A Taliban revenge killing prompts questions, removal of an acclaimed documentary

By and Hope Hodge Seck

The Washington Post

National Geographic has pulled the Emmy-winning film “Retrograde” from its streaming platforms after criticism from veterans and inquiries from The Washington Post.

On a winter day not long ago, an Afghan man — a 21-year-old who’d once dazzled U.S. Special Forces with his ability to find roadside bombs — was stopped at a checkpoint by Taliban guards on his way to a bazaar.

They let him go, but within days, the Taliban seized him at his house, according to an interpreter who spoke to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity to describe this sequence of events without imperiling his own family in Afghanistan.

In many ways the man was like the thousands of Afghans who’d worked for U.S. troops as interpreters and bomb-clearers but were left in peril after the 2021 U.S. withdrawal and the Afghan government’s fall to the Taliban. But this man — whom the Green Berets had nicknamed “Justin Bieber” because of his good looks and lustrous hair — was different in one crucial way.

After his release from Taliban custody, the interpreter said the man told him: “They showed me Retrogade Movie and said you have worked with foreign forces and also worked in the movie. … They found me through Retrograde Movie.”

His captors plunged his head below water, nearly drowning him. They punched and kicked him. They beat him with wooden sticks. More than two weeks later his family found him lying in the street outside their home, he told the interpreter. (A family friend who had direct contact with the man, as well as a second interpreter, confirmed the account of his capture, according to text messages with extraction advocates related to humanitarian efforts that were reviewed by The Post.) A doctor told him “my lung is not working.”

Within weeks he was dead.

A scene from the 2022 documentary “Retrograde,” which aired on National Geographic and streamed on digital platforms, including Hulu, until National Geographic removed it in April, in “an abundance of caution,” according to a statement, because of “new attention to this film.” (National Geographic/Everett Collection)

For some of those who say they issued warnings, the loss of the man the soldiers called Justin Bieber was a death foretold — and a tragedy that may be repeated. (The Post is not using his name to protect his family from potential further harm.) As many as eight other Afghans whose faces are shown in “Retrograde” remain in hiding in the region, according to the 1208 Foundation, a charitable organization that specializes in evacuating Afghans who cleared mines for U.S. forces.

“Retrograde” — which won three Emmy awards in 2023 as well as an Edward R. Murrow Award for feature documentary — has now disappeared. National Geographic quietly removed the documentary from all its platforms in April after The Post sought comment about whether its content may have put some of its subjects in danger. National Geographic, which produces documentaries as part of a joint agreement with Disney, said in a statement to The Post that it was pulling the film in “an abundance of caution,” because of “new attention to this film.”

“The film also showcased the vital work of Afghan soldiers and allies who operated alongside U.S. troops,” the statement says. “We were devastated to learn of the death of one of those brave Afghans and our heart goes out not only to his family but to all those still in danger as they fight against a brutal terrorist organization.”

Heineman and McNally declined to be interviewed. In response to written questions, they said they “have no recollection” of receiving specific warnings about the Afghan bomb-clearers after two prerelease reviews by the U.S. military or following a D.C. screening event held before the film’s debut that was attended by two former Green Berets who say they warned about the danger of showing the faces of bomb-clearers.

In a statement emailed to The Post after “Retrograde” was removed from streaming, Heineman and McNally called the man’s death “a heartbreaking tragedy.”

“The U.S. government’s precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan and the vengeful actions of the Taliban upon taking power — armed with detailed information identifying Afghans who worked with the U.S. government — led to the deaths of countless partners left behind. That is the tragic story that warrants attention,” the statement 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.”

Heineman and McNally also criticized National Geographic’s decision to remove “Retrograde” from its platforms.

“From the beginning, Nat Geo/Disney have been true partners to us. Despite a complex and ever-changing story, they greenlit, oversaw, thoroughly reviewed, and released ‘Retrograde,’” the statement said. “But their decision to remove the film from their platforms protects no one and accomplishes nothing other than undermining the vitality of long-established norms of journalism.”

Alex Gibney, an Oscar-winning documentarian who was executive producer of a 2017 film directed by Heineman, is also critical of National Geographic’s decision.

“This comes at a time when risk-averse entertainment companies are increasingly inclined to avert their eyes from current events that affect us all in favor of celebrity commercials and mindless true crime,” Gibney said.

As The Post was reporting this story, the interpreter’s account of Justin Bieber’s final days was referenced in a previously unreported March 27 letter that wasn’t released publicly to Secretary of State Antony Blinken from two House members — Jared Moskowitz (D-Fla.), and retired Green Beret and Afghanistan war veteran Michael Waltz (R-Fla.).

