Tuesday, August 09, 2005

REV: Winter Soldier

Film Echoes the Present in Atrocities of the Past
By DAVID M. HALBFINGER, August 9, 2005, The New York Times

LOS ANGELES, Aug. 8 - Like a live hand grenade brought home from a distant battlefield, the 34-year-old antiwar documentary "Winter Soldier" has been handled for decades as if it could explode at any moment.

Now, the 95-minute film - which has circulated like 16-millimeter samizdat on college campuses for decades but has never been accessible to a wide audience - is about to get its first significant theatrical release in the United States, beginning on Friday at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. (Other bookings, including Chicago, Detroit, Hartford and Minneapolis, can be found at www.wintersoldierfilm.com.)

Its distributors say that the war in Iraq has made the Vietnam-era film as powerful as when it was new, and its filmmakers are calling it eerily prescient of national embarrassments like the torture at Abu Ghraib.

Seldom has a film seen by so few caused so much consternation for so many years.

When it was made at a three-day gathering in 1971 of Vietnam veterans telling of the atrocities they had seen and committed, major news organizations sent reporters but published and broadcast next to nothing of what they filed - prompting the veterans to organize what would be a pivotal antiwar demonstration in Washington a few months later.

When the film was finished a year later, it was shown at the Cannes and Berlin film festivals, at theaters in France and England, and on German television. But in the United States, the television networks would not touch it, the film never found a distributor, and it disappeared for decades after playing a week at a single New York theater and a one-time airing on Channel 13.

When one of the veterans - John Kerry, who was seen on screen for less than a minute - ran for president last year, the old film turned up as propaganda on both sides of the partisan divide: Mr. Kerry's friend, the filmmaker George Butler, used footage from "Winter Soldier" to lionize him in a biographical film underwritten by Democrats called "Going Upriver." His political enemies on the right, meanwhile, created a Web site called Wintersoldier.com and made a film of their own, "Stolen Honor," to assail him as a traitor and a fraud.

"The context is why we wanted to do it," said Amy Heller, co-owner with her husband, Dennis Doros, of Milestone Films, perhaps best known for re-releasing Marcel Ophuls's 1971 masterpiece on the Nazi occupation of France, "The Sorrow and the Pity."

"We have a 9-year-old son," Ms. Heller said, "but if he were 19 and wondering what he should do with the next stage of his life, I sure would want him to see this film before considering going into the military."

The relevance of this grainy, ancient documentary comes from descriptions of abuse that could have been ripped from contemporary headlines, notwithstanding the changes in today's professional soldiers and their evolved, high-tech methods of warfare.

Listen, for instance, to the former Army interrogator as he describes using "clubs, rifle butts, pistols, knives" to extract information - "always monitored" by superiors or military police, he says - and recounts his superiors' overriding directive: "Don't get caught."

Or hear the former Marine captain, speaking of "standard operating prtocedure," describe how easily individual transgressions, overlooked by superiors, became de facto policy: "The general attitude of the officers was - I was a lieutenant at the time - 'Well, there's somebody senior to me here, and I guess if this wasn't S.O.P., he'd be doing something to stop it.' And since nobody senior ever did anything to stop it, the policy was promulgated, and everybody assumed that this was right."

Mr. Doros said he hoped the film would be shown on cable television, where anyone could see it, particularly today's troops and tomorrow's. "They should see that war isn't always what they imagine from movies and books and modern media," he said. "That the atrocities, the gore, the daily horror of bombs bursting out and bullets riddling your friends' bodies next to you, have been glossed over."

What gives "Winter Soldier" its power, he and Ms. Heller said, is not merely what is said on screen - accounts of Vietnamese women being raped or mutilated, children being shot, villages being burned, prisoners being thrown alive from helicopters - but who is saying it, and how they are shown.