Matthew Heineman on Filming Impossible Decisions as He Documented the War in Afghanistan for ‘Retrograde’

In his latest documentary, “Retrograde,” daredevil director Matthew Heineman captures the final months of America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan. To tell the harrowing story through the eyes of Americans and Afghans, the Oscar-nominated filmmaker embedded with the U.S. Army Green Berets and Lt. Gen. Sami Sadat of the Afghan army. “Retrograde” has landed on the Oscar documentary shortlist. 

Heineman is no stranger to battlegrounds. He has put his life on the line to make documentaries about the Mexican drug wars (“Cartel Land”), ISIS in Syria (“City of Ghosts”) and the initial explosion of COVID-19 in the U.S. (“The First Wave”). But he says “Retrograde,” which refers to the process by which military forces extricate themselves from conflict, was his most difficult film. 

Embedding with the Green Berets was something you had been thinking about doing long before 2021. Why? It began for me probably five or six years ago with this very clichéd question, “Why do we fight wars?”

You begin the film with the final tragic, chaotic days at the Kabul airport. What was that like to document? When I was at the airport, I saw literally thousands of Afghan civilians packed like sardines in a 4-foot sewage ditch, begging to leave. It was unlike anything I had ever seen, and these 18-year-old Marines, who weren’t even alive when the Twin Towers fell, were making these impossible decisions on who to let in and who not to let in as the Taliban was watching us at gunpoint a hundred yards away. Meanwhile, ISIS was circling with suicide vests waiting to attack, which ended up happening 12 hours later in the very spot where I was filming. I had tears streaming down my face, and I kept having to wipe the lens down. And all I could think about was, what have we done here? 

You follow Afghan Lt. Gen. Sami Sadat while he is working with the Green Berets and filmed him while he was being shot at and when he was making harrowing decisions. How did you gain his trust? Trust isn’t just given, it’s earned, and you have to metaphorically renew your vows every week, every day, every hour. The stakes were so high, and he had the world on his shoulders, so to some degree that that helped us because he had so much he was worried about that we just became part of the fabric of his daily life. 

Why is “Retrograde” the hardest doc you ever made? Physically, emotionally and logistically, it was such a complicated film to produce. You are in places that you are not supposed to be in. It was a war zone in a foreign country and the stakes were so high for everyone. And as time progressed, things got sketchier and sketchier.

So sketchy that Sadat leaves the country. Why didn’t you document his exodus. In mid-August [2021], we were planning on going back to Afghanistan. Experts were saying it would be six months until the Taliban took over, but by the time we flew into Dubai [to then fly to Kabul], things degraded quite fast. As our plane descended into Kabul, the pilot got in the intercom and said, “We can’t land.” It turned out President Ashraf Ghani was fleeing, and the pilot was too scared to land. We go back to Dubai, and I just thought it was the greatest failure of my entire career. After that, I spent every single waking minute trying to figure out how to sneak back into the country, which I did three or four days later, but by the time that happened, Gen. Sadat had been forced to flee. So, I was faced with this question, “What is this story we are telling?” because our main participant is gone. But with every doorway that closes comes the door that opens, and the door that this opened was the opportunity to show the civilians what Gen. Sadat and the Green Berets had been fighting for. It enriched the storytelling in a way that I could never have predicted
or imagined. 

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