Melissa Harris-Perry: After two decades of conflict in Afghanistan, the longest war in American history ended last year. For many of those who fought, it had lasted a literal lifetime.
Speaker 2: Were you born when this war started?
Speaker 3: Yes. Barely.
Speaker 2: Barely.
Speaker 3: I was one.
Speaker 2: You were still in diapers.
Melissa: How can we forget the scenes of chaos and desperation at the close of the war as thousands of Afghans fled to the airport, desperate to leave the country?
Melissa: He's saying, "I was an interpreter. I supported your mission. Please, sir, help. We're in danger. Please."
Speaker 4: We're in danger. Please.
Melissa: A new documentary, Retrograde, chronicles the months leading up to the withdrawal from Afghanistan through the eyes of an elite US Special Forces unit serving in what would be their last deployment and a young Afghan army general trying to ready his forces to pick up the pieces. The film captures the Americans' struggle to deal with the effect that their departure will have on the country's fledgling Afghan forces.
Speaker 5: It's with a little bit of a heavy heart that I have to tell you this, but we're going to be leaving Afghanistan pretty soon. There's a lot of guys in here that have spent a lot of years and have been in a lot of danger and it's been for our safety most of the time. I want to thank each and every one of you guys for all the work that you've done and all the dangerous spots that you've been in since you've been working with the Americans.
Matthew Heineman: My name is Matthew Heineman and I'm the director, producer, cinematographer, and editor of Retrograde.
Melissa: Heineman is an Oscar-nominated Emmy award-winning filmmaker.
Matthew: In the film, after President Biden announces that he's pulling out our troops, they undergo the process of "retrograding" the country. I had no idea both what that meant militarily and what we'd end up seeing. They smashed computers with sledgehammers. They pulled together ammunition and blow it up. It was a very surreal thing to witness both the waste of it all and the tragedy that a lot of the stuff could have been handed over to their Afghan partners. That was, I think, a very difficult thing to witness.
Melissa: Talk to us a bit about the experience and what it was like for the American service members whom you did embed with.
Matthew: I think it took us years to get access to be on that embed. By the time we got to Afghanistan and started shooting, there was this looming question. Is Biden going to pull them out? What's going to happen? We embedded first with US Army Green Beret team on what turned out to be the last deployment to Afghanistan and spent about two months with them. We're actually with them as Biden makes that announcement. I think their faces speak more than words could ever speak about what they're feeling. Then there's this subsequent scene where they're telling their Afghan counterparts that they're leaving.
These are guys that spent two, three, four deployments even just to Afghanistan alone, lost many friends to this war, and obviously had developed a very deep relationship with their Afghani counterparts. I think there was just an enormous sense of abandonment and sadness that they're leaving them in this state.
Speaker 7: These decisions are made way, way, way above us. Us, the people on the ground, unfortunately, we have very little input and that's where [foreign language]
Speaker 8: It's not your fault. We know.
Melissa: That moment when they're grappling with this reality of leaving colleagues behind.
Matthew: I think it wasn't 100% fait accomplis to complete that the African Army was going to lose, but I think everyone in that room knew that this was a major blow to whatever the future of Afghanistan was. I think there's a palpable weight in the air that was quite heavy, obviously. When President Biden pulled out our troops, left wondering what is this story we're telling, what is this film because clearly, this story was not over. Ended up pivoting and reaching back out to General Sami Sadat who had been working with the Green Berets, who was in charge of Southern Afghanistan, and asked him, "Could we shift the lens to you and capture whatever this next chapter may be through your eyes?"
Melissa: Can you tell me about him and what drew you to him?
Matthew: He's a young 35-year-old general in charge of 15,000 men. He's not necessarily what you would think a two-star general would be. He's quite soft-spoken. He's quite shy, but also incredibly brave and forthright and commanding. I think he just was a really interesting, almost mysterious character when I first met him. You don't often get to be this deeply embedded with a two-star general. We were basically spending 18, 16, 20 hours a day with him for months, from when he woke up in the morning to when he went to bed and alongside his men as well.
In mid-August, we were planning on going back and spending time with General Sadat. Well, pundits, experts were saying it would be maybe six months. No one really knew how long until the Taliban would potentially win. By the time we got to Dubai for this trip, things were starting to fall quite rapidly. We got on a plane to Kabul. As the plane started to descend into the valley, the pilot got on intercom and said, "We can't land. There's a plane on the tarmac." We were so low that all of our phones started ping, ping, ping, ping, ping, ping. We had these news alerts that the Taliban had taken over Kabul and that that plane on the tarmac was actually President Ghani fleeing the country.
