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In Anthropology Now: Review of Human Terrain Film Asks 'Is Empathy a Weapon?'

September 29, 2011

Human Terrain, a documentary film from the Watson Institute’s Global Media Project, was recently recognized in the September 2011 issue of Anthropology Now. In a full-length article entitled “Is Empathy a Weapon?” Rutgers University research fellow Kenneth MacLeish praises the film’s use of commentary, interviews, and photography to explore the intersection of academia and warfare.
Human Terrain examines the controversy of a US military strategy to use “culturally aware” soldiers and embedded social scientists in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The film focuses on the US military’s controversial Human Terrain Systems program, adopted in 2006 to make cultural awareness a key element of counterinsurgency strategy. The military has described the Human Terrain System as an effort to “improve the military’s ability to understand the highly complex local socio-cultural environment in the areas where they are deployed."

But the program has been criticized by many academics, who say it represents a misguided and unethical effort to gather intelligence and to target potential enemies, as well as a challenge to the independence of social science scholarship.
“This is a film about the relationship between anthropology’s expert humanistic knowledge and war-fighting’s expert use of force,” MacLeish writes in Anthropology Now, adding, “Anthropology asks questions, war gets things done, often bloodily.”
MacLeish applauds the film’s diverse cast of experts, including writers such as Christopher Hitchens and Philip Gourevitch, along with the late diplomat Richard Holbrooke, as “truly impressive.”
The film has a “cool, evenhanded ambivalence” that is “arguably well suited to conveying the layered ambiguity of the issue,” MacLeish writes.
“The filmmakers seem less interested in passing judgment on the military than in observing its rocky flirtation with academic social science through an abundance of widely varied and sometimes irreconcilable viewpoints,” he says.
Human Terrain is the most-recent film from Institute Professor James Der Derian and filmmakers David Udris ’90 and Michael Udris ’91. Der Derian, a research professor at the Watson Institute who focuses on global security and media studies, previously collaborated with the Udris brothers on the films Virtual Y2K and After 9/11.
MacLeish goes on to applaud Der Derian and the Udris brothers for “showing more than telling,” saying, “some of the most memorable moments are when the film’s subjects’ own words bring nuanced but striking contradictions to the surface.”
One of those subjects is Michael Bhatia ’99, a Brown graduate who left academia to join a Human Terrain team. After graduating from Brown magna cum laude with a degree in international relations, Bhatia worked as a humanitarian activist in Africa and the Middle East, before winning a Marshall Scholarship to study international relations at the University of Oxford. In 2006, Bhatia returned to Brown, where he was a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute, conducting research as part of the Institute’s Cultural Awareness in the Military Project. He later decided to embed as a Human Terrain member with the 82nd Airborne in Afghanistan. In May 2008, his humvee hit a roadside bomb, and Bhatia was killed, along with two other soldiers.

Since its release in 2009, Human Terrain has been screened in New York, Paris, Brussels, Berlin and Copenhagen, among other cities. The film won the Audience Award at the November 2009 Festival dei Popoli in Florence, and has been an official selection at several leading film festivals.
The film was produced by Udris Films and the Watson Institute’s Global Media Project, which analyzes the role of media in international affairs and produces media about pressing global issues. The project is funded in part by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
Der Derian is currently a Bosch Public Policy Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin, where he is working on a companion book to the film.
By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Lauren Fedor ’12