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A Soldier's Story Set To Gunfire In 'Hell And Back'

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The documentary Hell and Back Again was a standout at Sundance, and it hits theaters this week. It follows Marine Sgt. Nathan Harris from Afghanistan back home to North Carolina. Director Danfung Dennis made an unusual choice for this film: no musical score. Instead, he uses sounds gathered on the battlefield and manipulates them to highlight the emotion of the story. Noah Nelson of Turnstyle News reports.

AUDIE CORNISH, host: In war, still photography can't always capture what people are seeing and hearing on the ground. That's something Danfung Dennis realized while working as a war photographer embedded with Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan. So, he outfitted his camera with stereo sound equipment, and he made the documentary "Hell and Back Again." It took the World Cinema Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival.

The innovative way this photojournalist turned filmmaker uses sound, makes "Hell and Back Again" stand out, as Noah Nelson reports.

NOAH NELSON: Danfung Dennis grew up with video games and movies that gave him a romantic image of war. That's not what he found in Afghanistan.

DANFUNG DENNIS: There isn't an orchestra playing when you're running through a battlefield. There isn't, you know, huge drums. It's just pure terror.



UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hey, where's it coming from?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Coming on your right.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: On your right.


NELSON: There is no music added to "Hell and Back Again." Dennis and sound designer J. Ralph reworked audio gathered on the battlefield in Afghanistan to underscore the film. This is used to tell the story of wounded Marine Sergeant Nathan Harris, who back at home in North Carolina, suffers from flashbacks. Dennis says those flashbacks often start with sound.

DENNIS: The sound of gunfire, the sound of crying, it's often that you'll hear these sounds and you'll see these images in your mind as if they were a memory. But they become so intense that you actually stop seeing what's around you and you stop hearing it.

NELSON: In this scene, a family trip to the drive-thru seemingly triggers the memory of a firefight for Sergeant Harris.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: A corndog with fries and a small Dr Pepper...

Sergeant NATHAN HARRIS: Hold on.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And a quarter...

HARRIS: Hey, Will Abrader, where's Spring?


HARRIS: Sergeant Spring.

GARY RYDSTROM: Well he's using real sounds and treating them like music.

NELSON: Gary Rydstrom is the seven time Academy Award winning sound designer of such films as "Saving Private Ryan" and "Titanic."

RYDSTROM: So all the source for the music, like sounds during the movie are real sounds - real people, real crying, real military equipment. Often slowed down and processed in weird ways and used like music so it gets to you emotionally. But it's all made from real stuff.

NELSON: For example in this part of the film, Dennis follows a group of Marines as they clear a village.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Keep watching that way.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: What (unintelligible)


NELSON: To underscore this scene, Dennis adds a persistent drone made up of the sounds of war, slowed down to as little of two percent of their original speed.


NELSON: In another scene, Sergeant Harris' doctor talks to him about the dangers of the pain meds he takes for his bullet injury.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: As you heal, you know, you're going to get stronger. You're going to get better. And we need to start weaning some of these down.

HARRIS: Mm-hmm.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: You know, I don't want to compromise your quality of life...


NELSON: The drone creeps in and over the dialog, as Dennis blurs the line between present and past through sound alone.

DENNIS: So I'm trying to convey what it feels like to actually have a flashback. And I try to really lay those underneath scenes of normal America - coming through Wal-Mart, yet there's something still there underneath.

NELSON: What's underneath this documentary is almost an inversion of a traditional film score. "Hell and Back Again's" unusual sound design, rooted in the reality of battle, brings the audience deep inside the story of a wounded Marine returned home.


NELSON: For NPR NEWS, I'm Noah Nelson.

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