“The lack of obscured faces,” the congressmen wrote, “has transformed [‘Retrograde’] into a de facto target list, one which the Taliban has exploited, resulting in the confirmed torture and murder” of the man who was killed after appearing in the documentary. They urged the State Department to expedite visas for the men depicted in “Retrograde” who remain in Afghanistan, “given the immediate and severe threat to their lives.”

The death of the man featured in “Retrograde” raises thorny questions about the responsibilities of journalists and documentarians, particularly in conflict zones, who are faced with the difficult task of balancing the desire to tell complete and compelling stories with the potential dangers their work might create for subjects. In recent years, there has been some discussion in the industry and academia about the creation of a code of ethics or formal guidelines for documentary filmmakers, who often work without the oversight that is common at major news organizations.

“Retrograde,” which was filmed with military permission, is not the first National Geographic documentary involving filmmakers embedding with U.S. forces in Afghanistan. In 2007’s “Inside the Green Berets,” the narrator — Emmy-nominated filmmaker Steven Hoggard — tells the viewer: “The Taliban will kill anyone who speaks with or interprets for the Americans, and we’ve blurred the faces of anyone deemed at risk.”

The mine-clearer who was killed (a.k.a. Justin Bieber) survived the 16 months after the U.S. pullout in August 2021, but was seized within weeks of “Retrograde’s” TV release, according to a translation of the man’s account that was texted to 1208 by an interpreter and was confirmed in a Post interview with the interpreter. Since the man’s death, the filmmakers have made payments to his family, including at least one $150 payment in 2023, according to text messages at the time with Thomas Kasza, a former Green Beret who runs the 1208 Foundation. More recently, Heineman and McNally arranged through a different charity, Team Themis, for a grant to pay the family $800 per month in living expenses for six months starting in February this year, according to the charitable group.

Heineman and McNally contend that the Taliban would have had the means to identify the man even if he hadn’t appeared in the film, because the Taliban had numerous ways of identifying Afghans who worked with American forces, including using seized biometrics devices left behind by the U.S. military containing information about them. Some analysts have concluded those devices were only of limited use.

But in at least one instance, McNally told others that “Retrograde” would endanger an Afghan who wasn’t in the bomb-clearing group but also appeared in the documentary. About six weeks before the film premiered on the National Geographic Channel in December 2022, McNally sent a message to Kasza saying that an Afghan military officer “who is featured quite a bit in the film is still stuck inside the country. We are very concerned for him especially once the film comes out.”

In the same message, McNally wrote that the man had worked with Green Berets “for years and is definitely in danger now.”

Actress Rosamund Pike, left, with director Matthew Heineman on the set of Heineman’s 2018 feature film “A Private War.” (Paul Conroy/Aviron Pictures/Everett Collection)

At 40, Heineman is one of only two people — along with Martin Scorsese — to be nominated for the Directors Guild of America awards as both a documentary (2015’s “Cartel Land”) and feature film director (for 2018’s “A Private War,” which starred Rosamund Pike as Marie Colvin, a journalist slain while covering civil war in Syria).

Documentarian Tom Yellin, who worked on Heineman’s “Cartel Land,” called the director a “thoughtful, focused, caring and careful journalist.”

“On our film,” Yellin said by text message, “we had many sensitive scenes that we reviewed in detail to ensure that we were handling them in ways that best told the story without putting people in harm’s way.”

“Retrograde” takes its name from the military term for a withdrawal from the front lines. In a late 2022 interview with a movie industry journalist’s streaming program titled “DP 30: The Oral History of Hollywood,” Heineman held forth on the importance of “the motif of faces” in the film. “Holding on faces, holding on reaction shots,” he said. “It was very much something that was contemplated, obviously, in the editing room.”

“Retrograde” was well-received by critics. The Guardian’s reviewer raved about its “hyper high-definition cinematography [that] is both beautiful in a savage way and adds immediacy to the viewing experience.” A Washington Post critic called it “an impressive and yet enormously depressing achievement.” The New York Times said it was “shrewdly observant.”

Heineman’s film crew first embedded in January 2021 with a group of Green Berets in Helmand province — the dangerous hub of the Taliban’s opium trade and the site of some of the most brutal and protracted battles of the 20-year war. The Green Berets trained Afghan National Army troops but also conducted their own operations with the paid help of two groups of Afghan bomb-clearers, a collection of contractors working independently from the Afghan army and known as the National Mine Removal Group, or NMRG.

