"Kill them all and sort it out later." Such was the edict given to soldiers fighting in Vietnam, says one anti-war veteran in David Zeiger's timely portrait of the G.I.-lead peace movement, Sir! No Sir! The film documents the rise and rise of dissent among military ranks, from early isolated resisters to the "9 for Peace" to the "Presidio 27" to the thousands of armed forces who eventually joined the crusade to end the conflict. Selected by Filmmaking Magazine as one of the Best Films Not Playing at a Theater Near You, Sir! No Sir!, on the contrary, is now coming to theaters near you.
Thanks to chilling footage from the 1971 Winter Solder investigation and reams and reels of lucid archival material and interviews, the movie provides a valuable counter-history to the war, where protestors and combat soldiers were not on opposite sides of the barricades, but in fact, were one in the same. In addition, the film powerfully exposes the myth that hippies spat on soldiers as pure swift-boating fabrication.
During the Vietnam era, Zeiger worked at the Texas coffeehouse Oleo Strut, one of many jo-joints where war resisters congregated. Later, as a carpenter and cotton mill worker, he campaigned for unionization and worker's rights. More recently, he has made several documentary films, including A Night of Ferocious Joy, about the first anti-war concert of the new millennium, The Band, a look at his teenage son's experiences, and Displaced in the South, about Vietnamese and Mexican immigrants living in Atlanta. Today, Zeiger no longer considers himself an activist, but he is a member of Artists Network of Refuse and Resist. To find out about the Artists Network and the "Culture of Resistance," go to www.artistsnetwork.org. To see where Sir! No Sir! is playing and check out some of the extensive archival material that appears in the film, visit the website, www.sirnosir.com.
Filmmaker: How long have you been working on the film?
Zeiger: I started developing the film right around the time of the invasion of Iraq. So it's been about two and half years.
Filmmaker: As things were evolving in Iraq, did that inform the making of the film?
Zeiger: Yes, very much, I couldn't avoid that. This film has always been on the back burner ever since I started making films in the early 90s. But I never thought I'd make it because I thought it never had any currency to it and would never speak to what people were thinking about. But, of course, it was the Iraq war that really changed that. On the one hand, it opened the door to being able to make the film, because it had a clear relevance to today. On the other hand, it has been a very strong up-and-down process. I didn't really want to make this film in the beginning, because I am not a political activist. I was, and that's why I know this story, but I'm not now. I didn't want to get into a major political battle over the film. But as it went on, it's become more and more fun, including the political aspect of it, and the fact that the film so thoroughly punctures one of the myths of the Vietnam era. It has been enjoyable seeing how people respond to it, and seeing the way it shakes things up. I guess it's rekindled that feeling in me.
Filmmaker: Do you feel it's a documentary filmmaker's responsibility to engage in this kind of activism?
Zeiger: No, not at all. It's a choice. In this case, for me, there is a very interesting synchronicity with my desire to tell this particular story and the political context of it. I think that's a strong thing that can happen, but I don't think it's a matter of responsibility. I don't like to tell people what they should or should not do. But I do think we're in probably the most dangerous time since I've been alive. I've been looking back at the time of the rise of the Nazis in Germany, and frankly, I think that's a story that needs to be retold in the new context, as well. There are more horrendously striking similarities there than the Vietnam era. That's very freaky. I think every individual, whether a filmmaker or not, has the responsibility to confront that.
Filmmaker: You worked at the Oleo Strut. Did that give you particular access to some of this great primary source material?
Zeiger: Because I was part of the movement, for one thing, I knew a lot of what I was looking for and I knew where to look. Even though I was not a veteran, I think people were a lot more open to me than had I not been. People didn't have to explain to me. To a large degree, I was already steeped in that. And it was enjoyable. A lot of the interviews were conversations, not just interviews and it was more like comparing notes. I did have the advantage of being an insider.
Filmmaker: Where did you find all the materials? The website has an incredible amount of resources, flyers and articles, etc. which makes the documentary vibrant.
Zeiger: I was riding on the back of several people who had done a lot to hold on to that history. The guy who is our webmaster, James Lewes, is a guy who wrote a book called Protest and Survive: Underground GI Newspapers in the Vietnam War. He collected thousands of papers and knew where the archives were that housed a lot of this stuff. And then we had all this serendipitous stuff happen. I met with a guy who was a friend of mine from back then, who was the head of an organization who supported the coffee houses and G.I. movement. In the course of my conversation, he remembered he had these six huge file boxes. He was an obsessive clipper and saver of things. It was the most amazing archive of just about everything, including all these New York Times and Washington Post articles. We went to the National Archives, and there were two boxes that someone found that were all the papers from the military's investigations into the G.I. movement, particularly the Presidio 27 and the Long Binh Jail riot, and the stuff had never been touched. It was still classified and we got it declassified. And that was a real wealth of information. Our goal was to make that website a major resource for all the material about the G.I. movement.
Filmmaker: I think the website and the film – with all that information – really provides a forceful, undeniable counter-history.
