Film Notes

Veterans Fighting for Peace

"It was this history that had been buried, covered up," says "Sir! No Sir!" filmmaker David Zeiger, with May Rigler, of the Vietnam War's GI Movement. (By William Short)

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Friday, May 19, 2006

Filmmaker David Zeiger says his Vietnam War documentary "Sir! No Sir!" emerged only during "the ramp-up before the Iraq war, which was what forced me to make the film." (See review on Page 50.)

Zeiger's career has included the "Senior Year" series on PBS (about students at Los Angeles's diverse Fairfax High School) and his 2003 concert film, "Night of Ferocious Joy," featuring Ozomatli, the Coup, Blackalicious and other groups.

Three years ago, Zeiger realized it was time to tell a story from his youth: In 1969, the 19-year-old dropped out of college and moved to Killeen, Tex., to work at the Oleo Strut coffee shop just outside the Fort Hood Army base. That coffee shop was one of a network of venues set up for soldiers, especially those just back from the war, to relax and socialize off-base. ("Oleo strut" refers to an aircraft shock absorber.) Soon enough, vets angered by what they saw and did in Vietnam used Oleo Strut and other places as rallying points for antiwar protests, and the GI Movement was born.

"I felt that I had a big burden," Zeiger says. "I knew how diverse and intense and wild this movement was, and I knew that this was really the only chance I had to make a movie about this movement. . . . A lot depended on it because these were the years that shaped their [the veterans'] lives. It was this history that had been buried, covered up, and I owed it to them to do it right."

"Sir! No Sir!" chronicles the GI Movement from 1965 to 1975, blending archival footage with interviews of Vietnam veterans (many of whom were jailed for protesting) and civilian antiwar activists (including Jane Fonda). He also examines how the GI Movement was covered up by politicians, movies and rumors. Zeiger used clips from national news programs and displays of troops' underground newspapers and included scenes from other documentaries and soldiers' personal home movies.

More than 30 years after it ended, the Vietnam War is still a hot-button topic in this country, and Zeiger acknowledges that the participants in his film took risks in allowing on-camera interviews: "There are stories in this that are very damning of the war and of the military and government. . . . The risk is drawing fire from the other side, from people who've always denied that this happened. . . . You can say what you want about the film, about individuals . . . but you can't deny that this [the GI Movement] happened and that it represented a very significant group of soldiers."

One story the film recounts, then dismisses as fiction, is the often-repeated one about antiwar protesters spitting on returning vets and calling them baby-killers. "People rattle this off as if it were fact, like the assassination of Martin Luther King," Zeiger says. "I take no credit for [disproving it] -- it was Jerry Lembcke," whose book "The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam" contends that those stories were largely fabricated to denigrate protesters, citing a lack of photographic evidence and the incident's improbability.

Though the film makes no mention of the Iraq war, Zeiger himself finds many similarities. He calls "incredibly hypocritical" the government's reaction to reports of brutality, especially the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and torture at Abu Ghraib: "The antiwar people usually say these are the logical results of how the war is conducted, with the blame going all the way up to George Bush and Rumsfeld, or Nixon and Kissinger. Meanwhile, the government turns around and says, 'No, it was the soldiers, the low-level officers and GIs,' " calling the acts isolated incidents of aberrant behavior.

Zeiger says that, despite the parallels, Iraq isn't simply a mirror of Vietnam. Still, he says, "the people in this country who are not being isolated from or protected from the war in Iraq are the troops. And they're no different from anyone else, they're just as capable as anyone of knowing right from wrong."

-- Christina Talcott


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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