Some of the Afghan mine-clearers were initially uneasy about being filmed but overcame their reluctance.

Charlie Crail, the 10th Special Forces Group media officer assigned to the project, said the mine-clearers were “fearless” and, when asked about being filmed, “all of them were like, ‘Yeah, we don’t care, that’s fine.’”

One of the commanders of the two NMRG groups shown in the film said in an April 22 statement that was forwarded to The Post by Heineman that he “authorized” the men being filmed and having their faces shown because “we saw the value for this story to be told.” Later, in response to questions from The Post, the commander — who spoke on the condition of anonymity, so as not to endanger relatives in Afghanistan — acknowledged that he was not in charge of the dead man’s group, but he said he had served as an adviser to it.

The conversations about whether the men could be filmed took place at a time when the mine-clearers and their U.S. allies still hoped that the Taliban would be defeated. More than 300 Afghans and their family members who had worked with the Americans had already been killed by the Taliban, according to a report published the year before “Retrograde” filming began by No One Left Behind, a charitable organization that assists in evacuating Afghan allies and helping them acquire U.S. visas.

The danger for those Afghans and their families “dramatically increased” after the U.S. withdrawal, No One Left Behind’s Andrew J. Sullivan testified during a congressional hearing in January.

Some of the Green Berets felt protective of their Afghan partners and were concerned about exposing them to danger and unsure whether they understood what was being asked of them, said a U.S. service member who was in Afghanistan at the time, and spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly.

“There were concerns from day one,” he said.

During filming in March 2021, the Green Berets in the documentary insisted that they be able to preview “Retrograde” and the Department of the Army granted them, in writing, an “assurance that the film would be screened heavily by the military and NatGeo in accordance with our requests,” the service member said. “It’s kind of a fallback that even though [filmmakers are] deviating from personnel security at the moment, that it would be caught and cleaned up later.”

The role of the Green Berets would be greatly diminished in “Retrograde” as U.S. forces withdrew and the film changed its narrative focus. The scene with the close-up that circulated on TikTok shows the Green Berets telling the bomb-clearers that they’re leaving, and includes comments from one of the Afghans saying they will be in danger if they return to their “normal lives.” The man who was killed nods in response.

The scene lasts just a few minutes of a 96-minute film, but it is a pivotal and quietly despairing prelude.

A scene from “Retrograde.” (National Geographic/Everett Collection)

Before “Retrograde’s” release, the U.S. military got the preview it had been promised. They immediately saw issues.

“Concern about Afghan partners and faces being blurred was raised,” said Crail.

After screening the film, Crail, who has since retired, said he and another U.S. service member told McNally: “You guys need to do your due diligence before you release this movie to make sure as many of these guys are out [of Afghanistan] as possible.”

Military officials not only feared for the Afghans they’d hired but had also begun to worry that returning Green Beret team members who’d agreed to be in the film were at risk, even in the United States.

“The team members also have concerns over security because of the Taliban now being in charge in Kabul,” Maj. Peter Bogart, a U.S. Army communications officer assigned to the project, wrote in an email to a group of military public affairs officers. “They have concerns over their identity being shown in the film since it was not a routine rotation followed by continued ops, but now many of the targets are now part of the government. At this stage in the review process, can team members or family members withdraw their consent to be in the film?” (Eventually they decided not to make that request.)

The Taliban takeover had also heightened concerns among some of the Green Berets about their NMRG partners being shown in the film.

“It was a different risk perspective,” the filmmakers were told, according to a U.S. military officer’s account of the review process that was shared with Kasza after the man’s death, while they were seeking assistance from Disney in acquiring visas for men depicted in “Retrograde.”

Some of the military personnel who reviewed the film considered it their mandate to scan for anything that would compromise U.S. military interests. The contract between the military and Heineman’s company requires the filmmakers to remove “sensitive security-related or classified information.”

“The bottom line is that both the military public affairs officers and the Green Berets approved the final version of the film for release, which included faces of NMRG,” Heineman and McNally said in a written response to further questions from The Post.

The military screeners saw their sign-off differently. Their reading of the contract with Heineman’s production company was that it did not give them the right to demand changes related to Afghan contractors, according to a U.S. service member who provided an account of the sequence of events to Kasza. An internal U.S. military public affairs email about “Retrograde” states that “the US Army does not have editorial control of the documentary, but we can ask that scenes be deleted if we can justify how the scenes will be harmful to the unit or US Army.”

(Heineman and McNally did not address The Post’s written questions about the military’s interpretation of the contract.)

