Alex Gibney and Sebastian Junger Weigh in on Doc World Controversy About Death of Afghan Man That Appeared in NatGeo’s ‘Retrograde’

The ethics of documentary filmmaking is not a new topic of debate, but after last month’s Washington Post article about an Afghan man allegedly murdered by the Taliban as a consequence of his participation in Matthew Heineman’s Oscar shortlisted 2022 documentary “Retrograde,” the discussion around the moral responsibility of nonfiction filmmakers has once again heated up.

Unlike with journalists, there are no widely-accepted standards that documentary filmmakers are expected to abide by. Regulations for personal nonfiction storytelling can be counterintuitive. Intrusive. Unless a director is working on a documentary for PBS’ “Frontline” series, known for adherence to journalism standards, situational ethics determined on a case-by-case are more often than not the norm.

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“Retrograde” tells the story of the United States’ final months of its 20-year war in Afghanistan. In the film Heineman, whose “Cartel Land” was nominated for an Oscar in 2016, embedded with the U.S. Army Green Berets and Lt. Gen. Sami Sadat of the Afghan Army to capture the turmoil as American troops pulled out of Afghanistan. The director also filmed the Afghan minesweepers working for the Green Berets. One of the minesweepers, a man nicknamed Justin Bieber, as murdered after the Taliban allegedly saw him in widely circulated TikTok clips of “Retrograde.”

In April, following a Washington Post reporter’s inquiry about whether or not Afghan subjects in “Retrograde” were put in danger due to their participation in the film, National Geographic, which distributed the doc, removed the movie from all Disney streaming platforms in a move the company describes as out of “an abundance of caution.” According to the Post, “as many as eight other Afghans whose faces are shown in ‘Retrograde’ remain in hiding” in Afghanistan.

In the Post article, former Green Berets blame Heineman and Disney for not blurring out Afghan faces for safety reasons. Heineman told the paper that “both military public affairs officers and the Green Berets approved the final version of the film for release, which included faces of NMRG,” Afghanistan’s National Mine Removal Group.

In a joint statement to Variety, he and producer Caitlin McNally strongly pushed back on the suggestion that “Retrograde” is to blame for the death of the man they called Justin Bieber, calling it a heartbreaking tragedy.

“The U.S. government’s precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan and the vengeful actions of the Taliban upon taking power led to deaths of countless Afghan partners left behind. That is the tragic story that warrants attention,” they said. “But any attempt to blame ‘Retrograde’ because the film showed faces of individuals in war zones — as has long been standard in ethical conflict reporting — would be deeply wrong.”

Documentary filmmakers who have also worked in war-torn regions talked with Variety about the issue, with “Restrepo” director Sebastian Junger, “To Kill a Tiger” director Nisha Pahuja and “Taxi to the Dark Side” filmmakers Alex Gibney and Blair Foster among those speaking about the the dangers of such nonfiction filmmaking in the social media age. “In making this film, did it not occur to anyone that it might be putting people in Afghanistan in danger?” asks Foster, who navigated similar terrain while producing Gibney’s Oscar-winning documentary about a taxi driver killed on a U.S. military base in 2002. “Everyone is pointing the finger at each other. The military is pointing to Heineman, Heineman is pointing to the military. Frankly, I think everyone is culpable.”

Either way, a man lost his life allegedly because of his involvement in a documentary. The way that the doc industry protects vulnerable subjects going forward could drastically shift as a result of the controversy surrounding “Retrograde.” Questions about filmmaking approaches have come under fire before — including for Michael Moore’s popular, politically charged documentaries such as “Fahrenheit 9/11,” but the life and death stakes highlighted by the death of a minesweeper in “Retrograde” dramatically underscore the stakes involved.

Not yet clear: what the fallout surrounding “Retrograde” might mean for doc distributors. Going forward, instead of the director and/or production companies doing most of the vetting for a documentary, distributors, fearful of situations such as this, may take more responsibility for vetting docs before agreeing to distribute them.

According to a NatGeo spokesperson, the documentary “went through a legal review and very stringent standard and practices review, as is standard for any film we make.”

While Heineman and McNally praise Nat Geo and Disney as “true partners to us,” they question the decision to pull “Retrograde” from distribution platforms.

“Despite a complex and ever-changing story, they greenlit, oversaw, and released ‘Retrograde,'” the pair said. “That is why NatGeo/Disney’s decision to remove the film from their platforms now — since the Taliban already had comprehensive information identifying Afghans who worked with the U.S. government — serves no purpose but to undermine the vitality of long-established norms of journalism in conflict zones.”

