Filmmaker explains how film’s purpose evolved
Patrick L. Sullivan
SALISBURY — James Der Derian, one of the filmmakers responsible for “Human Terrain,” said that the film is, if nothing else, an example of starting to make one film and ending up with something quite different.
The Salisbury Forum sponsored the unusual documentary film at the Moviehouse in Millerton on Sunday, Feb. 26, with a question and answer period after the show.
“Human Terrain” is described by the filmmakers — Der Derian, and David Udris and Michael Udris, as “an expose of the U.S. effort to enlist America’s best and the brightest in a global struggle for the hearts and minds of its enemies.
“After winning the short battle of ’shock and awe’ in Iraq, but losing the long war to bring democracy and peace to the Middle East, the U.S. military began a controversial program to ‘operationalize’ culture as an instrument of irregular warfare.”
The film shows Marines training in the Mojave Desert and at Quantico, Va., working at first with other Marines dressed up as Iraqis, and later with much more sophisticated role-playing exercises.
The idea was to make “cultural awareness a key element of [the military’s] counterinsurgency strategy.”
Der Derian said that the “Shock and Awe” strategy “was knocked on its back legs by Fallujah.”
“Counter-insurgency has no front lines.”
One of the central questions raised by the film is whether academics — specifically, anthropologists — should become involved with the military.
The film is also the story of a casualty — and becomes very personal for the filmmakers.
Der Derian wrote on the humanterrainmovie.com website that the team “interviewed the key players as well as the most vocal critics.
“However, our original intentions as well as moral fixities were undone when Michael Bhatia, a colleague, collaborator and friend, was killed in Afghanistan while we were making the film.”
Bhatia, a graduate student at Brown University, was studying how “the Pentagon was creating new doctrines, strategies and organizations to help return some symmetry to the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.”
What the filmmakers didn’t know is that Bhatia was being recruited for his expertise. When he joined a “Human Terrain team” in Afghanistan, they kept in touch with him and were preparing for a video interview when Bhatia was killed by a roadside bomb in November 2008.
The filmmakers do not appear to endorse any particular point of view. People with opposing opinions are treated in a neutral manner.
If there is a bias, it is personal, with the death of Bhatia looming large over the film.
During the question and answer period, someone asked if the Human Terrain approach had been successful at all.
Der Derian said, “We were more interested in the shift in the American way of war. In terms of neutralizing Al Qaeda, yes, it’s been successful.”
Bhatia did find that the HT program did decrease mortality, Der Derian said. “But is going in with what we think is a perfect tool more likely to provoke violence?”
As to the perceived ambivalence of the film, Der Derian said that is the result of arguments among the three filmmakers, who argued between edits.
Asked how the ethical issues for anthropologists are any different than those facing the physicists who worked on the atomic bomb, Der Derian began by describing World War I as the chemists’ war, World War II as the physicists’ war, World War III (or the Cold War) as the political scientists’ war, and World War IV — now — as the anthropologist’s war.
Der Derian said that anthropologists are acutely aware of their discipline’s history as “the handmaids of colonialism,” and in the pacification program during the Vietnam War.
“Anthropologists are carrying a lot more baggage” than those in other disciplines.
Asked about recent unrest in Afghanistan over U.S. troops burning Korans, Der Derian said, “I’m sure whoever did that received cultural sensitivity training.”
He added that if he has to choose ‘between conspiracy and a screwup” he will go with the latter.
“Even with perfect information, in an impossible situation, rationality won’t win the day.”