Still, the officials asked the filmmakers to take steps to protect the mine-clearers, who were now considered to be in much greater danger than when the project had begun, according to The Post’s interviews.

“The feedback given was that, you can blur it, you can cut ’em, you can crop the scenes,” the U.S. service member who was in Afghanistan at the time of the filming said on the condition of anonymity beacuse he was not authorized to speak publicly. “Whatever is done the absolute minimum should just be blurring. Just fix it. We discussed this ad nauseam.”

McNally, the “Retrograde” producer, showed the film to Crail and a U.S. military commander, as well as Green Berets in the film. Crail recalled that she was noncommittal about making changes, such as blurring faces, though she was “definitely taking notes.”

At that point, a military screener concluded that “the decision had already been made,” according to another U.S. service member’s account of interactions with the filmmakers that was shared with Kasza and was reviewed by The Post on the condition that the service member not be named because of concerns that the service member could face retribution from the filmmakers or Disney. “Nothing was going to change.”

In October 2022, Thomas Kasza and a colleague from the 1208 Foundation attended an invitation-only screening of “Retrograde” at National Geographic’s Washington headquarters. They met McNally for pre-show drinks at a bar in the elegant Jefferson hotel nearby.

Kasza recalled that he and his friend were “starry eyed” that night, getting to hang out with Hollywood types. Kasza, now 35, had been a Green Beret and saw combat in Afghanistan. When he came home, the restlessness of the battlefield came with him, an intensity he channeled into the foundation’s effort to evacuate Afghans who worked with the United States. In “Retrograde,” Kasza and his colleague saw an opportunity to raise money.

The film did not disappoint in its depiction of the fall of Afghanistan, but the scene showing close-ups of the Afghan bomb-clearers gnawed at Kasza and his colleague, Dave, who agreed to be interviewed by The Post on the condition that only his first name be used so as not to compromise ongoing logistical work evacuating Afghans who worked with the U.S. military.

Kasza couldn’t help but worry that the film could essentially be handing “a hit list” to the Taliban.

That feeling of unease persisted as the evening spilled into an after-party at Old Ebbitt Grill, said Kasza.

Both Kasza and Dave vividly recalled pulling Heineman and McNally aside and expressing concerns that showing the faces of the Afghan bomb-clearers put them at risk. They remember urging the documentarians to take steps to help the men and their families leave Afghanistan. Heineman and McNally were opposed to obscuring faces and gave vague assurances about assistance evacuating the men, Kasza and Dave said, but the veterans were still hopeful at that point that the filmmakers would take their advice to heart. (In their written response to The Post regarding their lack of recollection about the conversation, Heineman and McNally also note that Kasza and Dave were “repeatedly thanking us and praising our work” after the screening.)

Despite the misgivings Kasza and Dave say they felt about showing the faces of Afghan bomb-clearers, they continued to publicly support the film, hoping it would help them raise funds for their charity, they said. In one text message that Kasza confirmed to The Post that he sent Heineman and McNally, he even said to the filmmakers that “Retrograde” was “about to be the hottest show in town and every Afghan centric org will be lining up to tie themselves to you guys.” Kasza attended more than a dozen screenings and occasionally praised the film on social media.

Dave also attended other screenings, including one in New York, where, he said, he attended a boisterous cocktail reception and expressed his concerns to Carolyn Bernstein, National Geographic’s executive vice president of global scripted content and documentary films. “I really think that showing their faces is a huge mistake, and I think it’s going to lead to people being injured or killed,” Dave recalled telling her. (Bernstein, who attended numerous screenings, does not recall the conversation, a National Geographic spokesman said.)

In a written statement, a National Geographic spokesman vigorously rebutted the officer’s account of the warnings, saying that “at no time … was anything related to blurring faces of NMRG discussed. Any reporting to the contrary is simply not true, and we suspect is a mis-relaying of a conversation.”

Days after “Retrograde’s” TV premiere, McNally began sending text messages to Kasza raising some alarms about repercussions, including passing along insights from a “mil intel dude” who ominously warned: “Afghanistan culture is huge on revenge.”

In her messages, McNally didn’t say whether she believed the warning, but she relayed fresh concerns from men who had appeared in the film and were now contacting Afghans in the United States and other places to say they were in danger.

McNally next alerted Kasza by text message that a pirated clip of the scene featuring the Afghan NMRG was circulating on TikTok in Afghanistan. She sent him an audio recording of a message left for her in broken English by one of the NMRG featured in the film who’d managed to get out of Afghanistan and was hearing from others in the film who were still there.

“My soldiers say to me, ‘You guys make my life more danger so I need your guy’s help,’” the man said. “So this is big problem. Everyone is watching that video.”