Zeiger: I realized early that the main character of the film is the movement; it's not any particular individuals who were involved. The reason was because this is a story that's been suppressed. And I thought it was important to present an incontrovertible case about what happened. Most of the reviews have been positive, but some of the reviewers are not uncomfortable with the film, so much as they're uncomfortable with the fact that the movement happened. You can say anything you want about the film, but you can't say this didn't happen. I was aware that the main change leveled against the film would be, 'Oh, this is just a handful of cowards and malcontents,' and we really wanted to make clear that this was a massive counterculture that permeated the military.
Filmmaker: How did you decide to structure the film in the way that you did, tracing the movement historically? And how much footage did you have to work with?
Zeiger: Before we shot anything, I had outlined the film, which was essentially a story in three acts: "A Few Malconents," this burgeoning, few individuals who very publicly resigned and refused to participate; then "All Hell Breaks Loose," starting in 1968, when these individual acts turned into group actions and large rebellions, and the beginnings of the underground press and coffee houses. And the third act, "Sir, My Men Refuse to Fight," from 1971 to the end of the war, in which the military had their back against the wall because of how big this had become. So I knew that outline, and when I was doing the research, that stayed pretty much the general structure. I think I interviewed 35 people and 100-some-odd hours of interviews, and I can't say how many hours of archival material we had. We ended up scanning and digitizing hundreds of stills and newspaper headlines.
But part of the problem is that there was not a lot of film footage available. And we searched far and wide. I knew a lot was shot by local television, but every local station had destroyed all of their stuff from back then. It was not because of political reasons; it's just because local television are a bunch of doofuses. We eventually found some from San Francisco and North Carolina. And I, myself, was startled when we did a search of PBS, ABC, NBS and CBS news. And we found story after story on the G.I. movement. There was just so much. We were able to access all of it; it was just a matter of cost. Also, artistically, we didn't want it to dominate. But the fact is there were dozens of stories in the national news.
Filmmaker: So getting rights was just a matter of expense?
Zeiger: We ended up not having much trouble with gaining rights. I was very nervous about it, because I had heard about cases where the archives for national news had refused to let footage be used, because they felt it put American G.I.s in a bad light, and we were very nervous about that possibility. But Evangeline Griego, one of my producers, has a really good relationship with a lot of these people and so we were able to work out a pretty good situation. It ended up being less of a problem than I expected. Plus, we had to get permission from Walter Cronkite personally, and we had no problem with that, either.
Filmmaker: What was the biggest challenge you had in putting this film together?
Zeiger: Keeping my head above water. The financing was a master challenge. Because of the timeliness of the film and the story, I didn't want to be in a position where I had to wait around five years to raise the money. So we pushed ahead very quickly with very little money. That was a tremendous challenge. And for myself personally, I had to overcome a lot of fear. Because I knew the story; it's not for nothing that this is the one story that was actively suppressed, starting with the Reagan Administration. I had to overcome my own timidity and trepidation of putting the story out there and defending it and sticking my neck out. And that's what it is. I have this very mixed feeling, frankly, but the best thing that could happen with this film is for the right to attack it. If you saw the New York Post review, it was classic. These people don't even worry about the facts. That's fine, but it's also scary. I'm not particularly comfortable in the position of being a lighting rod. On the other hand, if there weren't a part of me who welcomed that, I wouldn't have made the film.
Filmmaker: How were you actually able to finance it?
Zeiger: What kept us going was through my sales agent, Louise Rosen, we consistently made sales to overseas television. We started with Arte France, and ABC Australia, and Spain, and another French network and BBC Storyville and that provided some steady income. But we were spending much more than what was coming in. I ended up intensely in debt when I premiered in Los Angeles. And at that point, Jane Fonda came in and helped to get the money to finish the film and get it ready to go out into the world. She has played a tremendous role. She did fundraising parties in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and pretty much saved us from bankruptcy. We're going into distribution still heavily in debt, but I think we have a sense that we'll be able to recover.
Filmmaker: What's the arrangement with Balcony Releasing?
Zeiger: Balcony is only handling the theatrical distribution. This is a service deal with them, because we're doing a separate deal for DVD distribution and we're also selling off our own website and we've now working on some possibilities for U.S. television. Rather than make a traditional distribution deal, we wanted to hold on to all the rights. Before the New York opening, we had 20 cities booked and we hope to expand that significantly.
Filmmaker: Do you know what your working on next?
Zeiger: I made a documentary called The Band, which was about my son when he was a teenager. I'm writing a screenplay based on that. And that's my next project; it's going to be a narrative feature. I'm very anxious to make it. I've essentially been working on that story ever since I made that film and I think it's getting close to launch.
Documentary film festivals, simply by the nature of their fare, present a sweeping spectacle of man’s inhumanity to man. At this year’s Thessaloniki International Documentary Film Festival (March 10 —19), for example, film after film chronicled war, poverty, racism, violence and other dubious human achievements. To be fair, the films are, as the Festival’s overarching theme “Images of the 21st Century” suggests, merely reflections of the times we live in. In dark times as these, documentaries bear the responsibility to illuminate such tragedy. But many of the films pushed to inspire as well. The opening night documentary, Danish filmmakers Simone Aaberg Kaern and Magnus Bejmar’s Smiling in a War Zone was about a plucky Danish artist/flyer who navigated a tiny Piper-Colt airplane from Copenhagen to Afghanistan to meet a young teenager girl who wanted to become a fighter pilot — just in case the Taliban returned.
