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The Topic of War and Beyond

An interview with Dodge Billingsley


How did your collaboration with the Kennedy Center begin?

I think it started with a lecture on the Chechen insurgency in 1998, but shortly thereafter, sometime in 1999, Eric Hyer [BYU political science professor] and I started working on the film Helen Foster Snow: Witness to Revolution. Snow was a Utah native who became a journalist in China close to the early Communist state.

At the time, the university had Special Country Focus funds. Money was to be spent on projects meant to strengthen university ties to various countries, and China was one of those places. Also, BYU Special Collections had received a substantial portion of Snow’s personal archive: photos, letters, and notes from her time in China and afterward.

The decision was made to do a film on Snow. Sterling Van Wagonen at KBYU asked me if I would make this film and, with a fusion of funding from the Special Country Fund via the Kennedy Center, the film took off. Based on that film and the semester lectures I give, a relationship was established that has led to further collaboration, including the Beyond the Border series—and some close friendships.

Who is the target audience for Beyond the Border (BTB)?

We play them in our local PBS/KBYU market, of course. We have also distributed various programs in other regions of the world. “Fog and Friction” has been seen on Middle Eastern networks, while “Launch Pads to Lily Pads” and “Fault Lines & Pipelines” have aired in Scandinavia. Our film “Chechnya: Separatism or Jihad?” has been distributed in Eastern Europe.

There is a lot of competition to get eyes on your film. There are unlimited outlets but even more competition. Hundreds, if not thousands, of films are produced every year. It is always a struggle to get your films seen. We get thousands of views on places like YouTube, but we don’t put whole films up on those outlets, because that venue then potentially robs the funding entity of chances for traditional broadcast outlets. The Internet, on-demand outlets, and other distribution models have really changed the nature of distribution in general, and I think the whole industry is sorting that out and will be for some time.

What impact do you think these films will have on their viewers?

We hope people will look at the films and learn something new—perhaps just from a different angle—on a topic they have some interest in. When we made “Fog and Friction,” we knew we were making a film about the wars now being waged, but we also wanted to make a film about war as a topic, and the difficulty of fighting war and even covering war. We want the viewer to walk away from the film and say, “Hmmm, I have a better understanding now of why this or that happens.”

What has been your favorite experience while working on Beyond the Border?

I’ve had a lot of good experiences. Because we used Combat Films and Research’s (CFR) archive as the backbone of the visual images, we didn’t have to shoot that much b-roll [supplementary footage], but we did have to get out and capture the interviews, and it is always interesting to learn from these various industry experts. What I like about documentary in general is that a person can become a relative expert on that particular topic by the time you spend a year or more putting the story together. I have been fortunate enough to work on topics that are interesting to me, and that aspect inspires me to always want to learn more and embrace the topics. In the case of BTB, we have completed videos on Ukraine, China, the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the international arms trade, and so on.

It has also been great to work with Jeff Ringer and Cory Leonard at the Kennedy Center. These men are clearly interested in global events and issues and in looking at niche stories, so working with them, sitting in the editing room, or reading over an outline and then a script as it progresses is also fun.


How does your budget for these films compare to other, perhaps larger, documentary films in the same genre?

In the beginning, the series was very much on a shoestring budget, serving as an experiment of sorts for the Kennedy Center. The budgets overall were less than one-tenth of the budget we had for another of our films, “Virgin Soldiers” (CH4/CNN), and one-twenty-fifth of a typical Frontline budget. We could make them because we [CFR] maintain a substantial archive of images, and that became the basis of each film. We have since spent more money on our global car film, but it is still less than half of most one-hour programs made for PBS or National Geographic for example.

What is the most recent film’s topic?

We wanted to cover globalization—global supply chains—and tell the story through something we can all understand—our car. From when we began filming in 2006, by luck or chance, so much changed that we had the opportunity to make a film that covers more time and tells a larger story.

Do you have plans for BTB in the future?

I hope so. There are so many interest-ing stories out there that do not get told, and I think, in large part, that is why I like the series so much. We take topics that are a little bit off the beaten path or known topics and approach them from a different angle. Of course, everyone would say that about their projects, but we do believe it. And the latest Beyond the Border film project, tentatively titled “Divided States” will explore the Korean conflict impact on the north and south, drawing comparisons and contrasts to other countries, such as Germany and Vietnam. Look for this new documentary in early 2011.

Billingsley founded Combat Films and Research in 1997 and has since spent much of his time continuing to document numerous global hotspots, splitting his time between producing documentaries, writing, and lecturing.

Movie Projects

Episode 1: Fog and Friction

Marines from Third Battalion Seventh Marine Regiment prepare to cross into Iraq during the race for Baghdad, unsure of the enemy’s strength amidst a number of confusing signals.

Episode 2: Arms Bazaar

While world leaders and the international press focus their gaze on the threat of weapons of mass destruction, the conventional arms market quietly does several billion dollars’ worth of business a year.

Episode 3: From the Masses to the Masses: An Artist in Mao’s China

Jin Zhilin, a Chinese artist during times of communism and cultural revolution, responded to Mao Zedong’s call for artists to learn from the masses and create for the masses.

Episode 4: Ukraine Sonata

The years before, during, and after the great “Perestroika” of the Soviet Union blend a great history of musical change.

Episode 5: Fault Lines & Pipelines

The Baku-Ceyhan pipeline will skirt four regional wars and numerous ethnic enclaves where war can break out at any moment.

Episode 6: Chechnya: Separatism or Jihad?

Has the Chechen independence movement been hijacked by militant Islam?

Episode 7: Launch Pads to Lily Pads

At the heart of the ongoing transformation is a debate regarding what European Command’s role should be beyond Western Europe, primarily in Africa.

Episode 8: Global Car: Globalization and the Automobile

Global supply chains and a collapsing economic climate make this a timely snapshot of the all-American fixation with the automobile.

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