‘Retrograde’ Director Describes the ‘Sheer Scope of Desperation’ as Afghanistan Fell to the Taliban

TheWrap magazine: “I had to keep wiping my tears off my camera lens,” says Oscar-nominated filmmaker Matthew Heineman (“Cartel Land,” “A Private War”)

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A version of this story about “Retrograde” first appeared in the Guilds & Critics Awards / Documentaries issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

When the government of Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in August 2021, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Matthew Heineman (“Cartel Land,” “The First Wave”) was on the ground in Kabul, documenting the violent, tragic crisis as it unfolded.

Heineman talked to TheWrap about his motivation for telling this story, his relationship of trust with an Afghan general and the anonymous woman who’s featured memorably in the film’s final shot. “Retrograde” is in select theaters and available to stream on Hulu.

“Retrograde” chronicles the last months of U.S. engagement in Afghanistan and features devastating footage as the country fell to the Taliban. Was it a film that had long been in the works?

For me, it started four or five years ago with this somewhat clichéd question, “Why do we fight wars?” I wanted to explore that idea through connections I had to the Army Ranger community. The film pivoted a number of times during the process, and we ended up focusing on the Green Berets in Afghanistan and an Afghan general named Sami Sadat. Ultimately, as the situation changed rapidly, we realized we were actually making a movie about the end of the longest war in U.S. history.

As the government fell, you were at the airport in Kabul, which is the focus of the last third of the film. What was it like to witness that chaos?

It was terrifying. A nightmare. I mean, each of my films has taken a lot out of me. But in this one, when we were filming at the Kabul Airport, I was holding the camera and all I could do was focus on the process of filming, of holding the camera steady, of framing and focusing. That usually calms me down in extremely intense environments.

Did that help to keep you steady in this case?

To an extent, but never in my life have I started crying while I was filming, until the Kabul Airport. I’ve cried a lot while in post-production on my films, in the editing room or after a screening. But I have never experienced the sheer scope of desperation we saw at the airport. I had to keep wiping my tears off my camera lens.

The experience at the airport is unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed in my entire career. Thousands and thousands of people crammed into a sewage ditch as 18-year-old marines, who weren’t even alive when the Twin Towers fell, were making these impossible Sophie’s Choice decisions on who to let in.

And we see so many children there.

Thousands of children. I mean, just unthinkable. As the Taliban were sitting 100 yards away, shouldering their guns, watching us. And ISIS-K was circling the airport in suicide vests, waiting to attack, which is what happened when they blew up the Abbey Gate 12 hours later, in the very spot where we were filming.

You also gained access to a Taliban rally, where one of the leaders is declaring victory, while blaming the agitation on Jewish people. How did you get that footage?

Well, I’ll back up just a bit to explain that. It was in August 2021 and we were planning to go back to Afghanistan to spend time with General Sadat. Experts were saying it might be six months before the Taliban took over. But by the time we’d gotten to Dubai, the country was falling quite rapidly. We got on a flight to Kabul and as the flight descended, the pilot got on the intercom and said, “We can’t land because there’s a plane on the tarmac.” That plane was actually Afghan president Ashraf Ghani fleeing the country in a helicopter. Afghanistan had fallen

So the pilot was too scared to land and we went back to Dubai. And I thought it was the greatest journalistic and filmmaking failure of my career. We’d spent eight months telling this story and now I was sitting in a hotel room in Dubai. So we spent every waking hour trying to figure out how to sneak back into the country, which we did four or five days later.

By that time, there was a bounty on General Sadat’s head, so he’d been forced to flee. We’d made a decision to go outside the wires of the Kabul Airport and to see what the city was like under the Taliban. We’d heard about a Taliban meeting at the Polytechnic Institute. We basically drove up to the door and asked if we could film them and they said “Yes.”

It was that easy?

Yeah. Obviously it was very surreal, having spent my adult life reading about the Taliban and hearing about the Taliban and being shot at by the Taliban, to be in that room with them. We started out timidly, at the back of the room, and slowly got closer, and eventually got right on the stage with them.

Your film begins with the voices of the last four American presidents but it ends with the face of an Afghan woman. What’s the significance of those bookends?

The beginning represented the dialogue of warfare over the past two decades. Those four men each made decisions from a White House that was very far away. But in war, it’s the everyday civilians who are the most affected. And so I wanted the audience to be left with this image of a woman—she could be anyone’s sister or daughter or mom—at the airport with her hand on the fence. And the camera holds on her face for a long stretch of time. Faces don’t lie. I could have interviewed that woman for three hours and perhaps not gained as much insight as in that image of her face. She writes a book with her eyes and her body language.

Did you know right away that the image of her face would end the film?

Not right away. I way over-screen my films, because I love getting feedback, I love getting criticized from other filmmakers or journalists or experts or non-experts. And during one of those early screenings, people we ripping apart the end of the movie. And it really hit me. So I went back to the editing room and stayed up until six in the morning, editing it into the ending you see now. It’s a strange choice, because it’s so non-verbal. But I felt those images said more than any words we could put in the film.

But I shot this film in the way that I shoot most my films. That motif of holding on people’s faces was very much contemplated while shooting. It was a choice to put you on the ground in these situations. My hope is to create an empathic response in the audience. That’s the way, I hope, to build a connection.

Read more from the Guild & Critics Awards/Documentaries issue here.

Photographed by Jeff Vespa for TheWrap