By getting himself and his camera as close as possible to people involved in risky endeavors, Matthew Heineman often found himself in danger while filming his acclaimed documentaries.
In his 2015 Oscar-nominated debut Cartel Land, Heineman rode with vigilantes fighting drug trafficking on the US-Mexico border. Its 2017 follow-up, City of Ghosts, profiled Syrian citizen journalists opposing the Isis occupation. And his Emmy Award-winning pandemic documentary The First Wave shadowed frontline medical workers at a New York City hospital.
Yet the plucky 38-year-old filmmaker admitted that his most recent Verite film, Retrograde, about the final nine months of the US’s 20-year war in Afghanistan, “was definitely the toughest film I’ve ever made on this level — physically, emotionally.” , logistically.”
Heineman shot the gripping film in Bay Area theaters on Wednesday, November 16 while embedded in the final chapter of 2021’s “Forever War” while embedded with the US Special Forces. He focused on a team of Green Berets training Afghan forces and, as the tragedy unfolded, an attractive young Afghan general named Sami Sadat, who was trying to defend his country against an increasingly likely Taliban takeover.
Heineman sat down with The Chronicle during the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado to talk about the risks he took filming Retrograde and how he strives to achieve the same goal with every film: “a creating an empathetic connection between the audience and a topic they think they understand but don’t.”
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Your film is incredibly powerful. Although last year’s US withdrawal from Afghanistan was widely reported, Retrograde shows a much more human side of the experience on both sides. Was that your goal?
A: Many Thanks. Yes, the goal of all my projects is to humanize those big, politicized issues that can be plastered into the headlines. In this case, it’s the war in Afghanistan, but it’s also the fundamental, perhaps even cliche, question: “Why are we at war?”
Q: How difficult was it to get permission to embed with the Green Berets?
A: It took several years to get approval from the Pentagon and the highest levels of the military. I don’t think anyone has ever been embedded in the Special Forces for that long. It was clear from the start that the war was probably coming to an end, so we wanted to be a part of one of the last US operations in Afghanistan. Little did we know we would actually be there the Last.
Q: How do you rate the risks you are willing to take? I mean, you were filming from an Afghan army helicopter while the Taliban were shooting at him.
A: It is difficult. There are many moments in the film that were absolutely terrifying. Like riding in a car with General Sadat in the front lines, knowing that the Taliban were sending suicide bombers to try and attack his convoy. You just have to weigh the risk and reward if it’s worth it.
That was the first time in my life that I actually lied to my mother. I didn’t tell her that I was going to make this first trip to Afghanistan.
Q: With no voiceover, your film conveys so much emotion through extended close-ups on people’s faces. It is particularly effective when we see the Green Berets reacting to President Biden’s troop withdrawal announcement. What did you notice at that moment when the message came through?
A: There’s definitely a motive in the film to focus on faces and reaction shots. You see so much on the faces of the Green Berets during Biden’s announcement that you don’t need to hear their thoughts. This motif runs through the second and third acts of the film, most prominently at the end at the (Kabul) airport with all these desperate civilians trying to flee.
Q: This airport scene is heartbreaking to watch. Can you describe what you felt behind the camera?
A: I’ve been in many difficult and sad situations in my career and seen a lot of death, especially in my last film about COVID. I also cried a lot during editing and at various times during filmmaking – but never in my life have I cried while shooting. The mass desperation of thousands and thousands of people trying to flee the Taliban, knowing what the future would bring, was overwhelming. I had to keep wiping the lens.
It was just so surreal. We sat there in a sewage ditch outside an airport with thousands of people, many of whom have helped the United States over the past 20 years as they try to flee the country they grew up in. And 18-year-old US Marines, who weren’t born themselves when the Twin Towers collapsed, had to make those Sophie’s Choice-esque decisions about who to cross. And the Taliban watched from the hills.
Q: What do you hope people will learn from these airport scenes that was not apparent from the coverage?
A: My films have no political goals. I’m not explaining how we got there or who’s to blame, just trying to get you to care and think a little more. When new conflicts arise, as in Ukraine, and we have somehow forgotten Afghanistan, we have also forgotten the many thousands of people we left behind. I hope this film stimulates conversation about these conflicts that we find ourselves in and their legacy.
As always, the people who lose these wars are the ordinary civilians caught in the crossfire. So we end up capturing this woman’s face for 35 seconds. (Military) decisions are made by people in distant places, but it is the local people who are affected.
One of my goals is to have a screening on Capitol Hill, and not because I think this film is political. I want our leaders to see the results of their decisions.
“declining” (R) opens in select theaters on Wednesday, November 16 and premieres on December 8 on the National Geographic Channel. Available to stream on Disney+ December 9th and Hulu December 11th.