‘What have we done?’: ‘Retrograde’ director on Afghanistan war

“Retrograde” documents the final months of America’s two-decades-long war in Afghanistan. Credit: YouTube.

U.S. forces worked closely with the Afghan National Army by training soldiers and personnel over the course of America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan. But when the U.S. withdrew and the Afghan government fell to the Taliban in August 2021, residents rushed to the airport in Kabul, desperate to flee. 

Director Matthew Heineman was there, filming those heart-wrenching scenes at the airport. The year before, he was embedded with U.S. Army Green Berets. He expected to film them as they prepared to leave the country as part of the wider U.S. troop withdrawal. But Heineman chose to stay and focus on Afghan forces in their last battles against the Taliban. His new film is “Retrograde.” 

“I've filmed a lot of very intense situations in my career — Mexican drug war, ISIS and Syria, opioid epidemic, human smuggling, COVID. Nothing in my career's ever compared to being at the airport … with thousands of civilians desperately trying to flee,” says Heineman. “It was a surreal scene sitting in a four-foot deep sewage ditch, as 18-year-old Marines were making these impossible … decisions on who to let in and who not to let in, as the Taliban was watching us at gunpoint, as ISIS was circling around. … I've cried a lot in making these films over the years, in the edit room and screenings. Never have I actually cried while filming, and I just had tears streaming down my face, continually having to wipe down the lens. And all I could think about in that moment was: ‘What have we done?’”

He adds, “One of the things I hope this film does is reinitiate a conversation around the war in Afghanistan and the country that we left behind.”