War documentarian speaks about filming in the Middle East

Dodge Billingsley addresses students at the Kennedy Center. Billingsley speaks about his experiences filming conflict in the Middle East, and the recent Taliban capture of Kunduz. (Theresa Davis)

Dodge Billingsley, director of Combat Films and Research, spoke to BYU audiences at the Kennedy Center on Wednesday, Oct. 7 to discuss his experiences in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s recent capture of the Afghan city of Kunduz.

He has won numerous international awards for his war documentaries. He has embedded with U.S. military forces to film several conflicts in Chechnya, Afghanistan and Iraq. Billingsley is also a senior faculty member at the Naval Post Graduate School’s Center for Civil Military Relations.

The director of Combat Films and Research explained that conflict in Afghanistan is often hard for Westerners to comprehend because of differing views on national identity.

“The Afghan border is essentially an artificial border that was once created by the British and Russian Empires as a buffer zone,” Billingsley said. “There are so many factions of different ethnicities in the country that Afghanistan’s national identity is hard to pinpoint.”

Billingsley also said that Westerners may be confused by the Afghani people’s shifting opinions on military personnel and government.

“Afghans are survivors,” Billingsley said. “There has been conflict in Afghanistan for over 40 years. Afghans will never be fully engaged with American operations, because sooner or later the Americans leave.”

He said the Taliban presence that has resurfaced in Afghanistan is much different than what the Taliban looked like pre-2001.

“There are Shia Hazaras in this resurgence of the Taliban, which would have never been tolerated before, as the Taliban is mostly ethnic Pashtuns,” Billingsley said. “What we have yet to see is if this new friendlier Taliban is just a ploy to win the hearts and minds of the people in order to regain power.”

He mentioned that America’s future in Afghanistan’s conflicts is uncertain.

“There isn’t even a plan yet on the table for Kunduz because it will be such a tremendous fight,” Billingsley said. “It will be a rough road ahead. Should the United States be the world’s police? That’s the million-dollar question: should we stay or should we go?”

Billingsley spoke about the steps of his journey to making war documentaries. He said he obtained both undergraduate and graduate level degrees in war studies, then went to work for several think tanks.

“I was a defense analyst at first, but I had always loved film,” Billingsley said. “I was sort of finding my way at the time.”

He explained he started making television programs about military technologies for the Discovery Channel in the mid ’90s.

“That was kind of like my internship or film school experience,” Billingsley said. “I worked on five different programs and learned everything about filmmaking, then I took off on my own and made my first film about the war in Chechnya, and about the human dimension in that war.”

The director mentioned how he first started documenting war in the Middle East.

“Right after 9/11, I just jumped on a plane, and flew over to Uzbekistan,” Billingsley said. “I intended to get into Afghanistan and cover this conflict.”

Billingsley said he started stringing for CBS that week, and he reported the news from the battle of Qala-i-Jangi in Afghanistan. He also said his coverage of this conflict led to an opportunity as one of the first people to cover Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan in 2002.

“I got a phone call from a staff member in Kuwait that knew about the plan for Operation Anaconda, and they wanted media coverage,” Billingsley said. “I took a risk and flew to Kuwait on my own dime. I was met in Kuwait by plain clothes military personnel and I flew into Afghanistan, still not knowing what the mission was.”

He and a handful of other combat journalists were briefed on Operation Anaconda, then they accompanied the military on helicopters going out for the fight.

“Operation Anaconda was a watershed moment in our narrative as Americans in Afghanistan,” Billingsley said.

Billingsley discussed the difficult transition between covering war and relating those intense experiences to friends and family.

“It’s hard to tell the people I’m closest to, like my wife, about the close calls, like a bullet whizzing by or a rocket exploding behind us,” Billingsley said. “I got married between the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts, and it did change for me a little bit, because all of a sudden I felt like there was somebody at home.”

He told about the physical and emotional toll of filming war.

“Combat is really exhausting, and it’s a grueling task to cover combat well,” Billingsley said. “There’s a reason that the soldiers who fight these conflicts are between the ages of 18 and 25.”

As the director, he said he noticed that documenting war goes far beyond filming the conflict.

“It is important to translate those experiences so that you can provide some sort of insight,” Billingsley said. “As a filmmaker, I feel like there’s a sort of responsibility to do that.”

Billingsley said that some of the greatest lessons he has learned in his work have not been during the actual filming of combat.

“After having traipsed around these areas of conflict, it is interesting to come back and sort of reflect on those experiences to see if you actually did learn any lessons that you can apply to the future,” Billingsley said.

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