danfung Dennis’ documentary delivers…” Mark Rabinowitz,

Ballsy as hell…a rich visual juxtaposition between the dust and dirt and colorful fabrics of Afghanistan and the cold, shiny surfaces of America…a game changer with its no-holds-barred determination to take the viewer into combat and into the very consciousness of a soldier. Paul SbrizziFilmmaker Magazine

As someone who crossed Danfung’s path when we were ambitious 20-year old students aspiring to change the world and seeing that now, ten years later, one of us has come a lot closer to that goal, I am immensely impressed and inspired by Danfung’s work. Nazgul Kemelbek

Danfung Dennis did not begin his career as a war photographer. With a background in Applied Economics and Business Management, he served as a consultant for a number of businesses in Uganda and South Africa. He left this field to become a photojournalist and filmmaker and in 2006 he went to Iraq and Afghanistan to cover the wars there. His still photographs of those wars have been published in Newsweek, Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Rolling Stone, Le Figaro, Financial Times, Mother Jones, Der Spiegel, and The Wall Street Journal. PBS’ Frontline opened its 2009 fall feature program “Obama’s War” using Dennis’ footage. The program was nominated for a 2010 Emmy Award.

Danfung Dennis won the Bayeux-Calvados Award for War Correspondents and was named one of the 25 New Faces of Independent Film by Filmmaker Magazine. He was also named one of the 30 New and Emerging Photographers by PDN Magazine. In 2011, his film To Hell and Back won the award for Best Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival and was recently nominated for Best Documentary at the Gotham Independent Film Awards. He is currently working on Condition ONE, a virtual reality video project which Dennis hopes will allow viewers to experience news events more fully. “Visual language is dying,” he says. “The traditional outlets are collapsing. In the midst of this upheaval, we must invent a new language. Condition ONE combines the power of the still image and storytelling, the emotional engagement of tactile experiences and the compelling nature of being an active participant in an effort to pioneer a new language that is so immersive it will shake viewers out of their numbness to traditional media and provide them a powerful emotional experience. Instead of opening a window to glimpse another world, we are attempting to bring the viewer into that world.”


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About the Author

Rachel has been with Zacuto since 2009. She began working in the sales department and moved to marketing in 2013. In her role as Digital Marketing Director she oversees the gear loan and review program, social media, blog content,, and works with the team on overall marketing strategy. Rachel has a BA in Theatre with a focus on Directing from Arizona State University. Those who have spoken with her on the phone know she occasionally reveals her homeland by slipping into a British accent. Rachel likes tear-jerker sports movies, reading cookbooks for pleasure, and crossword puzzles. Contact her at


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