At a secret location in Afghanistan, the TikTok video landed on the phone of one of the mine-clearers in the film, sent by a former colleague who was worried about him. (The man, who later managed to escape Afghanistan after a long ordeal, agreed to be interviewed on the condition of anonymity to protect the safety of family members in the region.)

In a tearful interview with The Post, the man recalled being told: “Watch out. Be careful. Everyone can find you.”

A realization dawned on him: “Now you can find me on Google. I thought it was the last day of my life.”

On Jan. 17, 2023, not quite a month after “Retrograde’s” premiere, an email made its way to Heineman’s production company: “I had a side role in the film Retrograde and appeared in very serious scenes. I need Mr. Matthew Heineman’s Email for some serious reason … I need to talk directly with Mr. Heineman. it will be your kindness.”

The email was from the man called Justin Bieber, translated by a person who said he was a family friend. After the email was received, McNally again reached out to Kasza for help. Eventually, the man managed to get across the border into Pakistan, where he underwent four surgeries.

When word about the man’s death made it to one of the U.S. service members who was in Afghanistan at the time of the filming, he “was heartbroken … heartbroken because they had trusted us and we had reluctantly trusted National Geographic. But there wasn’t the morality, the common sense, demonstrated to tone back the focus to obscure identities or to negate their exposure.”

Several journalists who have worked in conflict zones came to Heineman’s defense after he told them that this story was being prepared, among them Jane Ferguson, an award-winning “PBS NewsHour” journalist with extensive experience in Afghanistan.

“The reality is that, you know, if we’re now saying that anybody who has ever filmed anybody from any of the security forces in Afghanistan, who was ever filmed, we are suddenly liable for and responsible for the Taliban’s response, I don’t really understand how that is a practical or even rational evaluation, given that every news organization in America has hours and hours and hours of footage on the internet as readily available anywhere,” Ferguson said.

Crail — the military media escort — sees existential matters at play that go beyond journalism ethics, or the decisions made by one filmmaking duo: “The bottom line is that every Afghan who ever worked to support Western efforts in that country in any capacity was written off and abandoned by the US Government and, by and large, by the American people the moment the president announced withdrawal,” he said in an email to The Post. “I fully believe that no amount of blurred faces or obscured [IDs on uniforms] would have saved a single individual we as a people left behind.”

National Geographic was not informed by the documentarians about the man’s death until months after it happened and was unaware of money paid by the filmmakers to the family of the dead man until receiving questions about it from The Post. A National Geographic spokesman said he knew of no other example of payments being made to someone who died after appearing in one of its documentaries.

A series of texts among Heineman, McNally and Kasza show how they clashed over the best way to help the man’s family. The relationship between Kasza and Heineman grew contentious and the director and producer have come to believe that Kasza’s criticism of “Retrograde” is driven by “personal animosity” — a charge Kasza denies.

Among the things Kasza had wanted, for months, was help securing approvals for Afghan mine-clearers portrayed in the film, who are eligible for resettlement in the United States through a heavily backlogged Special Immigrant Visa program created to acknowledge the risks they’d undertaken. But the visa process — which was designed as an incentive for Afghans to work with U.S. forces — takes an average of 403 days to complete.

Now that National Geographic has pulled “Retrograde” from its platforms, Kasza sees another opening to get what he’s been pushing for: not only help with visas, but also assistance evacuating the mine-clearers in the documentary — though it’s unclear how that would be accomplished.

“We still want Disney and Matt Heineman to do the right thing and get our guys out,” Kasza said. “The risk is still there.”

Kasza also is starting to get some traction on Capitol Hill. On Jan. 31 of this year, he appeared at a barely noticed hearing before a subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. One of the congressmen who heard his testimony that day was Waltz, the House member who is now asking the State Department to expedite visas for Afghan contractors featured in “Retrograde” and has pointed an accusatory finger at the documentary.

Before he testified, Kasza shared with the subcommittee a written statement from a family member of the man who’d died after appearing in “Retrograde.” It said the man’s colleagues “now live in constant fear, knowing they could face the same brutal fate.”

Kasza also cast blame on “Retrograde” on behalf of his 1208 Foundation, saying in his own written statement to the subcommittee that the film contributed to “a chain of events” that led to the man’s death.

In his mind as he wrote those words were at least eight Afghan mine-clearers who appeared in the film. They still are out there in the Afghanistan region, Kasza believes, still hiding, still in peril.

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

A Taliban revenge killing prompts questions, removal of an acclaimed documentary