According to a person familiar with the situation, TikTok clips from ‘Retrograde’ are still circulating in Afghanistan. To some filmmakers, the rise of social media platforms have upped the need for greater care than ever when depicting people in sensitive situations, while others stress the need for Hollywood to support nonfiction filmmaking in crisis zones.

But major streamers, which are entertainment companies and not news organizations, arguably will be hesitant to invest in the type of journalism practiced by “Frontline,” which produced “20 Days in Mariupol,” winner of the documentary Oscar in March. In recent years, budgets for docs commissioned by streamers have been cut significantly.

Building more checks and balances into the filmmaking process represents another financial hurdle for producers and platforms distributing documentaries. But without more vetting, streamers like Apple, Amazon and Netflix could be in the position that NatGeo is in now with “Retrograde” — compelled to remove a documentary from their platform. This might make it more likely that streamers won’t be buying or commissioning any conflict docs any time soon.

That, Gibney maintains, would be a mistake.

“Documentaries, news shows and print journalism must all find ways of balancing ways of telling the truth with the toll that truth may impose on subjects,” he says. “Blurring all faces all the time avoids risk — what corporations would call ‘an abundance of caution’ — but it undermines the humanity of subjects, particularly those who wish to be seen and heard.”

He notes: “I have blurred faces or filmed subjects in shadow and sometimes even used actors or computer generated avatars in order to project sources — at their request — who might be at some risk.  But I have also resisted it.”

Michael Hayden, former head of the CIA, “said that I put soldiers at risk in ‘Taxi to the Dark Side’ by showing the faces of the guards who tormented prisoners at Abu Ghraib,” Gibney recalls, but he determined “that the public interest of showing their faces — and the crimes these individuals had committed — outweighed the possible risk of retribution.”

While Heineman has been criticized for not blurring out the faces of the Afghan men in “Retrograde,” Junger isn’t so sure that would have worked.

In 2010, National Geographic released Junger’s doc “Restrepo,” which he co-directed with the late Tim Hetherington. In the film, the directing duo follow the deployment of a U.S. platoon in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley.

“Theoretically anyone could be found and punished for appearing in a doc, especially with facial recognition software,” says Junger.

“‘Retrograde’ was an extreme example — who knew we were going to pull out and the Afghan government was going to collapse? — but the broader implications are almost infinite. The human face is the most dramatic element of a film and in some ways the most important. Personally, I think no one would watch docs where all the faces are blurred out. I guess that means that filmmakers must get a signed consent form from every person who is potentially at risk from a military collapse.

“We care about these stories in part because we can see the humanity in peoples’ faces,” Junger continues. “It’s hard to imagine effective journalism without that. But in the end, human life and dignity must always be the paramount concern of documentarians. It’s a new reality, and filmmakers have to adapt to it.”

Other documentary filmmakers that have worked in war zones full of vulnerable human beings have also grappled with the need to protect sources.

Pamela Yates’ Guatemalan trilogy, which consists of “When the Mountains Tremble” (1983), “Granito: How to Nail a Dictator” (2011), and “500 Years” (2017), traced many of the principal socio-political events unfolding in the war-torn country. Her latest doc, “Borderland,” investigates the U.S. border-industrial complex and Americans’ resistance to it. The film features immigrants in America fighting ICE.

But she notes that for the most part of her protagonists and subjects are activists who have chosen to make themselves publicly known.

“So many of the people who are protagonists in my films are human rights defenders or environmental defenders and they’ve chosen the life of an activist — to be out there,” she says. “But still, (with) documentary filmmaking there’s just so much unknown about what is going to happen and what the repercussions are going to be that all you can do is plan as best as possible.

She continues: “It’s kind of the beauty and the horror of documentary filmmaking that you can plan for nothing and control nothing, yet you have a responsibility, not only to the subjects in the film, but also to the crew of the film, because we are going into hostile environments.”

Yates’ 2009 doc, “The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court,” follows ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo and his team as he issues arrest warrants for Lord’s Resistance Army leaders in Uganda, puts Congolese warlords on trial, shakes up the Colombian justice system, and charges Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir with genocide in Darfur, challenging the U.N. Security Council to arrest him.

The film featured a child soldier from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. After gaining asylum in the United States, the child soldier told Yates that she didn’t want to be part of the doc. Yates, who was in the process of completing the doc, took her out of the film.

“She signed a release, but it’s her life,” says Yates. “She is the captain of her own life, and we can’t impose the story that we want to tell in the documentary film when it meant that her whole identity in high school and beyond would be shaped by having been a child soldier. Ultimately the people in your films, it’s their life.”

Foster isn’t opposed to blurring out faces of vulnerable subjects when the situation seems to call for it either. She produced Gibney’s 2012 doc “Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream,” which blurred the face of a doorman working at an expensive apartment building in New York City.

