In 2021 an epic operation to rescue 15,000 people from Kabul as the Taliban closed in sparked headlines across the globe. A new documentary gives rare insight into the emotional impact on army and airforce personnel through first-hand interviews and on-the-ground footage, writes Adrian Pennington.
“Soldiers don’t sit around waiting on their bergens to do documentaries,” said Bayard Barron, head of communications for the British Military. “You’ve got to stop them doing something which the tax payer is paying for and ask them to invest hours in interviews.”
More pertinently, getting the army to speak on the record requires sign off from senior military bosses and the ministry of defence.
This the background to Evacuation, a three-part Channel 4 documentary reliving the last-ditch rescue of thousands of British nationals and Afghans from Kabul airport in August 2021.
Told from the Army’s point of view and largely avoiding political criticism of the chaotic retreat, the film features rare candid displays of emotion from serving personnel as they recount the desperate and alarming situation they encountered.
Behind the Scenes: Evacuation - First hand accounts
Diana Bird, Squadron Leader in the RAF Police gave one of the eyewitness testimonies and said she wouldn’t have agreed if producers Wonderhood Studios were going to portray them as heroes.
“This is a story that is important to tell properly,” Bird said at Sheffield Doc Fest. “It was explained to me that [the documentary] was not going to be the hyper-masculine macho war type of thing you would normally see with the military but about the softer side of what we do as the armed forces. If we were going to do that and not make us all out to be heroes, then I was happy to be part of it.”
Also contributing his first-hand account is Private Ahmad Fahim, an Afghanistan-born interpreter for British military commanders. He was the only member of the army who understood the urgent questions and screams of Afghanis on Kabul airfield.
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“Initially, when I was told about the project, I wanted to pretend [the evacuation] never happened but then I thought it would be more accurate if I presented my story myself rather than hearing it from someone else,” he said at Sheffield Doc Fest. “I was worried about taking part [in the documentary] because we haven’t as a group really spoken about what happened and you don’t want to come across as something you are not. It also brought up a lot of memories.”
During the evacuation, Fahim was just 100 metres away when a suicide bomber detonated a device which killed over 180 people.
“To be honest I didn’t know I was going to share that much. [Director James Newton] approached it as more of a chat than an interview which helped me to open up more.”
Over 2000 army personnel were involved in Operation Pitting, one of the largest British military undertakings since World War II.
Behind the Scenes: Evacuation - Winning MoD buy-in
“I was wary about coming into an institution and being given people that are vetted and pre-selected when we are here to tell an honest story,” said Newton, also on stage in Sheffield. “We went to the barracks and started talking to people ten minutes at a time, furiously comparing notes and trying to work out what actually happened, since everybody has a different perspective.”
The casting process was also research. He continues, “You want to find people who have a story to tell, for example, those people who have served in Afghanistan, those who have a relationship with country, those who are changed by the experience. The strongest thing that came out was that everybody has been affected by the experience.”
Katharine Patrick, Head of Factual at Wonderhood Studios, negotiated access with the MOD. “Through my own contacts with the military I started to have informal chats exploring areas we could look at. I asked if there was any headcam footage of the evacuation. We did some digging and found out there was a combat camera team filming out there. We then talked about how we could obtain that footage.”
At that point they put in a formal proposal to the MOD and were invited in to pitch. Barron said the Army had lots of requests for access to the story and that Wonderhood’s bid was helped because it had Channel 4 on board.
“We want to appeal to as diverse an audience as possible, a youth audience,” he explained.
“The military has an internal audience to an extent; we’ve got veterans and there are those people who like watching troops marching up and down the Mall but we need to stretch ourselves to audiences in new places without making idiots of ourselves. The point with Channel 4 is the kind of audiences that it and the More4 app are going to bring.”
He also sought a commitment from the producers that there wasn’t going to be a political angle to the story.
“We know that the whole Afghan deployment is something that [people] can have a debate about,” Barron said. “The embers of it are still glowing hot in parliament as we speak. The military is a department of state so therefore there’s a political angle to any consideration but we don’t want to get involved in [media] that is going to skew the picture politically because we are not a political entity.
“So, the easiest thing for us to do is offer those people who can give authoritative testimony and try to get agreement from the production company not to chase a political piece – which we did with Wonderhood. We just wouldn’t be allowed to get involved in it otherwise.”
Behind the Scenes: Evacuation - Doc as recruiting sergeant
While Evacuation eschews direct assessment of the UK’s wider presence in Afghanistan and the argument that the Foreign Office was sleeping at the wheel as the Taliban swept into Kabul, the military is presented as unprepared for the scale and immediacy of the task.
The first episode, for example, is subtitled ‘Did We Leave It Too Late?’
“I got a phone call asking me if I were to go to an unknown location to evacuate an unknown number of people in an unknown period of time with an unknown threat - so how many people would I need?” recalled Bird at the outset of the documentary.
She led a small advance party of twenty to Kabul to assess the situation, or as she describes it, “I basically took a Sixth form field trip to Kabul – most were 19-year-olds.”
At one point, trapped in Kabul by advancing Taliban forces, she wondered whether “it was a trip too far.” She was later diagnosed with PTSD.
Even the two-person combat camera crew appears make-shift. One of them admits to having zero prior experience of handling a camera. “Beyond taking pictures on holiday on iPhone I’d never used a video camera before,” said one. “Ben had to teach me, even to press record.”
Barron views the documentary as a recruiting sergeant for the Forces but one that would only work in reaching crucial Millennial audiences if the story they told was authentic. In greenlighting the approach, he admits to taking a risk.
“Unsurprisingly, most people in the army, air force or navy - and particularly those who’ve served 30 years - are fiercely proud of serving. They want to defend its reputation and that brings a conservatism toward media.
“But at the same time [the army] does do good things [as well as things that knock its reputation]. I have taken a little bit of personal career risk on this since not everybody [in senior military positions] has seen [Evacuation]. Hopefully you can see that our people have given quite a lot in a way we don’t usually give. [But] if you don’t know much about [the British Army] then the thing that will shine through is that the military is composed of people just like you.
“Ultimately, [the general population] is where most people are recruited from. We are trying to bring down barriers [to recruitment and to enhance the MOD image] and this is a powerful way of doing it.
He added, “I would say to military people [concerned about Evacuation] that you are in the military to do good things and to uphold the international rules-based system and democracy. Well democracy can’t function without a media that has access and that can criticise. You can’t have it both ways.”