Mark Danner in conversation with filmmaker Matthew Heineman, on the occasion of Heineman’s “Retrograde” at Telluride Film Festival, 2022.
Full text of conversation:
Mark Danner: Congratulations on the film.
Matthew Heineman: Oh, thank you. Thank you, it was definitely a journey. A journey making it.
MD: Yeah, I can imagine. I can only imagine. Well, maybe we’ll get into that a little bit. I admired it very much. I found it actually quite moving. So anyway, I wanted to talk about that a little bit and whatever else you want to talk about as well. But I’m going to start just by saying this is an immensely powerful film about Afghanistan. And I wanted to begin by asking you about the title, which is a bit surprising, but which comes to have real resonance in the course of the film.
MH: Yeah, the title, I don’t know. It’s funny. We’re still cutting the film, by the way. You know, I’m working around the clock to try and get it to the festival in time. But we’re definitely still making changes as I’m on the zoom. Normally in a film’s process, for me the title is an elusive thing that I often struggle with. This, it just made sense. You know retrograde obviously is a military term, as you find out in the film, about, you know, leaving a war zone. And this film to me is about many, many, many different things. But on one sort of core basic level, it’s a document of the end of the war, which happens to be the longest war in U.S. history. And so, you know, for better or for worse, I haven’t really wavered from the title “Retrograde” since it was first uttered, really.
MD: It’s kind of a remarkable title because you first learn that it’s a military term of art and then it begins to take on a different meaning when you see the kind of cascade of effects that happen. I mean, you kind of get the idea that there’s no way to do this pretty, you know, that that this operation and the Green Berets know it is going to have various levels of catastrophe. That’s what it feels like anyway.
MH: Yeah. I mean, I think the film is obviously hyper-specific to Afghanistan, the war in Afghanistan. But on some level, as you just alluded to, it’s also sort of an allegorical tale for wars that have happened throughout history. And that will continue to happen as we fight wars. It’s not just, you know, leave a war zone and sign a piece of paper and you walk away. There’s obviously massive, massive ramifications for those decisions that are made by people far away from the actual danger of what war actually is. And so I think that’s what I really tried to do, is take it away from the politics and take it away from all the films and articles and news pieces that have been written about the war in Afghanistan, and just humanize those who are most affected by it. And obviously, you know, for the most part, from a military perspective, but then eventually, obviously, from a civilian perspective as well.
MD: Yeah. Humanize is such a good word, because I think that’s one of the things that impressed me so much about the film… I spent a lot of time covering Iraq, although not Afghanistan. It was, first of all, the way you humanize and gave us this deep view of these Americans who, you know, they just could have been people I was embedded with in Iraq. I mean, these immensely impressive guys who have a lot of skills and also a lot of concern, a lot of, it’s almost innocent concern, you know, the relationships almost seem very pure. The ones they have with the Afghans. I mean, they’re there to help and they’re concerned about them. And I think the film conveys that extremely effectively.
MH: Yeah, I mean, the film, I should say the film originally was intended to be embedded with with one of the last deployments to Afghanistan. It took years to get access to film with the Green Berets, with the Special Forces Unit that we ended up embedding with, took years to get access, Pentagon approval, and eventually what turned out to be the last deployment to Afghanistan. And that was the original intent of the film. We had no idea when Biden was going to pull out troops, when had no idea what was going to happen. Like pretty much every film I ever made it, it ended up in a much different place than it started out as, and so when Biden pulled out the troops and our Green Beret team that we’re embedded with left, you know, I decided to stay with General Sadat to see the end of the war through his eyes. But it was key in the editing process, obviously, to show that that interconnectedness between, you know, these two forces, the U.S. and the Afghans working together, they were literally working together. They’re on the same base in Helmand Province in Afghanistan. But obviously, again, that was sort of somewhat metaphorical for the sort of relationship that we’ve had with with the Afghans over two decades as well.
MD: I mean, I should interject that the very moment that Biden says we’re leaving is shown on the film being viewed by both the American and the Afghans. And it’s a devastating moment. And at that point, the film, first of all, goes deep into showing the way the Americans left, which is not, chaotic wouldn’t be the right word, but things are destroyed and it’s kind of horrible and then shifts very much to the Afghan point of view as you follow this general, General Sami Saadat, who becomes really the main character of the film. And he is a fascinating character. Can you talk a little about him?