Founded eight years ago by Dimitri Eipides as a offshoot of the Thessaloniki International Film Festival held in late November, the doc festival has grown to become a notable stopping off spot for doc filmmakers and European buyers, especially as the accompanying doc market has grown more robust. For Eipides, “the market provides a intimate location for buyers, and a cheaper alternative for channels in the Balkans.” But while the Festival is attentive to film commerce, its primary audience is local. Epidides acknowledges that when he started, Greek audiences saw docs as something “not for adults, just for students. I wanted to prove that these films are also entertainment.” With this year’s attendance peaking at 34,845 people (nearly double the number of attendees in 2005), Epides has clearly made his point.
The festival, which hosted a series of panels, conferences and master classes, deftly integrated the international documentary film world with local Greek films and filmmakers. The health and diversity of Greeks documentaries was demonstrated in a program (and catalog) singling out Greek docs. In addition there was a side bar entitled “Exandas: Documentaries of the World” that presented the work of a ground-breaking Greek television investigative reporting series. And while Greek docs were presented to the international audience attending, world-class documentary filmmakers made themselves available to local Greek students in a series of three master classes: one led by British filmmaker Kim Longinotto, a three-day course with Canadian Peter Wintonick and a final one with Danish Jon Bang Carlsen.
Despite branding its homegrown work, the festival for the most part eschewed nationalistic categories, opting instead to curate its films by various narrative tropes: “Views of the World,” “Stories to Tell,” “Recordings of Memory,” “Portraits: Human Journeys,” and “Habitat” -- topics broad enough to hang many films on, but also pointed enough to provoke reflection on the discursive nature of documentary. “Stories to Tell,” for example, contained both Valerie Kontakos’s Who’s On First and Gary Tarn’s Black Sun. The first film straightforwardly chronicles the comedy of errors that occurred when Greece (who has no history with baseball) attempted to put together a team for the 2004 Olympic Games. Black Sun, on other the hand, was an artful, poetic work that mirrored the voiced-over story of blind artist Hugues de Montalembert with a series of impressionistic images shot by director (and composer) Tarn. The overall effect is a profoundly original and moving meditation on the nature of sight, memory and compassion.
For the most part, however, documentaries were focused on contemporary political subjects, and, as such, the festival identified three areas of interest — “Globalization,” “Africa — Unresolved Issues,” and “The Politics of Violence.” Two films, Thomas Balmes’s A Decent Factory and Micha Peled’s China Blue explored factory working conditions in China (although only Balmes’ film was incorporated in the series on Globalization).
The African series provided a powerful testament to the complexities of that country, from Thomas Allen Harris’s “the personal-is-political” piece Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela to Ali Samadi Ahadi and Oliver Stoltz’s heartbreaking Lost Children, about the plight of Uganda youth kidnapped and forced to become soldiers for the Lord’s Resistance Army. Another powerful African doc — although not in this series — was was Kim Longinotto’s Sisters in Law about a court house in Cameroon presided over by a women.
As one might expect, the “violence” category spanned the globe. US filmmaker Andrew Berends’s The Blood of My Brother — A Story of Death in Iraq, is a remarkable addition to the already diverse work coming out of Iraq. Like James Longley’s award-winning Iraq in Fragments, Berends’s story focuses on the local population, in particular how the death of a local citizen effects his family and those about him. Likewise Steven Silver and Andrew Quigley’s Diameter of a Bomb steps back from a 2002 terrorist attack on a bus in Jerusalem that left 20 people dead to consider the full extent of devastation that would normally just be scanned in the headlines.
The truly international flavor of Thessaloniki was made apparent not simply by the global range of attending filmmakers and industry people, but by the trans-national focus of many films. It is customary for Europeans and Americans to travel to Africa and Asia to tell their stories. The opening night film Smiling in a War Zone made that journey its’ very subject matter. And other films, like Luc Schaedler’s Angry Monk — Reflections on Tibet (a Swiss film on Tibet), Jan van den Berg’s Deacon of Death (a Dutch film on Cambodia), or Erez T. Yanuv Barzilay’s A Cry for Madiom (a Canadian film on the Sudan crisis), demonstrate the traditional focus of first-world filmmakers importing third-world subject matter.
This year, however, many foreign films set their sights on America. The Danish film Gitmo — The New Rules of War chronicles the adventures of filmmakers Erik Gandini and Tarik Saleh as they visit America and its prison for illegal combatants at Guantanamo Bay to uncover the truth about the one Swedish prisoner housed there. Yorgos Avgeropoulos’s War S.A. gives a Greek look on the US deployment of contract soldiers in Iraq. And French documentary, Mathieu Verboud and Jean Robert Viallet’s Tranquility Bay ends up in Utah to expose the racket of re-education camps, which are basically walled encampments that parents pay large amounts of money to a private company to basically incarcerate their children in. It really is a small world after all.