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.”
Considering the extent to which racism is still alive and well in contemporary America – with Charlottesville being but the most recent manifestation – Travis’s essay exploration about his own great grandfather is more relevant than ever. We’re on first names now… Travis confirms that Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (2017) will soon be shown in Oslo (see below.) The movie is almost a detective story in which Travis digs into his own family background, building his narrative on a rumour that his great-grandfather Branch Wilkerson shot and killed an African American – a 48-year old family man named Bill Spann – in his local grocery store in Alabama in 1946. It also turns out that Spann’s life could’ve been saved if he hadn’t been taken to the worst hospital in the area, where the doctors staggered about in a drunken stupor.
Handguns are famously ubiquitous in the US, and Travis’s great-grandfather had used his 32-calibre revolver against the deceased. But he also kept a loaded 38-calibre under his pillow. The same great-grandfather also killed another black man who owed him money, without ever being convicted for his crimes. Wilkerson feels guilt coming from a violent, racist family. “My great-grandfather killed two black men and spread fear by abusing people. Only the distance in time allows me to confront what he did, something that other members of my family can’t. He died when I was little and isn’t so terrifying anymore.”
Even though Travis doesn’t run the same risks as his father the helicopter pilot, he’s filmed nationalists up close and personal as they talked about “American blood” and “white culture”; people who fired guns on horseback as if they were participants in the Civil War of the 1860s. Among these characters, Travis hoped to find his openly racist aunt Geene. “Geene was always good to me and never said hateful things. But I can read her political activism online.” In the documentary, when his aunt finally responds to Travis requests for answers, she presents a cover story that Travis’s great-grandfather (Geene’s father) had saved the life of a black woman whom Spann had chased into his store, by killing Spann. But at one point, it becomes clear that people in Alabama feel that Travis has been digging far too deep into the past, and soon finds himself being followed. In this way, the threatening atmosphere of racism can still be felt three generations after the worst of the racist violence, giving Travis no choice but to leave.
Travis shows how many blacks – like Bill Spann – ended their lives in nameless tombs in strange towns. Many of the killers were never apprehended, the local sheriffs preferring to look the other way. Whites can still murder blacks without having to answer for their crimes. I’m reminded of Giorgio Agamben, who refers to such victims as Homo Sacer (Naked Man): people who can be killed because their lives don’t matter. I’m reminded, too, of the recent outburst by a Southern police officer: “Don’t worry, we don’t kill white people here”! (See the article on James Baldwin here).
Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? is also a form of agit-prop, where Travis lets the refrain “Say His Name!” accompany the text montages. Several other forgotten African Americans are thus honoured in the film. Travis’s voice-over dwells poetically on the black-and-white photographs of his grandfather’s grocery store, situated on a corner and flanked by trees.
Aunt Geene and other members of the family covered up both their own past and the violent past of this place. I ask Travis how his relatives reacted to the movie. “Exactly as you’d expect. In the South, there’s a sharp divide between your public façade and your private life. The façade must be maintained at all costs. The reaction was that they largely ignored me.”
The theme of racism recurs in several of Wilkerson’s movies. In Machine Gun or Typewriter? (2015), which won the main prize in Kosovo two years ago, he uses images of African Americans being lynched, hanged and burned. The film has been referred to as punk-agit-noir. In this quasi-fictional story, which among other things criticizes the Los Angeles Police Department, Travis is often seen behind the radio microphone. Los Angeles, a city known for the Rodney King riots, serves as the backdrop for a futuristic fable about a haunted man searching for a lost love via his illegal pirate radio station. But this narrative conceals a story of racism, abuse and criticism of power.
It seems appropriate to ask a heretic like Travis whether his films are exerting any influence and making an impact. “I believe that larger protest movements need to start with a personal commitment. Conversations like the one we’re having right now can be extended in a meaningful way. I follow my own convictions. I do what I believe in, in accordance with my own role in the world. My hope is that people start getting more involved than they are today.”
«If you want to tell radical stories you’ll have to use radical forms of expression, so that both the political and the formal elements are innovative.»
South American Third Cinema was an early influence on Travis, especially Cuban director Santiago Alvarez, whose short, fiercely political newsreel documentaries changed his life in the space of five minutes. “That’s where my real education started. If you want to tell radical stories you’ll have to use radical forms of expression, so that both the political and the formal elements are innovative.” In 1999, Wilkerson completed the documentary Accelerated Under-Development: In the Idiom of Santiago Álvarez (1999) about the Cuban filmmaker.
Independent of financial support, Travis is currently a film professor at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. He appears slightly disappointed that his young students seem chiefly interested in making movies for Hollywood. “I try to be useful to them, but also to challenge them, to make them more sensitive to their surroundings. Here in Kosovo you could make extraordinary movies, but it doesn’t seem to be happening. The young are perhaps too concerned about getting financing for their films. But it’s here – in these surroundings – that the resources are!”
What does Travis think of the notion of post-anarchism a recurring theme Modern Times as a form of resistance and mode of organization to combat capitalist exploitation? “I’m always drawn towards ideas like anarchism. Repression leads to resistance. And direct action can achieve substantial results. To take just one example: Black Workers, a movement from Detroit in the 1960s and 70s, was almost an incarnation of the IWW. It remains a good example of a revolutionary organization in the US. The IWW fought individual cases in court, even if that’s where some 200 of its leaders ended up. The consequences were fatal: The state liquidated the resistance movement overnight. People were deported, arrested or even executed.”
Today we see something of the same in the Occupy Movement; in the anarchism, in the horizontalism of the grassroots, in its beauty, inspiration, profound commitment and involvement. But the fact is that these movements are positioning themselves to be wiped out simply by having its members get arrested or heavily fined, which is enough to discourage many people. Such movements are highly vulnerable and will have to rethink their strategies. Grassroots activists and anarchists don’t seem to realize that sometimes you have to be organized and disciplined to fight oppression. That holds true for everyone ranging from Black Lives Matter to Occupy to immigrant advocacy groups.”
We wrap up our conversation by returning to the subject of Travis’s father. “He was a highly moral person who tried to live his whole life ethically. He died recently from cancer and it was difficult to re-watch the recordings from twenty years ago here in Kosovo. My father had some intense and violent experiences in his life. He’d experienced chaos, but he loved the very adventure of life as well as standing up for what he believed in. Every day I think of how he always encouraged me to do something meaningful, and to base my decisions on convictions rather than on fear.”
Like his father before him, Wilkerson has visited violent places, like Gaza. But in the past few years he’s become more careful; his wife and three children have grown concerned about the risks he has been taking. “I have to find my way back to activism somehow, to be more involved – and to remain an optimist,” he concludes with a heartfelt sigh.