The pilot was too scared to land and we went back to Dubai. I just thought it was the greatest journalistic failure of my career. We had spent eight months building to this moment. Our main character, General Sadat, was at the center of this, and I was sitting in a hotel in Dubai. Basically spent every waking hour after that desperately trying to get back into the country to tell this final chapter of this terribly sad saga. By the time we got back into Afghanistan, got back into Kabul, got to the airport, General Sadat had been forced to flee. He had a grave threat on his head from the Taliban.
Once again, I was there at the airport wondering, 'What is the story I'm telling?" With every door that closes, another door opened. With every failure comes opportunity. The opportunity here was to open up the aperture of the storytelling to show the civilians that the Green Berets were fighting for, to show the civilians that General Sadat were fighting for. That's what we ended up doing. That's what becomes this final act, the final chapter of this film, is this drama playing out at the airport as thousands of civilians are desperately trying to flee.
Melissa: All right. Let's take a break here. When we come back, Matt Heineman talks to us about meeting the Taliban. It's Melissa Harris-Perry. You're back now with The Takeaway. Now we've been talking with Mat Heineman, the filmmaker behind the new documentary Retrograde, which chronicles the final months of US involvement in Afghanistan. Heineman and his team had been working on the film for months following Afghan forces. They were on their way back to Afghanistan when Kabul fell. They were barely able to even make it back into the country. I asked him about one of the scenes that followed their arrival.
Melissa: Can we talk about the pretty harrowing scene that takes place in a senior Taliban meeting? I want to read a quote from that scene that says, "These Americans came here and dishonored our brothers and sisters for the past 20 years. Did they not invade our homeland? Did they not attack our thoughts and beliefs?" For you, in the moment of being there, what was that experience like?
Matthew: We never expected to be in that room, obviously. The film kept evolving and changing. When I was 21 years old, a mentor of mine said, "If you end up with a story you started with, then you weren't listening along the way." Which I think is good advice for life and good advice for filmmaking and storytelling. Be open to the story changing. That certainly happened here with Retrograde many times. Once we got to the airport, we had to make this decision. Do we stay here or do we leave the "wire?" Do we leave the airport? Not knowing whether we'd be able to get back in, not knowing whether we'd be able to get on a plane and leave. I made that decision to do that.
One of the first things that we heard about was this Taliban meeting with all their senior leadership. I wish it was a more interesting story, but we basically drove up, knocked on their door, asked them if we could film, and they said yes. We walked in and filmed that scene. Obviously, it was quite surreal having spent my entire conscientious adult life hearing about the Taliban, the previous several months getting shot at by the Taliban, rockets being shot at me while I was filming in helicopters. To be sitting on that stage was just surreal.
Melissa: There's a style that you use, a way of storytelling that's a bit more intimate.
Unlike, for for example, the conversation we're having here, you don't have a sense of you as the filmmaker even there, right? You don't have like the sit-down interviews or the narrator. Talk to me about why you tell the stories in that way.
Matt: I just deeply believe in the style of filmmaking as the most powerful way to convey information. I mean, as human beings it's so easy to change the channel, metaphorically or literally, when we hear about conflicts that feel so distant or feel so far away. I feel like it's my job to make them feel closer, to make you feel like, "What if that was me? Or what if that was my brother or my sister, or my cousin or my father? What would I feel?" Hopefully in doing so, just making the world just a little bit smaller and creating a little bit more empathy in this world. I think we live in these silos. We live in this very deeply polarized and fractured society both domestically and internationally. I think that these things become so politicized as well.
I try to also keep politics out of my films very purposely and keep the focus on the human beings at the center of these issues. Obviously, there's tons of news coverage of this final chapter at the airport in Kabul, and it is deeply distressing. Are people still talking about Afghanistan? No. All the oxygen is being taken out by the war in Ukraine, which is obviously incredibly important. We've forgotten about this country that we left behind. I hope among many other things that this film reinvigorates conversation about not only the country left behind but the longest war in history and also this process of retrograding, of leaving war zone, which in some allegorical way has happened throughout history and will continue to happen long into the future. What can we learn?
Melissa: I guess in some ways that brings us to exactly where I want it to go, which is it's Veteran's Day. You just made a point of how easy it is to forget. Who will, what will, you be thinking about on today, on Veteran's Day?
Matt: Obviously the incredible sacrifice of our veterans historically in conflicts around the world right now and the enormous sacrifices that they made. In Afghanistan roughly 6,000 service members and contractors were killed, but far more died of suicide back at home. I think that epidemic of suicide is terribly, terribly, terribly sad. As someone who suffers from PTSD, as someone who deals with some of these issues personally, I really hope that this conversation around mental health can be expanded. I think it's a really important issue, especially in the military.
Melissa: Matt Heineman is the director, producer, and cinematographer of Retrograde. Matt, thanks for joining us.
Matt: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.
Melissa: Now, if you are a veteran or anyone who is struggling with mental health concerns and need some help, please call 988 to speak with the counselors at the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.
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