Debuting at Toronto's Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, the film Human Terrain analyzes the ethical minefield in Afghanistan where social scientists advise military commanders on how to win the hearts of Afghanis and Iraqis.
How can American forces in Afghanistan and Iraq not only battle insurgents and preserve troop morale but also better acquaint themselves with Middle East culture? How can the American soldier become a professional killer and an empathetic foreigner?
Those questions are explored in a new documentary screening next week at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto. Human Terrain introduces viewers to the Human Terrain System, a controversial program the U.S. military adopts to "make cultural awareness a key element of its counterinsurgency strategy," as the filmmakers explain on their website. Essentially, social scientists and anthropologists are invited to embed with American soldiers to teach them how to interact with Afghan residents. The academics collaborate with military strategists in order to gain a foothold in a war some believe is spiralling out of control.
The first half of Human Terrain follows soldiers training at 29 Palms in California, an Afghan village mock-up featuring lifelike environments and actors playing various roles. The soldiers need to learn how to deal with new etiquette rules in Afghanistan, something the U.S. military might not train recruits before they ship out. At 29 Palms, Human Terrain focuses on commanders who speak about the value of training soldiers to learn about socializing with the residents of the country where they are stationed.
The film eventually dissects the controversy: many anthropologists are uncomfortable aiding the military with this program. Hugh Gusterson, a member of the executive board of the American Anthropological Association, said it best in an NPR article: "It's impossible to be embedded in American military units in Afghanistan, collecting information about local villages, and not be complicit with actions that result in the death or imprisonment of some of the people you talk to."
The film's co-director David Udris spoke to DigitalJournal.com about Gusterson's argument (also articulated in Human Terrain). Udris said this "do no harm" principle can be problematic during war. "When does a social scientist give or withhold information from the military when there are bullets flying through the air?"
Courtesy David Udris
David Udris is one of the co-director of the documentary Human Terrain
Udris said the film doesn't offer an opinion on the success of the HTS, but instead wants viewers to decide for themselves. "The film complicates the debate, if anything," he admits. "It makes this concept a reality, something viewers can engage in."
If the HTS issue isn't of interest, Udris wants you to know the film is an example of how to tiptoe around the contentious military education debate. Udris wonders, "What type of courses are appropriate at a military university? Should gender studies be included? Should soldiers move away from their warrior identities?"
The second half of the doc turns to a casualty of HTS, framing the debate with a more humane polish. Human Terrain's probe of social scientist Michael Vinay Bhatia's death in 2008 makes a case for revamping HTS, if only to protect those unprepared for the hell of war.
Human Terrain is more than just a documenting a program marrying academia with battleground tactics. The filmmakers trains their eye on the ethical chaos of trying to understand a culture infiltrated by a foreign army. Many questions posed still have yet to be answered.
Human Terrain is screening at Hot Docs on May 7, 9:45 p.m. at the ROM Theatre; and on May 8, 4:30 p.m. at Innis Town Hall.
More Hot Docs preview coverage tomorrow. Visit DigitalJournal.com on Sunday for an interview with British doc filmmaker Kim Longinotto