One of the movies nominated for an Oscar was edited by a grad student at Temple University. Fiona Otway cut together “Hell and Back Again,” a documentary about American soldiers in the Afghanistan war, and their struggles to return to domestic life.
Editing played a key part in the story about post-traumatic stress disorder.
Filmmaker Danfung Dennis, a war photographer, was embedded with a Marine infantry unit in 2009, recording the abject terror and boredom soldiers experience inside a combat zone. Dennis kept his high-definition video camera inches from the faces of soldiers under fire.
He also videotaped the aftermath of war. Sgt. Nathan Harris, who was wounded during his third tour, had a difficult time returning to civilian life in North Carolina. Struggling to recuperate from a crippling gunshot injury, he developed a dependency on pain medication.
Otway’s job was to edit between footage of Afghanistan and footage in North Carolina of Harris recuperating and trying to reconnect with his wife.
“From the beginning, we knew we wanted to play with flashbacks, intercutting with Afghanistan and North Carolina in the story.” said Otway. “The story doesn’t play out in a linear fashion.”
The story toggles between Harris, for example, standing in a retail store considering the video games on display, and footage of himself and the members of his unit facing enemy fire half a world away. By moving back and forth in time, Otway evokes some of the feeling of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“There’s the physical side of it, but then there’s also the mental adjustment he’s going through, which is harder to see. It’s all in his head,” said Otway. “That’s what the film tries to explore with the intercutting, to really look at this other layer of PTSD where these guys have so much emotional work to do.”
Otway has cut Oscar-nominated war documentaries before, but hesitated before signing on to this project.
“It’s hard to do a story about war that isn’t filled with cliches, and war is a sensitive political issue. I wasn’t sure what kind of story he wanted to tell.” said Otway. “It became clear to me pretty quickly that he wanted to create a different kind of story about war.”
“Hell and Back Again” screened in Philadelphia last fall, and has just been released on DVD. Otway is working toward a master of fine arts degree at Temple University.