Film Echoes the Present in Atrocities of the Past
The New York Times, August 9, 2005
LOS ANGELES, Aug. 8 - Like a live hand grenade brought home from a distant battlefield, the 34-year-old antiwar documentary "Winter Soldier" has been handled for decades as if it could explode at any moment.
Now, the 95-minute film - which has circulated like 16-millimeter samizdat on college campuses for decades but has never been accessible to a wide audience - is about to get its first significant theatrical release in the United States, beginning on Friday at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. (Other bookings, including Chicago, Detroit, Hartford and Minneapolis, can be found at www.wintersoldierfilm.com.)
Its distributors say that the war in Iraq has made the Vietnam-era film as powerful as when it was new, and its filmmakers are calling it eerily prescient of national embarrassments like the torture at Abu Ghraib.
Seldom has a film seen by so few caused so much consternation for so many years.
When it was made at a three-day gathering in 1971 of Vietnam veterans telling of the atrocities they had seen and committed, major news organizations sent reporters but published and broadcast next to nothing of what they filed - prompting the veterans to organize what would be a pivotal antiwar demonstration in Washington a few months later.
When the film was finished a year later, it was shown at the Cannes and Berlin film festivals, at theaters in France and England, and on German television. But in the United States, the television networks would not touch it, the film never found a distributor, and it disappeared for decades after playing a week at a single New York theater and a one-time airing on Channel 13.
When one of the veterans - John Kerry, who was seen on screen for less than a minute - ran for president last year, the old film turned up as propaganda on both sides of the partisan divide: Mr. Kerry's friend, the filmmaker George Butler, used footage from "Winter Soldier" to lionize him in a biographical film underwritten by Democrats called "Going Upriver." His political enemies on the right, meanwhile, created a Web site called Wintersoldier.com and made a film of their own, "Stolen Honor," to assail him as a traitor and a fraud.
"The context is why we wanted to do it," said Amy Heller, co-owner with her husband, Dennis Doros, of Milestone Films, perhaps best known for re-releasing Marcel Ophuls's 1971 masterpiece on the Nazi occupation of France, "The Sorrow and the Pity."
"We have a 9-year-old son," Ms. Heller said, "but if he were 19 and wondering what he should do with the next stage of his life, I sure would want him to see this film before considering going into the military."
The relevance of this grainy, ancient documentary comes from descriptions of abuse that could have been ripped from contemporary headlines, notwithstanding the changes in today's professional soldiers and their evolved, high-tech methods of warfare.
Listen, for instance, to the former Army interrogator as he describes using "clubs, rifle butts, pistols, knives" to extract information - "always monitored" by superiors or military police, he says - and recounts his superiors' overriding directive: "Don't get caught."
Or hear the former Marine captain, speaking of "standard operating procedure," describe how easily individual transgressions, overlooked by superiors, became de facto policy: "The general attitude of the officers was - I was a lieutenant at the time - 'Well, there's somebody senior to me here, and I guess if this wasn't S.O.P., he'd be doing something to stop it.' And since nobody senior ever did anything to stop it, the policy was promulgated, and everybody assumed that this was right."
Mr. Doros said he hoped the film would be shown on cable television, where anyone could see it, particularly today's troops and tomorrow's. "They should see that war isn't always what they imagine from movies and books and modern media," he said. "That the atrocities, the gore, the daily horror of bombs bursting out and bullets riddling your friends' bodies next to you, have been glossed over."
What gives "Winter Soldier" its power, he and Ms. Heller said, is not merely what is said on screen - accounts of Vietnamese women being raped or mutilated, children being shot, villages being burned, prisoners being thrown alive from helicopters - but who is saying it, and how they are shown.
It introduces us to Rusty Sachs, a handsome, curly-haired former Marine helicopter pilot, who recalls with an ironic smirk how his superiors instructed him not to "count prisoners when you're loading them on the aircraft - count them when you're unloading them," because, he says flatly, "the numbers may not jibe." He describes contests to see "how far they could throw the bound bodies out of the airplane."
And it introduces us to the gentle-sounding, Jesus-like Scott Camil, a former Marine scout and forward artillery observer, who in a whispery voice relates his personal journey from rah-rah patriot to trained killer to medal-winner to self-preservationist Angel of Death. "If I had to go into a village and kill 150 people just to make sure there was no one there to kill me when we walked out, that's what I did," he says.
Like other veterans, Mr. Camil - whose testimony at the Winter Soldier Investigation inspired Graham Nash's song "Oh, Camil!" - conveys how desensitized they became, and how dehumanized the Vietnamese became in their eyes. "Whoever had the most ears, they would get the most beers," he says of his comrades' corporeal trophies. "It became like a game."
This was being filmed, it should be emphasized, before the advent of rap groups and the confessional culture, before people routinely unburdened themselves on television or an Oprah granted absolution every afternoon. And it was happening at a stage in the war when the invasion of Laos was still a secret, when Agent Orange was unheard of, and when the public was still struggling to make sense of My Lai.
Yet the decidedly low-tech film does nothing to explicate what it records. It has no narration, except for an opening quotation from Thomas Paine, whence its title: "These are the times that try men's souls. The summertime soldier and the sunshine patriot will in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman."
Nor is there any clue given to who made this film. And yet it was the product of an extraordinary collective of 18 unknown but up-and-coming documentarians, several of whom would have distinguished film careers: Barbara Kopple, who went on to direct the Oscar-winning documentaries "Harlan County, U.S.A." and "American Dream"; Nancy Baker, editor of the Oscar-winner "Born Into Brothels" and of "Vanya on 42nd Street"; Lucy Massie Phenix, editor of the Oscar-nominated "Regret to Inform," about widows of the Vietnam War; Bob Fiore, co-director of "Pumping Iron"; and David Grubin, for many years the directing partner of Bill Moyers.
Working with borrowed equipment and donated stock - much of it "short ends" left over from low-budget pornographic films - the group shot more than 100 hours over a three-day weekend, then spent six months editing it into what remains a raw and unadorned artifact, allowing the camera to gaze patiently as each witness tells his story.
But the group effort, Mr. Fiore said, meant no one could claim to be its auteur. "So it didn't have anybody pushing it, the way Michael Moore goes around," he said. "At the time, it seemed really important, it was a political statement. I wanted the film to be for and about the vets. But as a filmmaking and distributing ploy, it was a failure."
Though "Winter Soldier" was invited to Cannes and shown at several other film festivals, the group's efforts to have it shown on American television went nowhere. "We did a screening at NBC," said Fred Aronow, one of the filmmakers. "We got the reply back that this was incredibly interesting material that the American public should see, and it's unfortunate that NBC cannot broadcast it. They did not give a reason."
The film languished largely unseen, except for private and classroom viewings, until a retrospective at Berlin early last year. When Mr. Butler paid for rights to use footage from it, Mr. Fiore said, the filmmakers hoped that his lawyers would prevent anyone from using it to assassinate Mr. Kerry's character. But the producers of "Stolen Honor," an attack on Mr. Kerry that was shown on Sinclair Broadcasting stations last fall, did use excerpts from "Winter Soldier," and a veteran who testified, Kenneth J. Campbell, is suing them for defamation.
As polarizing as the film has proven to be, the filmmakers say they hope that a year removed from the context of a campaign, "Winter Soldier" will be seen the way it was originally intended.
First, of course, they are hoping it will get an audience, at all.
"It's not any fun to see," Ms. Phenix conceded, in an understatement. "But the whole society needs to hear about that part of us, because that's part of us, too. The whole society includes these people who are having to kill and be killed, and maim and be maimed."
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