Winter Soldier (1972 Documentary). Courtesy Winterfilm Collective/Vietnam Veterans Against the War/Photofest
via P.S.1 Newspaper, Summer 2008:
This article refers to the P.S.1 exhibition That Was Then...This Is Now
An interview with Alanna Heiss
In 1968, protests broke out all over the world in opposition to U.S. involvement in Vietnam. In 1971, Vietnam Veterans Against the War held a Winter Soldier conference, detailing the atrocities of the war by those who experienced it. As documentation of the event, the film Winter Soldier is a protest in its own right. P.S.1 Director Alanna Heiss spoke with Bob Fiore, one of the 18 filmmakers who worked on the project, about its production and its current significance as an anti-war protest.
Alanna Heiss: What was your role in the creation of Winter Soldier?
Bob Fiore: The filming of Winter Soldier was in 1971 at the height of anti-war protest. I was a part of an organization called Filmmakers Against the War with 17 filmmakers who wanted to attempt a meaningful protest. We got together to film the Winter Soldier proceedings, because we thought the media would ignore them. Which they did.
AH: What was the motivation to collaborate with other filmmakers and to use film as a form of protest?
BF: We were all filmmakers so it was the obvious thing to do. Veterans that we were working with decided to organize this conference to coordinate information about the war because it was unclear what was going on, since things were not reported in the press. The conference was in Detroit and we had very little money so we slept on the floor of a church basement. Everyone’s hard work was volunteered and we got some film stock donated.
AH: How did the film circulate, and what communities supported it?
BF: We got a lot of support from the art world. Robert Rauschenberg was very helpful in trying to raise money. He arranged for us to show a demonstration reel at Senator Jacob Javits' apartment. We also had screenings in art galleries--they became little theaters.. When you made a film, aside from theaters, there wasn't any place to show it. I did some filming with Richard Serra and Robert Smithson--I had made Spiral Jetty with Smithson in 1970--who were both interested in protesting the war. Smithson had just come back from Kent State where he did his piece, Partially Buried Woodshed. Then the shooting at Kent State occurred and that politicized everything we did. At that time I lived on 13th Street and I used to cook dinner for friends. Smithson and Serra would come and look at screenings of Winter Soldier. Their influence contributed to the unrelenting quality of the film. There was also an organization of artists, Artists for Peace, led by Carl Andre. I don't know if they did anything except meet at Max's and drink, but they were hunting for ways to protest in a meaningful way.
AH: When Vietnam Veterans Against the War formed, it was the first time that veterans joined activists and students to address the Vietnam War. What was the impact of this first-hand voice?
BF: It was the first time I had seen veterans speaking from their own experiences. In the case of Scott Camil, who is one of the Winter Soldier participants, speaking helped him understand what in fact had happened. I think this understanding grew as more and more people who had been in Vietnam grasped the situation. It became clear what our actual policies were, as opposed to what the government said we were doing. I had never met a veteran until we began filming and they were deeply disturbed but were trying to understand what had happened to them. As soon as you met them, you knew it was something radical. The same is true in Iraq: people coming back are disturbed.
AH: How was the film initially received?
BF: At the time, the film wasn't shown in the U.S. at all except at the Whitney Museum and at Cinema 1 on the East Side, and we were not able to get it on TV. It was just too strong. But the Europeans were more receptive. We showed it at Cannes and at the Berlin Film Festival and there was a large distribution in England, France, and Italy. Back then there was no VHS or DVD, so there wasn't any way to show the film other than in theaters, and eventually it languished.
AH: What kinds of reactions did viewers have to the film?
BF: The film is a very powerful experience and it can be shocking. One of the first times we showed it was in 1972 at the Berlin Film Festival. When the film started, we were standing outside. About five minutes later a woman came running out and puked in the lobby. In Berlin there was a lot of sympathy for the Vietnamese and antipathy for Americans. The Europeans didn't support the war at all.
AH: With the most recent Winter Soldier conference, does the condemnation of the war by veterans still hold the same weight? How does the echo of the previous Winter Soldier inform our perspective on Iraq?
BF: The relaunch of Winter Soldier was at Lincoln Center in 2005. After a screening, some of the veterans from the film invited Iraq War veterans up on the stage. I think in the same way that Winter Soldier was a discovery of what was going on--people pooling their experience to get a broader idea of what was happening--the Iraq War veterans began to realize that their experiences were part of a larger context. That allowed them to find a voice for themselves. One of the reasons for privatizing the army and doing away with the draft was because so many drafted people experienced what war was like and wouldn't keep quiet about it. I don’t think it worked. It made for docile soldiers for a while in Iraq, because they were so-called professional soldiers. But war is war, it's horrible no matter when and where. With the filming of the recent Iraqi Winter Soldier conference, the situation is different. Now everything can be done on the Internet. When we first made Winter Soldier, there was no alternative to network news and newspapers. In terms of making information available, it's really different than it was then. Whether people understand or not is a different question. Winter Soldier is an attempt to describe what kind of war our country fights. Unfortunately the war in Iraq is very similar in the amount of destruction and havoc we’ve managed to visit on innocent people. Sometimes I speak after the film and almost inevitably people will ask, "Why hasn't everyone seen this?" That response points to the fact that this information exists, but is not available. That is why the film is still relevant.
AH: With our current war in Iraq, is there renewed interest in the film?
BF: Around 1991, I showed the film in a class my daughter was taking at Sarah Lawrence on the history of Vietnam. The students saw it as an historical document because there was no war going on. The film didn’t have any immediate relevance. Instead, they mostly asked why the Vietnam War was such a passionate subject with their parents. With the Iraq war here has been an enthusiastic and renewed interest in the film. Dennis Doros and Amy Heller of Milestone Films have put the film in theaters, on television, and have made it available on DVD. It's available on Netflix. Before, it was an effort to keep the film alive, but now it is thriving.