DIRECTOR INTERVIEW: After two decades of incendiary filmmaking, American moviemaker Travis Wilkerson has something to tell us about war, racism and activism. And about the use of a radical form of expression.
What characterizes a political essay film? It can be profoundly critical – and subjective, thoughtful, probing and heretical. These are precisely the kind of films made by Travis Wilkerson. Modern Times recently met the director at the non-fiction Dokufest film festival in Prizren, Kosovo where his work was being given a retrospective and Wilkerson presenting a masterclass in person. At DocLisboa, his latest film Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (2017) is aslo screened.
But why take an interest in a 48-year-old who grew up in a small American mining town, dropped out of high school and initially wanted to become a radio DJ? The answer can be found in his films.
His wife and manager Erin first declined our request for an interview, but then eventually allowed us a 20-minute audience. Wilkerson talks rapidly and concisely in what will turn out to be an hour long conversation. His gaze is intense; it doesn’t waver, but glows with political commitment. “I want to make movies with meaning, about what I’m interested in, read about, care about, think about and talk about. I’m a political man and can only make films out of passion.”
Interestingly, Wilkerson’s films aren’t traditional political documentaries. Beyond their activist content, the form of his films is both aesthetical and suggestive. He prefers expressing himself in black and white and his trademark is the narrative voice-over. Wilkerson mixes fiction, classical dramaturgy and experiments with archival footage, varied imagery and intense musical elements. “The role of the artist is to present uncomfortable truths, to create works that intervene in the world. At the same time, what matters is who you intervene on behalf of, and who you intervene against.”
I get the impression that the man seated at the other end of the table is the true descendent of the late French essay filmmaker, Chris Marker. The Frenchman is clearly Wilkerson’s idol, with the latter underlining Marker’s use of the voice-over as a narrative device.
Wilkerson first came to critical attention with his debut An Injury to One (2002), which chronicles the history of the labour movement in his hometown of Butte, Montana. The movie details the miners’ struggle against exploitative capitalism from its inception in 1880 to the lynching of a union leader, Frank Little, in 1917. Dennis Lim in the Los Angeles Times called An Injury to One “one of American independent cinema’s greatest achievements of the past decade.” The film also bears a visual resemblance to the works of the Russian documentary filmmaker Dziga Vertov. Wilkerson documents how easily the war profiteering capitalists of The Anaconda Mining Company outmanoeuvred the striking workers of IWW (Industrial Workers of the World, so-called “Wobblies”). “If you’re going to criticize the exploiters and authority, you will also have to look closer at some of their conspiracies – those who don’t investigate this aren’t open enough”, he says.
«War is a recurring theme in Wilkerson’s films, and it’s clear that the Vietnam conflict has left an indelible mark on him, the trauma of one generation passed on to the next.»
From Vietnam to Iraq
War is a recurring theme in Wilkerson’s films, and it’s clear that the Vietnam conflict has left an indelible mark on him, the trauma of one generation passed on to the next. His father served as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam and was highly decorated for his bravery, something chronicled in Distinguished Flying Cross (2011, see online). In the medium-length doc Travis’s father, William, sits at the kitchen table in his home and tells his two sons Travis and Dylan about the war over a few beers. “As soon as he arrived in Vietnam, my father knew that the war was wrong. But as he’d signed up it was too late to go back. He was only twenty at the time,” says the filmmaker.
Whether the United States has ever officially dealt with the Vietnam War is a pertinent question. “The US has never honestly addressed the Vietnam War, a tragic intervention in a civil war that ended badly for all the parties involved.”
Wilkerson’s father was among the few who regarded the war as a mistake. However, on arriving in Saigon he did as well as he could and survived the battlefield’s hail of bullets. After returning home, the veteran remained highly critical of the American campaign in Vietnam. In Wilkerson’s doc, we hear him describe American racism towards the Vietcong, the Vietnamese communists. For the rest of his life Wilkerson’s father worked as an ER surgeon at a hospital back in Montana. “He never found peace, but at least he saved thousands of lives as a surgeon.”
The archive footage in Distinguished Flying Cross was recorded by the military’s own photographers. The film lasts for an hour, but is based on fifty hours of footage that was left lying for years before Wilkerson got his hands on it.
The film revolves around the idea that “the stories of the fathers shape the future”, says Wilkerson, before adding: “For my 15-year old daughter the Vietnam War is as remote as the US Civil War.”
Myths, traumas and suicide. In the US, an 18-hour-long TV-series about the Vietnam War created by the “patriot” Ken Burns is currently showing on PBS. “In the US today, the main discourse about war is all about honouring the veterans.” Wilkerson doesn’t think this is right. “You can show them a certain respect, but to honour those who participated in that catastrophe isn’t progressive.” According to Wilkerson, the stories of returning Vietnam veterans being spat upon and called baby killers isn’t true either. “My own research shows that they weren’t treated as badly as we’ve been led to believe. That’s a myth that there’s little evidence to support,” he says. What then about the soldiers’ traumas? “It’s true that many of them kill themselves. My father probably thought about doing that too but more commit suicide while on active duty than as veterans – 5060 every month,” he responds.
The filmmaker’s Fragments of a Dissolution (2012, see online) deals with the topic of suicide among returning servicemen. Wilkerson listens silently to a widow recounting the story of her husband, who during four years in Afghanistan killed infants, women and other innocent civilians. It was more than he could live with and he never got to see his son grow up. Another mother, Mary Cookhill, tells Wilkerson about her son’s fourth suicide attempt after returning from Iraq – and about how he finally succeeded. American officers subsequently called the soldier a “liar” and a “coward”.
With a thoughtful American on the other side of the table, I want to delve deeper into what his country is doing internationally – a country that has established some 800 military bases outside its own borders. “An old phrase says that ‘War is profitable.’ The US is rearming, they’re training the world for war and they’ve fought in most of them. They’ve created most of the world’s weapons and they’ve tested them out, and they keep developing new weapons technology. In my homeland, which sells and uses more weapons than any other country in the world and which is totally driven by the war economy, most people think that North Korea is the world’s most dangerous state!”
The consequences could be fatal, says Wilkerson. “Since the USA was established nearly 350 years ago, the country has not been at war for only 13 of them. Today, in Syria, Libya and Yemen, warfare and rearmament has huge consequences. The so-called Free Syrian Army was a billion-dollar operation to the US, and it was a disastrous failure which didn’t create anything positive.” He delves deeper: “We didn’t even have a basic grasp of what the US was doing in Afghanistan, in a war that started long before 9/11 2001 and which many see as the starting point for the wars of the last years. Americans admire Kissinger, but which of his ideas have worked? Cambodia and Laos both ended up as disasters. People don’t seem to care, however, despite the millions of innocent people who pay the price with their lives. But large parts of the American left remain positive to the idea of war.”
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