Matthew Heineman interview: ‘Retrograde’ director

In filming “Retrograde,” Matthew Heineman found himself having to gain the trust of two separate military entities: American Green Berets and high-level people in the Afghan security forces. “From the Green Beret perspective, it took several years to gain their trust, to gain, get permission to actually embed with them. You know, they’re a very closed, insular community,” he tells Gold Derby during our Meet the Experts: Film Documentary panel (watch the exclusive video interview above).

Once the announcement was made to withdraw all American troops from the country, he pivoted towards the perspective of the Afghan security forces and, specifically, General Sami Sadat. “I think the trust that we built with the Green Berets sort of carried over with him. He felt if they trusted us, he should trust us, but obviously we had to gain his trust individually as well.”

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“Retrograde,” from National Geographic Films and currently available to stream on Disney+, 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 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. The film was recently shortlisted for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar. 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.

With the many directions that the story ended up going in, Heineman remembered something he heard famous documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles say, “If you end up with the story you started with, then you weren’t listening along the way.” Another way this manifested during filming was when the crew was mid-flight from Dubai to Kabul to film what they thought would be the final showdown with the Taliban but couldn’t land because of a plane on the tarmac and had to turn back. “We were so low that all of our phones started to ping and we got these news alerts that the Taliban had taken over the country, and that the plane on the tarmac was actually President Ghani fleeing.” Even though they managed to sneak back into Afghanistan, by that time their central subject, General Sadat, had fled. “What this did for us was allow us to open up the metaphorical aperture of the storytelling to see the civilians that the Green Berets and General Sadat had been fighting for and really humanize this, tragic, horrible, final chapter of this war.”

When asked if he had any hope for the people for Afghanistan, Heineman found it very difficult to be optimistic about the situation over there. “I don’t have a lot of hope right now, to be honest. All the sort of human rights advances that happened over the past two decades have been eradicated, the economy is in free-fall, foreign aid has shrunken and it’s a desperate time for the people of Afghanistan.” He does, however, find hope in slightly more specific ways. “I find hope in individual people and the fortitude of the Afghan people to persevere despite being at war for a very long time. The Afghan people are quite hardened to the realities of war and are quite strong.”

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UPLOADED Jan 12, 2023 3:38 pm