New York, NY, USA - Writing and directing his first feature for the big screen, veteran television documentarian David Zeiger created "Sir! No Sir!" to tell the unsung story of the GIs who followed their convictions and chose to resist the Vietnam War rather than fight a conflict they didn't believe in.
These GIs went to prison or to Canada, and guys like Zeiger joined them in their moral stance. Of course, with the current war going on there are many parallels and concerns to share between those decisions of 40 years ago and today.
G21: In making this film, what was the most difficult part of the process? Financing is always an issue, but you're drawing on archives as well as tracking down people to interview.
ZEIGER: The difficult part of this film was the editing - forging the particular stories we were going to tell - as there's a wealth of material. I knew several people involved, and we did months of searching for interview subjects. A lot of people had disappeared into their own lives.
We had to do [was] intense tracking down of people. This material, while it's been buried, does exist in archives, not just in the memory of everyone who was involved. We ended up with a huge amount of material. For me, the central character in making this film was the movement itself, [rather than] the particular individuals.
The movement wasn't an organization, like the Weathermen, where you could track every development. It was a crazy movement - it was connected and not connected. Every military base in the world had some form of this movement going on. The most interesting, difficult, and creative part of the film was to take all this madness and forge it into a narrative.
G21: Were there decisions that you made as to how much you were going to show the people who prosecuted them? Or was it always going to be more from the advocacy point of view?
ZEIGER: The story we were telling was not from the advocacy point of view so much as the story of this movement: why it formed, why people did what they did. For example, the Fort Hood 43 were the 43 black GIs who went to prison rather than go to Chicago as part of a riot control contingent for the Democratic convention. We were specific about everyone in this film being someone who was actually part of this movement.
There's no analysis from on high or outside of it. Telling the other side was something we wanted to do. We tried very hard to find people who had played a direct role in oppressing or prosecuting the movement, or investigating it.
We found that most of the people who played that role are dead now.
For example, one of the things we talk about in the film is in 1971 Congress investigated the GI movement. The House Internal Security Committee held 18 months of hearings on it, and we wanted to find one of those congressmen. They're all dead. None of the judges or commanding generals who played a role are around anymore. I would have loved it.
What we didn't want to do was get a Swiftboat guy up there saying there was no movement. The film is telling a particular story, and the people in the film needed to be people who were part of that [specific] story - from either side.
G21: Was it interesting to find out what had happened to some of these guys and what they're doing now?
ZEIGER: Absolutely. It runs the gamut from people who have since stayed active [to] guys who got out and got hung up with drugs. Through the '80s it got really tough. It was actually the Gulf War in the '90s that brought people back out of the woodwork.
Now there's a pretty big veterans for peace organization [and] several guys in the film are part of that. There are also people who have been lost. We showed the film in Oakland [California, USA], and a guy who was one of the activists came and introduced himself to me. He [had been] one of the editors of the Fatigue Press, which was the underground GI paper at Fort Hood. The guy has been homeless for years. He's living in a shelter, now. He came out - for him it was a rebirth seeing this.
G21: Where were you during Vietnam?
ZEIGER: I was born in 1950, so I was a teenager in the '60s. I spent the part of the war after high school trying to avoid being involved in political work. I fancied myself a song writer and a poet - didn't really get too far with that.
Around 1970, I hit a wall and realized there's nothing more important in the country than taking on the war and becoming part of the movement. I looked around for where I could go and what I could do that would make the most sense. I met people from the Oleo Strut, which was the coffee house in the film. It was a no-brainer.
If you really wanted to be where things were going to have an impact, go to the heart of the matter. That was in the military. That is where I spent three years, from 1970 to 1972. They were the most intense, most formative years of my life.
G21: Do you think the characters of this war and that war are different because this is an all volunteer army and that was the draft, which made this movement cohere?
ZEIGER: Yes and no. Obviously, this is a different war and a different world - there are different dynamics at play.
I don't think the draft is as central as everybody thinks it is. Certainly, in terms of a GI movement, it was driven not by draftees, but enlistees - people who had gone in out of patriotism or family culture. Working class white guys all through the '60s went into the military. They volunteered, they didn't have to get drafted.
Their fathers were in Korea, or their grandfathers were in World War I, so they were going to fight this war. Several people in the film are from that ilk.
Among black people, it was a similar issue to what it is now. People who were drafted would have gone anyway, because it was the only way to get out of the ghetto. It was presented as a way toward a better life. There was a campaign in the '60s when the military enlisted 100,000 African Americans specifically. They knew that was the best chance of building up their military - it proved to be a horrible mistake. It's not dramatically different than it is now, in terms of who is in the military.
G21: Do you think that it helped accelerate the Civil Rights movement?
