This month, in collaboration with The New Yorker, the ProPublica Films team published an animated documentary called “The Night Doctrine.” The film follows the investigative journey of reporter Lynzy Billing as she pieces together what happened to her own family members when they were murdered in Afghanistan 30 years ago. During her reporting, Billing began to learn of a series of other killings of Afghan civilians committed by the Zero Units, elite Afghan special forces groups backed by the U.S. That investigation, called “The Night Raids,” was published late last year.
The accompanying film weaves together Billing’s personal story, the recent history of Afghanistan and the hauntingly recurrent nightly raids carried out by the Zero Units. I spoke with ProPublica visual journalist Mauricio Rodríguez Pons about the production of “The Night Doctrine,” which has so far been selected for screening by more than a dozen film festivals, including the Tribeca Film Festival, HollyShorts, the New Hampshire Film Festival and BIAF, among others. It is an incredible feat of animated journalism, and I encourage you to watch the 16-minute piece on our site or on YouTube. Now, on to the discussion, which has been edited for clarity and length.
How did the idea to create an animated short documentary based off of this investigation come to be?
In the beginning, our plan was to create a three-minute video explainer. But when we started to work at the beginning with video that Lynzy [Billing] and another photographer, Kern Hendricks, took in Afghanistan, we saw the potential to create the story around it. Then we decided, OK, let’s do a nine-minute animated video about a single raid through the perspectives of a family and a soldier. And as we kept working with Lynzy, and with Tracy [Weber, ProPublica managing editor], and with Almudena Toral, ProPublica’s executive producer and co-director of the film, we discovered that Lynzy’s story was really, really hard — and really connected with the families, the Zero Units and the story of Afghanistan itself. So we started asking questions: What if we created a film that connects the three stories into one while trying to explain what happened in Afghanistan?
Part of the style of the film is the idea that everything is connected. It’s like an infinite journey. We wanted to create a journey that never ends — mimicking Afghanistan’s cycle of violence, loss and no accountability.
The transitions really are some of the biggest elements in the film. It’s not necessarily cuts between scenes; it’s fluid, you sort of slide into one scene and then another.
A phrase that we wrote on a storyboard is “infinite nightmare,” and we asked ourselves how we can represent that. I came up with this idea of creating an infinite sequence that connects with each sequence, and the whole film is like a connection. It’s like you’re always navigating the stories and the journey. I mean, Lynzy’s journey and Afghanistan’s journey is at the end of the day the same, right?
How would you describe the film’s style and what informed your decision to animate in the way you did?
Of course, the night is kind of the main thing here. In the night, the darkness is important. We wanted to again create that infinite nightmare — and the mood, the colors, everything is connected with the night, the shadows, the blue color is also kind of like a nightmare. Everything was driven by that idea.
From the technical perspective, it’s hard to create differences in black.That’s why we wanted some light elements present like the candle at the beginning that the little kid has next to his bed, and the lanterns, and the lights of a car.
I know you mentioned that Lynzy is a photographer as well, and the film incorporates real video footage and photographs. How did you make that decision to include the source of real elements? And how did you want those elements to relate to the animation?
The security of our sources was important for us. And the access was impossible — especially after the Taliban took over Afghanistan again. We also really wanted to add some elements to communicate that this is a true story. And that’s why we decided to add real footage elements.
For example, the image that everybody saw when the United States left Afghanistan was that plane … so we wanted to use that to remind people: Remember this image? These are the stories that were around that image you saw. And at the end we show the main characters of the piece in their actual, modern environment. It’s to give some kind of truth; that this is a true story. It’s not just a fiction animated piece. We didn’t invent this.
What are your thoughts on how visuals and animation can fill in gaps of what isn’t officially recorded? And how did you think about that as you made the film?
I think the animation gives you the power not just to fill the gaps, but to fill the gaps creatively. That creativity, that freedom that the animation gives you, allows you to present not just the facts but also the sentiments that people felt. It’s something that not only animation can do, but it’s also kind of like its main role. Especially here in ProPublica, a place where we really care about facts, and with what happened and what didn’t happen, animation is a powerful tool to represent not just what happened with the families but to represent how the families felt and how Lynzy felt.
Were there any inspirations that you drew on while you were working on the piece?
The main inspiration for me came from a soundtrack that Milad Yousufi, the musician we worked with, shared with me. It was like a soundtrack of Afghan old movies and the instruments include the main instruments, the rabab and piano, we used in the film. It was really, really dark. And I played that all day for days. I don’t remember how many months; maybe eight months. I would work with that music on and kind of allowed myself to feel that darkness and the suffering of the story, of the Afghan people. I mean, how many families suffered there? For me, that’s the main thing. It's the main inspiration.
What do you hope viewers will take away from the film?
I hope viewers take away the story, and I hope they think about what the United States is doing in places like Afghanistan, and about accountability. Like Lynzy said in the film, it happened in Afghanistan, it happened in Vietnam, it happened in Iraq. That’s why I said at the beginning that this is a never-ending story. You just can’t imagine all the sad stories that are destroying families right now. I guess I just want people to consider the families that are affected. That’s the intention of the film. That’s what we wanted to represent. And I hope we can put another voice out there to try to make change.