“We didn’t want this guy to lose his job,” says Foster. “If you are making films about conflict or sensitive subjects, I think there are ways you can make those films and protect people by doing it stylistically in a way that’s creative, informative, and entertaining.

“It’s more challenging, and I think in some cases, blurring someone’s face isn’t even enough to protect them,” she says. “So, I think filmmakers have as much of a creative challenge as an ethical one as to how we tell these stories and keep people safe. But I think it can be done.”

Pahuja also grappled with the best way to protect the identity of a teenager named Kiran while filming her Oscar nominated doc, “To Kill a Tiger,” about a farmer in India who forces a social reckoning after his 13-year-old daughter is the victim of a gang rape. She worked with animators, illustrators and photographers while experimenting with different techniques, and consulted gender rights activists. Even after Kiran and her family moved away from the area, reducing the potential for repercussions, Pahuja took great care when she decided to use the girl’s face in her doc.

“To be honest, I remained anxious-in part because I’m wired that way and in part because I did feel a tremendous responsibility to the family to ensure they would be safe, especially Kiran,” she says. “I think if you’re making films about people who are vulnerable, their consent isn’t necessarily enough.” In the end, “the question for me became how much due diligence should I do before I can breathe easy and let go.”

The 2022 doc “Subject” examines the long-term impact of putting people, often at their most vulnerable, in a documentary. Directors Jennifer Tiexiera and Camilla Hall explored the psychological impact of being unpaid key participants in commercially successful projects including “The Staircase,” “Hoop Dreams,” “Wolfpack,” “The Square” and “Capturing the Friedmans.”

At film festivals, panel discussions are often held about documentary filmmakers’ ethical responsibilities. Topics include: parachuting in and out of peoples’ lives during a crisis for the sake of entertainment; having people in vulnerable, powerless positions sign releases; and if subjects understand that being featured in a doc could forever lock them in a moment in time.

In “Taxi to the Dark Side,” about the murder of an Afghan taxi driver at the Bagram Air Base when it was operated by U.S. military forces, the homicide is used as a backdrop to investigate American use of detention and condoning of torture in interrogations.

“One of the leading factors in making that film was that it was a film where we interviewed multiple soldiers who were involved with the murder of an Afghani track taxi driver,” says Foster. “That had its own set of ethics that we were navigating in interviewing these men.”

While various organizations such as the Documentary Accountability Working Group have developed documentary codes of conduct, they are not mandated in the field.

“In populations that are at great risk and are the most vulnerable populations, there has to be systems in place to literally protect before you go,” says Geeta Gandbhir, an Emmy winning documentary filmmaker who recently directed “Born in Synanon,” a Paramount+ doc series, and previously criticized Heineman for co-directing “Tiger,” HBO’s two-part documentary about Tiger Woods. She stresses that, as documentary filmmakers, “You have to lead with the participants’ safety. There has to be a sort of code of ethics that I don’t think currently exists in our field.”

She suggests that during the recent documentary boom, the field “was so completely unregulated.”

The documentary boom, which began in roughly 2017 and ended abruptly in late 2021, meant more money and opportunity for nonfiction helmers. But Gandbhir says the boom also put enormous pressure on filmmakers “to make films that win awards and make money and are also entertainment.”

Pahuja believes that the “Retrograde” points to “a need for checks and balances and accountability within the entire system. And also, critically, filmmaker support.”

She continues, “So many of us tackle difficult ethical choices and questions and I don’t believe the industry has fully caught up with the reality of what we’re confronted with in the field and what we need as filmmakers. Documentary is not journalism—it may follow certain journalistic rigor but it’s a very particular kind of engagement.”

Marjan Safinia, who directed the politically charged “And She Could Be Next” for “POV,” hopes that going forward, filmmakers who are covering conflict zones will think about the long term consequences on their subjects.

“The complaint isn’t that no one should ever make a film in a war zone again,” says Safinia. “But when we make work like that, in that moment where you first meet someone in a situation and perhaps they agree to (film), it’s not enough, because circumstances can change. The person’s individual situation may change. Then there is later down the road when the film is released.”

Observing that “regular, ordinary human being probably can’t begin to fathom what it all will mean for them,” she maintains that “the burden absolutely rests back on the makers of a documentary.”

Safinia would like to see the doc community ask themselves questions before making films about conflict and people who are marginalized, poverty-stricken, and/or disenfranchised. Those questions include: “What protections have been put in place for the people in the film? What are the possible impacts that will happen to them once the film is platformed and written about in a mainstream press? What power and agency do they have in the place where they are bound to remain once their status changes by a film?”

She concludes, “These are elemental questions that everybody should be asking themselves.”

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