MH: Yeah. I mean, to be honest, I was nervous that we didn’t have a film when the Americans left, you know, based on the geopolitics of where things were at, they weren’t able to go outside the wire. And so a lot of what we filmed was quite stagnant and not kinetic and not even necessarily combat-wise, but just sort of, you know, it wasn’t what we intended, it wasn’t what we thought we were doing. And so when I was looking at the footage as we returned, Sami really emerged as this really empathetic leader. And and so, you know, I reached out to him and said, obviously, you know, the film started out as this portrait of the Green Berets, but I really want to sort of shift that perspective and would you be open to me coming out and spending the next couple of months with you, whatever happens? And he said yes. And I, we, owe so much to him for opening, as well as the Green Berets, but especially as this country is crumbling around him, to have the courage, really, to allow us to capture it in real time, we owe so much to him and his guys for allowing us to do so.
MD: Not only did you get incredible access to him, really kind of unprecedented access, I mean there’s just very little you can compare to the kind of access you got to him… But also, he is this figure who in a sense, you could think of him as kind of the dream figure for the Americans in Afghanistan or for that matter, the Americans in Iraq and the Americans in El Salvador, for that matter: an upstanding, highly skilled, Americanized believer in the American way of war. And in a sense, by finding this guy, I mean, you know, he’s almost better than you can imagine in showing you the effect, both the good and the bad, of what the Americans did in Afghanistan.
MH: Yeah, I think, you know, it was…I’m trying to think how to phrase this correctly, but… I think he…it was hard because as you know, obviously, a general rarely, rarely, rarely, rarely open themselves up. You know, in my experience, having filmed the military and other institutions, you know, like the Green Berets before, you know, you might get an interview, you might get to spend a day or something. But we spent every waking hour for months with him, in the worst period of his life as his country crumbled around him. And so to see, I think it was difficult both as a filmmaker, but obviously for him to just, he had this steadfast belief that maybe, just maybe, if he’d defended Helmand in Lashkar Gah, that the country would hold together, even though every neon sign was was blaring: This is going to end. This is crumbling around you, stop. He just, he had a steadfast belief that, you know, if he held his ground, if he held Lashkar Gah, if he held Helmand, that maybe the country would hold together. And obviously, that didn’t happen.
MD: You know, it’s hard not to see him as a kind of symbolic figure about the American mission, whether it’s in, again, Iraq, Afghanistan… You can name other places as well, to see him as this kind of best that the Americans can do. And he really does seem that way. He’s also very charismatic, but the best the Americans can do… wasn’t enough. And that will bring me to my final question, and I appreciate how generous you are with your time. You know, when you see this footage of Bush, excuse me, of Biden saying the Americans are going to withdraw: the reaction on the part of the Green Berets and the Afghans, it’s hard not to feel the sense of betrayal, defeat and betrayal. But on the other hand, when you think betrayal, you think, well, Jesus, we were there for 20 years, right? I mean, what, when you look at this, do you think this word retrograde, this idea of the Americans going in and then having to pull out as they did in Iraq, as they do in Afghanistan, the symbolism of that word, does that say that the American project in these places was doomed from the start, or was there something that in those 20 years the U.S. just didn’t do? I mean, what has this taught you about the American project in these countries, Afghanistan particularly, but not limited to necessarily Afghanistan?
MH: I’m smiling not because it’s funny but because it’s devastatingly sad. I’m smiling because I’ve tried throughout my career and I’ve definitely tried with this film to take things that are hyper-politicized and debated and thrown around as political footballs in Washington, and try to put a human face to them and use film as a way to generate conversation among both sides. Given that this is my first interview, I’m reticent to sort of pontificate on the sort of long term implications of the American project… not because I don’t have opinions, but that’s not necessarily what I’m trying to say with this film I guess.
MD: I understand. Can I put it in a different way? Do you feel like that moment, I mean, let’s just talk about that moment because I think it’s an amazing moment in the film when they’re all watching it. What do you think about that moment? Was it betrayal? Was it disappointment? Was it loss or was it doomed in some way?
