Sir! No Sir!, director David Zeiger’s revelatory documentary about American soldiers who protested the Vietnam War from within the military itself — a stand that sent many of them directly to the prison stockade — is clearly the film this former protest organizer was born to make. But for the longest time, he kept the subject at a distance, despite his own deep involvement in the GI anti-Vietnam movement. Zeiger, who’s now 56, worked at the Oleo Strut in Killeen, Texas — the coffeehouse that served as safe haven and rallying point for the increasingly radicalized soldiers of nearby Fort Hood — yet when he started making films at age 40, the L.A. native kept it local, making docs like the Hollywood-based Funny Old Guys, and Senior Year, the landmark 13-part PBS series filmed at Fairfax High. But then Iraq happened, and suddenly there was new resonance to the largely unknown story of those defiant Vietnam soldiers and the civilians who stood alongside them.
“The war in Iraq dragged the film out of me. Right away, this film started banging on me, saying, ‘You gotta make me, you’ve got to,’ ” Zeiger says, but he doesn’t get a chance to elaborate further. It’s been pouring rain all afternoon, and about five sentences into this interview, a power failure forces a venue shift, from a Silver Lake coffeehouse to Zeiger’s nearby home, with its enviable view of the skyline, and his office, located, appropriately enough, in an old basement fallout shelter. With its double-computer editing bay, this is clearly not the headquarters of a nostalgic hippie — there’s nary a peace sign or “Free Bobby Seale!” poster in sight — and when Zeiger’s young daughter comes in and sits down to color while her father talks about his work, I realize why Zeiger may have initially resisted Sir! No Sir!: He’s too fully engaged in the present to look back at the past.
Then again: Once a radical, always a radical. Ask him about the American public’s reluctance to question the Bush administration’s march to war and Zeiger replies, “The government today has been very effective in using fear as a motivating factor, to carve out their own agenda and make it difficult for people to have any sense of purity about opposing them.” Purity isn’t a word you hear too often these days, but it calls to mind Keith Mather, one of Sir! No Sir!’s most eloquent voices. Mather was a member of Nine for Peace, a group of soldiers who refused Vietnam duty and were arrested in the summer of 1968 after chaining themselves to sympathetic clergymen at the Haight Ashbury Community Church. Mather was then imprisoned at the Presidio, the San Francisco military stockade, where he and Army medic Randy Rowland, who also appears in the film, helped organize the “Presidio 27” sit-in, a spontaneous action prompted by the cover-up of the killing of a prisoner by a guard.
When Zeiger mentions Mather, I read to him Mather’s speech from the film, in which he describes his feelings at the height of the prison uprising: “I had nothing to lose. And I had no idea of what was gonna come. That’s a free place. It’s a really free place, you know? You don’t know what’s gonna happen, you don’t know where you’re going, but you know what you’re doing.” At that editing bay in the corner, Zeiger has surely listened to those words dozens of times by now, but they still clearly get to him. ”That’s it, that’s exactly it,” he says, popping up in his chair. “Keith was facing the death penalty — at minimum, 20 years in prison — and he’s talking about being in a free place. That’s mind-boggling if you think about it. You have to transport yourself back to that feeling, and that’s what I wanted to do with the film. I wanted people to know what the movement felt like. You could never predict where it was going to pop up or what was going to happen, what people were going to do. And there’s a real, crazy joy about that, you know, amidst this insane life-and-death situation.” He sits back, suddenly quiet. For this one moment, David Zeiger has traveled back in time.