Matthew Heineman has filmed in a lot of warzones and a lot of dangerous situations but nothing prepared him for what he witnessed at the Kabul airport while he was filming his latest documentary, “Retrograde.” “Thousands of Afghan civilians were packed like sardines into a four foot deep sewage ditch as 18-year-old Marines are making these impossible Sophie’s choice decisions on who to let in and who not to let in,” he reveals to Gold Derby during our Meet the Experts: Documentary Film panel (watch the exclusive video interview above).
Watching the danger and desperation of the Afghan civilians also took a very heavy emotional toll on him. “ISIS was traveling around in suicide vests waiting to attack, which happened 12 hours later in the very spot that I was filming in. I just had tears streaming down my face. I kept having to wipe the lens down.”
“Retrograde,” from National Geographic Films, examines the lead up to the United States withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years of involvement that started shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The film starts with American servicemembers learning about the date being set for the complete withdrawal from the country. It then turns its attention to General Sami Sadat who attempts to prepare the Afghan security forces to take over while the threat of the Taliban once again taking power looms in the background. One of Heineman’s previous films, “Cartel Land,” netted him an Oscar nomination for Documentary Feature in 2015 along with an Emmy the following year for Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking.
Heineman also made very sure that the documentary didn’t seem like it was taking sides or blaming someone for how the conflict came to an end. One of the ways he does this is by including audio in the beginning of four presidents addressing the Afghan war. “It was just trying to show the time span through which this conflict has existed.” He adds that he feels the country is already divided enough as it is and that he is really trying to create a historical document that all people could watch and learn from. “It’s in some ways an allegorical tale of something that’s happened throughout history and will continue to happen as we fight wars and what we can learn from it.”
The filming of this documentary has also taken a toll on Heineman emotionally as he encountered many dangerous situations including being shot at in a car, rockets being shot at a helicopter he was on and sniper bullets being fired towards him. “I have fear like everyone else has fear and that fear affects me. It’s had a profound impact on me. I suffer from PTSD. I have nightmares often. These films take a lot out of you.” All he can do is remember what he’s doing and make sure he documents it. “All I can do is focus on shooting, on framing, on aperture. That’s what I choose to focus on during those really intense moments just to sort of calm down.”
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