MH: I mean, that’s why, you know, I think I try to make documentaries the way I make documentaries, which is in this sort of cinema verité, observational way that, you know, I was taught and that I believe in with every neuron in my brain and body and cinematic soul, because that moment can be interpreted in ten different ways by ten different people. It can be interpreted a thousand different ways by a thousand different people. What are those Green Berets thinking? What is Sami Sadaat thinking? What are you thinking as audience member, what is Biden thinking? Everyone’s going to have their own opinion on what is. And certainly if you ask every one of those people on screen, they’d have a different opinion. I think obviously to some degree, you know, trillions of dollars spent, thousands and thousands of lives lost, and we’re back to where we started. So, you know, there’s no way to look at it other than a failure. And I think there’s so many questions that the film provokes. Is there actually a way to [reimagine] Retrograde that isn’t devastating? Should we have pulled out a decade ago? Would that have been a different outcome? What you know, what did staying in theater for 15 more years do for us or do for the Afghan people? And at the end of the day, as with every war zone, you know, something I explored in my first narrative film, THE PRIVATE WAY. But, you know, but in something I’ve lived and experienced in my doc work, as in every war zone, in every conflict in history, the people who are most affected and impacted are the civilians who are caught in the crossfire. For the civilians who are left behind, for the women who no longer have the right to walk out in public without having their head covered, or the girls who can no longer go to school. That’s to me, the devastating ramifications of all this is, it’s really sad, obviously devastatingly sad for all the Americans who lost their lives and their families, those who lost friends, obviously for all the Afghan military and their families and the thousands who were lost. But it’s also the everyday people, the civilians of Afghanistan, who just want peace, who want to wake up and live in a society where… to me, that is also part of the tale that we’re telling. And that’s part of why I start at the airport. That’s part of why we end at the airport. Is, wars are fought by men with guns and women with guns but at the end of the day, it’s you know, it sounds very trite and simplified, but civilians are ultimately the most affected.
MD: That airport footage is shockingly intimate. It’s really remarkable, remarkable footage. I’ve almost never seen crowd footage like that. It’s shot in a quite creative way: the focus on individuals and the focus on relationships, it’s really a triumph of filmmaking, I think. I should add that I knew Marie Colvin pretty well, and I admired that film, but it does remind me what you just said, that her phrase was bearing witness. And there is very much that element in this film. I mean, it’s very much a kind of bearing witness, particularly at the end, near the end, where the fourth wall kind of breaks for a moment when General Sadaad is getting out of the Humvee. And he says, go against that, go, you know, they’re shooting at you, and he says, Go against that wall. And you suddenly realize, oh, there’s a film crew there. You know, it’s kind of this moment late in the film where everything is about to collapse. That’s very striking, I think, anyway, to bearing witness, I guess. Thank you for taking the time.
MH: I really appreciate it. And thank you for, sorry, probably quite ineloquent, it’s the first time I spoke about the film. The last thing I’ll say I think I’ve been lucky to tell the stories that I’ve been able to tell. And I feel incredibly honored to do what I do. And I think the, I’ve filmed a lot of very intense situations in my life, and I’ve never felt what I felt being at Avi Gate, being at the airport in those final days, you know, I’ve definitely cried a lot in making films that I made, I don’t think I’ve ever cried in real time behind the lens. I mean, I kept having to wipe my eyepiece. It was just a tragedy on such a mass scale. And I think what I didn’t want to do was make it feel like exploitative or disconnected, you know? And that’s, you know, you mentioned it, but the focus on these faces and just the emotion of that moment was obviously quite intentional. And I hope it allows audiences to think about, you know, what if that is me or if that’s my brother or my sister or my wife or my husband, what would I be feeling? It’s so easy to think of these conflicts as so far away and these people as so far away. But it’s not, and they’re not. And the metaphor of the Abi Gate is just, we had thousands of civilians jammed together in a trench, 18-year-old Marines who weren’t even alive on 9/11, making Sophie’s Choice decisions of who to choose to come through the gate as the Taliban was standing on a shipping crate made by the U.S. with their guns pointed at everyone as ISIS was on the hills above pointing their guns at the Taliban… I mean, it was just this sort of otherworldly feeling of what is happening, and what have we done?
MD: I have to say that I think you captured, you know, the idea of you, the tears behind the lens, I think, was really captured in the footage that you shot. And having seen endless footage of that scene, yours is really extraordinary footage. It is individuated. You do get the individual people. You do get the relationships. You do get the fact of these young guys having to reach down and pull up these babies. So there’s nothing exploitative about it. It’s extremely effective shooting. I think it’s the best footage in the film. And it’s amazing. It’s very moving. So don’t don’t worry about that.
MH: Well I appreciate it. Thank you for for taking the time to chat.
MD: Thank you for reserving the time. And congratulations again, I realize you’re not finished, but I congratulate you anyway on the film.
MH: Thank you so much.