Directors Almudena Toral and Mauricio Rodríguez-Pons On The Night Doctrine

Co-directors Almudena Toral and Mauricio Rodríguez-Pons join us on Close-Up Culture to talk about The Night Doctrine.

The film follows the story of Lynzy Billing’s tragic family history, as she embarks on a journey to find out who killed her family 30 years ago, only to uncover hundreds of civilians killed in a secretive American-backed program in Afghanistan. 

What was the inspiration for the film?

The inspiration for the film stemmed from a desire to tell the story of the concealed atrocities committed by the Zero Units, elite Afghan special forces groups backed by the U.S.

We sought to convey the profound impact of these units’ actions on the lives of countless families who lost loved ones during these night raids. By recreating the darkness and shadows that shrouded these events, the film’s mood aims to immerse viewers in the harrowing reality experienced by those affected.

The animation style employed in the film takes audiences on a journey through this extended night. It weaves together Lynzy Billing’s personal story, the recent history of Afghanistan, and the hauntingly recurrent nightly raids carried out by the Zero Units.

By connecting these narratives using seamless animated transitions, which act as a metaphorical point for the audience, the film seeks to emphasize the perpetual nightmare endured by many families who struggle to find someone to hold accountable for their losses.

By employing a moody atmosphere and an animated style, the film immerses viewers in the experience, aiming to capture the somber essence of the night and convey the profound impact on the lives of families affected by these atrocities. We hope that this style keeps the viewer engaged with a story that is difficult to hear, mixing the crudeness of war and botched operations with terrible, life-threatening consequences and the light and beauty of Lynzy’s search and moral compass.

The style of the animation aims to be realistic while concealing the identities of some of our characters for their protection. It finds inspiration from the colors and landscape in Afghanistan and visualizes the journeys, encounters, and emotions, fostering a deeper connection between the audience and the individuals involved.

Why is it important to tell this story?

Over the course of more than three years, Lynzy Billing, a British citizen of Pakistani-Afghan origins, crisscrossed violent swaths of Afghanistan to track deadly night raids by squads of Afghan soldiers who were funded, trained, and directed by the CIA. The raids were often based on disastrously faulty intelligence, resulting in the deaths of scores of civilians who had no ties to the Taliban.

Lynzy was documenting in real time what the United States was doing on the ground in rural pockets of Afghanistan, in places few reporters, if any, had visited.

She meticulously counted the dead, cross-checking her findings with witnesses, local hospitals, and a forensic pathologist she recruited to help her. Her reporting focused on one of four CIA-backed Zero Units, known as the 02, over a four-year period. Her tally of the dead — at least 452 civilians killed during 107 raids — is almost certainly an undercount.

In December 2022, ProPublica published the investigation, “The Night Raids”. The short-doc animation “The Night Doctrine” is an extension of the investigation, taking the audience on a deeply intimate tour through what the U.S. wrought during its 20-year war in Afghanistan and failed strategy that could be employed in another country against another threat.

What were the key things you learned from the “Zero Units”?

This project offers a thought-provoking and immersive experience for those interested in gaining a deeper understanding of the impact of the conflict in Afghanistan and the US.’s involvement in the lives of individuals and communities.

Zero Units were Afghan special forces, backed by the CIA, who carried out night raids. These swift and ruthless operations were strategically designed to create a profound psychological impact, all while ostensibly eliminating high-priority enemy targets. Through years of reporting Lynzy found that a troubling number of these raids appear to have relied on faulty intelligence by the CIA and other U.S. intelligence-gathering services. And because the Zero Units operated under a CIA program, their actions were part of a “classified” war, with the lines of accountability so obscured that no one had to answer for operations that went wrong.

How has the audience received the film?

The reception of the film by the audience has been overwhelmingly positive. The visual quality of the 16-minute-long animation has been lauded as the ideal medium to effectively communicate the gravity and complexity of the story, especially regarding the actions of the Zero Units during the final years of America’s war in Afghanistan.

The film’s storytelling has been commended for its powerful depiction of the dramatic impact caused by the actions of the Zero Units. Critics have recognized the film’s ability to convey the weight and significance of these events, shedding light on the repercussions they had on family members who had loved ones killed in these night raids and were left without answers.

The story’s ability to engage viewers emotionally and intellectually has been highlighted as a major strength, providing a deeper understanding of the complexities involved in the conflict.

Critics have acknowledged the film’s unique perspective on this subject—Due to the fact that Lynzy’s own mother and sister were killed in a raid during Afghanistan’s civil war, Lynzy was able to tell this story with a much deeper level of empathy and understanding. The film’s ability to shed light on the intricacies of the US government’s approach to the conflict has also been regarded as a significant contribution to the understanding of the historical context.

What drew you both to this film?

Our enduring interest in migration, displacement, and loss has guided our creative endeavors, prompting a profound exploration of how trauma shapes individuals and society. We deeply admire those who exhibit remarkable resilience while being forced to leave their homes against all odds. This admiration serves as a driving force behind our filmmaking approach, seamlessly intertwined with these considerations.

Over the course of our dedicated three-year collaboration with Lynzy, our goal has been to craft a powerful narrative that brings her personal story to life and illuminates the experiences of families affected by the actions of the Zero Units. We tried to capture the essence of their struggles, hopes, and the profound impact of these operations. Our collective endeavor was to create a resonant storytelling experience, foster empathy and understanding for those impacted and give space to hear their voices.

Why did you choose to make this an animation and not a documentary?

We made the decision to create an animated short documentary largely to protect the sources in this film—this was particularly important given the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August of 2021. We also felt that using animation emphasized the surreal and nightmarish nature of these raids, and allowed us to seamlessly link each section of the story, lending the narrative a surreal, dreamlike feeling.

The use of animation as a medium also enables the vivid visualization of the experiences, places, and people encountered by Lynzy over her extensive three-year investigation. By bringing these elements to life, the film grants viewers an intimate glimpse into the lives affected by the events portrayed and allows for a deeper connection between the audience and the individuals involved, fostering empathy and understanding of the pain and suffering endured by the hundreds of families impacted by the night raids.

What is next for you both?

Lynzy is working on other stories from Afghanistan and the region and we are working on other ProPublica documentary film projects which we hope to be able to share soon. We all hope to work on other investigative film projects.

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