Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Nov 20, 2022 12:05 am 
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Intimate glimpses of the disastrous US withdrawal from Afghanistan

Matthew Heineman is a a filmmaker notable for the exceptional access, macho toughness, and visual beauty of his documentaries. He's been criticized by the NY Times' Manohla Dargis for including too much "atrocity" footage in City of Ghosts (2017),a film about Raqqaa, a Syrian town full of atrocities. Noted. He has covered COVID; the Mexican drug trade in Cartel Land (2015). In 2018 he received positive response for a first feature film, about a martyred woman combat journalist, A Private War, and with collaborators he put together a Traffik--like, only not fictionalized but real mini-series on the drug nexus with separate sections on growers, addicts, and cops, called "The Trade" (2018-2020). He has recently made The Boy from Medellín (2020), about a young Colombian singer beset by political strife and "Tiger" (2021), a miniseries about golfer Tiger Woods, and then The First Wave (2021), about the first response to the COVID-19 crisis. Now we have Retrograde, about the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and its consequences.

As before and as he states in a TV interview about "The Trade," Heineman is not interested in stats or context here; he just wants to get behind the headlines and let us feel what it was like to be there, what the place and the people look like. Above all he focuses on Sami Sadat, the highest ranking Afghan military officer, the Green Beret's favorite, who is left behind with an impossible situation: his troops can't win against the Taliban. This film was begun as an embedded portrait of the Green Berets after 20 years in Afghanistan, then when Biden announced withdrawal, and it happened, focus shifted to Sami Sadat.

This is a look at 21st century American soldiers. A lot of the American men have beards and shaven heads. Gen Saadat is clean shaven, energetically so, as we see in multiple filmings of his morning toilette and prayers. They're experienced, the Green Berets. At command there are a lot of computers and a lot of screens, and big screens. They all use smart phones and smoke big cigars at night. General Sadat is a burly Afghan trained for years by the Green Berets, with perfect English. As Biden on the big screen announces total withdrawal coming soon we see the faces of shock and disappointment. Later in Afghan language on the phone walking away Gen Sadat says "a huge setback came today," that morale is low and they must work to reverse that. We have learned what "retrograde" means: withdrawal or regrouping. The head officer tells the men they have to do a very fast retrograde, and must clear the site, meaning destroying papers - and other things. Leave nothing behind. In explanation he says "retrograde" means "shitting in a trench." It's also bashing screens and computers with a big hammer and setting off big explosions off in the distance to destroy arms and ammunition. Is it a surprise that an American withdrawal from a 20-year war involves a lot of waste?

It has also been mentioned after a training exercise that they kill only when necessary because they are fighting Taliban who are the sons of men the American's killed; this is a two or three generation war. The relations among the US officers are tranquil. The news is sobering. One Green Beret among others who have spent years in Afghanistan says emphatically "This isn't a win. Everything we've gained is at risk."

After the Americans left, Heineman's camera stays with Sami Sadat's leadership of the Afghan army - aware that the Taliban if they win will take away freedom and enslave women to "their terrorist ideas" and their false use of the Quran. Amazing footage that was dangerous to shoot and is beautifully done follows Sadat's forces as they continue to fight after the Americans are gone. They move to Lashkar Gah, seat of Helmand Province. It is the last to fall as the Taliban, who have waited for the US troop withdrawal before going full bore, take over one province and city after another. Ged Sadat is disheartened but he is tough and goes into personal danger himself, a remarkable man. But supplies and equipment are running out and men are giving up. We don't know how this remarkable air, land, battle and private footage could be made.

The last section of the film focuses on the chaos at Kabul airport we heard about, but this time we see it from the inside. This situation is chaotic, horrendous, and terribly sad. Those who collaborated with the Americans, and are left behind, are dead people. The last quarter of this beautifully made and organized film focuses on the escapes. It is narrated by Sami Sadat. He explains the remaining American general would not support his defense of Kabul because he said, "Sami, you don't have a government." We see a big meeting of the senior members of the Taliban with their supreme leader holding forth: Europe and the West have no history, the enemy is trained by the Jews, blah blah blah. How did Heineman get this footage, we wonder, also beautifully shot and edited? Sami is getting his men out of the country. The leader of the country, Ashraf Ghani, makes him head of all the troops, and then the next day Ghani flees the country himself. Sami regrettably - the US won't help him - flees with his family to London. Closing titles tell how many Americans (around 2,500) and how many Afghans (around 170,000) died in the 20-year war, and that Sami Sadat has announced he is organizing an army to regain the country.

The photographers, editors, and translators deserve much credit, and Scott Salinas' score handsomely underlines the tragic nature of events. Another stunningly intimate, visceral, and beautifully shot documentary from William Heineman.

Retrograde, 94 mins., A Natural Geographic Film, debuted at Telluride Sept. 2, 2022, showing at about seventeen other international festivals including Zurich, Vancouver, Busan, Hot Springs, Bergen, Berlin, Cologne and DOC NYC. Opening Nov. 16, 2022 at AMC Metreon 16, San Francisco and Century Northgate, San Rafael. It will premiere on National Geographic Channel on Thursday, Dec. 8, at 9 p.m. ET/PT and will then be available to stream on Disney+ on Dec. 9 .

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