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.