Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

'Human Terrain' to Premiere at Hot Docs

April 20, 2010

How do we tell friend from foe? Liberator from occupier? Can a soldier be a diplomat? A scholar be a warrior? Human Terrain, produced at the Watson Institute, is making its Canadian premiere at North America's largest documentary film festival, Hot Docs, in Toronto in May. The film maps the US military’s highly controversial use of academics to win hearts and minds in Iraq and Afghanistan. Human Terrain cuts through the fog of the 21st century battlefield to bring home some hard truths after a young scholar dies in the thick of it.

Winner of the Audience Award at Italy’s prestigious Festival dei Popoli and official selection of CHP:DOX Copenhagen International Film Festival, Human Terrain breaks open the simmering debate over the military’s ‘Human Terrain System’ – a new program to embed anthropologists and other social scientists with combat troops to increase their understanding of local cultures, civilians, and fighters.

The film travels from war games in the Mojave Desert where Marines learn “cultural awareness” to urban warfare training exercises in Quantico, Virginia, and to the “graduate school” of counterinsurgency, the Human Terrain System in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Along the way, Human Terrain tracks a rising insurgency at home, among academics and in the press, about the ethics and efficacy of the new strategy. The film takes a tragic turn when an early collaborator on the film, Michael Vinay Bhatia '99, joins a Human Terrain Team and is killed in 2008 by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.

Weighing in on the debate are former assistant secretary of defense Bing West, leading anthropologist Hugh Gusterson, political columnist Christopher Hitchens, US-Afghanistan special envoy Richard Holbrooke, and scholar-activist Jarat Chopra, along with many other notable commentators and experts from the military and universities. Getting up close to the key events and players, the film captures a new American way of waging war and making peace.

Human Terrain is co-directed by Institute Professor James Der Derian and by David Udris '90, and Michael Udris '91, both of Brown's Modern Culture and Media Department.

Presented in the World Showcase program at Hot Docs, Human Terrain will screen at 9:45pm, Friday, May 07, 2010, at the The Rom Theatre, 100 Queen's Park, and 4:30pm, Saturday, May 08, 2010, at Innis Town Hall, 2 Sussex Avenue. Both screenings will be followed by a Q&A with the directors.