Naval PostGrad School and Stanford University screenings

One of the hardest aspects of making a ‘political documentary’  – the scare quotes are used both to trouble the term as well as the notion of a non-political doc – is getting the balance right:  not the white or color but perspectival balance.  How do you avoid the binary black and whites, of he says, then she says the opposite, while creating and sustaining some kind of narrative tension?   This issue sparked the longest discussions with David and Michael while we edited the film.  We probably sweated the issue more than need be, a combination of producing a film from a non-partisan institute and as well as coming out of crit-lit pasts and documentary film pedagogy.  There were a lot of talk about death of the author and directorial intention (Barthes); essayistic vs characterological doc-making;  and cinema verite (Wiseman) vs. advocacy (Moore).

For the same reason, we screened a series of rough cuts to a wide variety of audiences.  To call them ‘focus groups’ would be to lend too much of a scientific gloss to the process.  But we did make an effort to broaden the ideological/methodological spectrum as much as possible, with screenings that ranged from a gathering of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists to Lt. Colonels from the Army War College’s Eisenhower Project.; unsurprisingly, the academics often told us we needed more academics in the film, and the military wanted more military.   We certainly developed thicker skins at the rough-cut screenings.   But we also incorporated many of the criticisms into the final edit.

With Afghanistan in the headlines and talk shows again, I decided to treat this week’s screenings, first at the Naval Post Graduate School at Monterey and then at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, as a kind of road test, to see if we got the balance right.   The screenings were very different in scope and size. In Monterey, the large auditorium was filled with soldiers, Marines, and airmen; in rank, they were Captains and up; almost all of them had experienced multiple rotations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Several had been in or patrolled with Human Terrain teams.

At Stanford, the setting was more intimate, a large seminar, filled with security experts, historians and social scientists but also sprinkled with budding filmmakers from Stanford’s great documentary program.  There was also a former Human Terrain member as well as commander from Camp Salerno, the forward operating base in Khost where Michael Bhatia had been stationed.   My host was, Norman Naimark, a leading historian of occupation and genocide, whom I’d gotten to know during last year’s stay at the American Academy in Berlin. My discussant was Joseph Felter, a postdoctoral fellow, formerly a Colonel in the Special Forces and head of the Counterinsurgency Advisory and Assistance Team (CAAT) in Afghanistan that reported  directly to Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Gen. David Petraeus.

The Q and A was very, very good.  Just about every comment, every question came with a deep body of knowledge and experience behind it:  that is, except the first one at the Naval PostGrad School (I was informed later that it was from a Navy ‘snake-eater’) and the first criticism offered by my discussant at Stanford.  I suspect the comments emanated from having one too many academics look down their noses on the military:  how could the academic critics in the film (and by extension, academic filmmakers like myself) possibly understand what they were trying to accomplish if they have not walked in the soldier’s shoes?  I’ve been hit by this one before; indeed, after presenting a paper highly critical of the Iraq War (on day three of the invasion) at the Triangle International Security Studies program in Durham, NC, one of the thirty officers attending from the nearby Fort Bragg Special Operations School attempted to refute my analysis by demanding whether I’d ever gone to boot camp.  My response, admittedly a bit flip – ‘I’d never been to the moon either but I know that it’s not made of blue cheese’  – elicited a physical threat from a guy who appeared to the have the necessary skill-set.  I’d learned my lesson.  This time I tried sweet reason, saying detachment, not identification (as one witnessed too often with embeds), was a better road to the truth.  It seemed to work, because the questions and comments that followed were much less confrontational, much more reflective, about how and why Human Terrain got it right or got it wrong.

Interestingly, when I conducted an informal poll at the end of the session – was the film too pro-, too anti- or fair in its appraisal of Human Terrain? – the Naval Postgrad crowd overwhelmingly went for fair, while the more academic crowd at Stanford was more evenly split.  Go figure.


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