ZEIGER: It certainly helped accelerate the Black Liberation movement of the late '60s. The Black Panther Party was hugely populated by Vietnam vets. A lot of people joined the Panther Party while they were in the military. The contradictions were particularly sharp for black GIs.
People in the film talked about Terry Whitmore, a Marine hero who was wounded several times. He was in Japan recuperating from his wounds and got a medal pinned on him by LBJ in the hospital. As he got his orders to go back to Vietnam, he watched on TV as federal troops were deployed in Memphis, his hometown. The city was burning in the wake of Martin Luther King being killed. It slapped him upside the head.
He said, "We're over here beating on people, and guys wearing the same uniform I'm wearing are in the streets of Memphis." He took off and went to Sweden.
A lot of people were militant in Vietnam in particular because of this. There was an unofficial cease fire when King was killed that lasted for two weeks. Black GIs said there was no way they would go out and fight.
G21: Did you find a lot of your participants in Canada, or have they come back to the States?
ZEIGER: Most of them came back. One of the most interesting guys in the fi lm was Keith Mather, who had refused his orders to Vietnam in 1968, publicly, as part of a group called the Nine for Peace.
He took sanctuary in a church, was arrested, and placed in a Presidio stockade in San Francisco. Another inmate there was killed by a guard. There was a sit-down strike by 27 prisoners, who were called the "Presidio 27." They were charged with mutiny and faced the death penalty. As a guy in the movie said, they were singing "We Shall Overcome." In the face of this, Keith escaped and went to Canada for over twelve years. Then he came back - he's in the country now. There are still people up there.
G21: Did you think of shooting at some of the prison camps?
ZEIGER: We did. One of the places that still exists is the Presidio stockade in San Francisco, which was a fascinating trip. That building still stands.
The Presidio is now turned to condos and offices, but that [structure] has not been touched. There are still signs in there about re-enlisting for prisoners. I went back there with Keith and Randy Roland, who had been part of that mutiny. That was very intense, but also very interesting.
I filmed in Kalin - I had a chance to go back to my youth. It was pretty fascinating. Kalin is a tiny, little town. I went there with a couple of people - we drove around town, my DP had a camera. After two hours, we went to the library. In the parking lot, police cars came roaring up and surrounded us. They had gotten a report that there were strange people in town with a camera. I told them what we were doing.
One of the guys had been a foot sergeant in the movement. He remembered it quite well, and fondly. Given the nature of things today, as soon as they realized we weren't terrorists, it was okay. It was probably the most exciting thing to happen in that town.
G21: You've been in a few [protests] yourself.
ZEIGER: I have. When I was in Kalin, the summer of '71 was the summer of our most intense activity. There was an Armed Farces Day demonstration - 1,500 GIs.
That summer, I was arrested eleven times, all the way from charges of inciting a riot to having a dirty license plate. It was a very classic southern town approach to what was going on, where they tried to identify the particular individuals to go after. I was one of them.
G21: You never got arrested here? [New York City]
ZEIGER: Not in New York. One of the stories in the film was about a woman who was a nurse, and to publicize a demonstration, she hired a small plane to fly over all the military bases in the San Francisco Bay area dropping leaflets. She mentioned at one point, she was scared of being shot down. Everyone's thought is "Try that today."
G21: How did Jane Fonda become involved with the film and the movement because it seemed that she had become apolitical for a while?
ZEIGER: When I approached Jane for the interview, she was in the process of writing her autobiography. I think Jane was taking back control of her own history, her own life. She was doing a lot of research, getting back in touch with people she had worked with in the GI movement.
She was very open to talking about that movement and her role in it. It was the GIs she met in 1967-1969 who really turned her against the war. That's the irony of it: it was soldiers who turned Jane against the war. She spent several years supporting the GI movement full time. She really welcomed being interviewed and being part of the film.
G21: It must be fascinating to get to know Jane Fonda in a context outside of her celebrity-media-film context.
ZEIGER: I knew Jane back when she was doing support for the GI movement. She still has a lot of the sensibility that drove us, which is, on a basic level, "I don't give a fuck. This is what needs to happen. I don't care what the consequences are."
That was a liberating situation that everyone faced. Here was Jane in 1970-1971, she had just made "Klute", she was this massive mega-star. And she would do everything she could to be just one of the guys. It was quite a scene when Jane came around. She talked about that recently, and it's very interesting because she said she didn't know how to handle it all that well. She wishes she knew then what she knows now.
G21: How have you maintained her involvement?
ZEIGER: She has stayed involved with the film. When we premiered it at the Los Angeles Film Festival, in June 2005, I was beyond the verge of bankruptcy - we were extremely in debt with the film.
Jane volunteered to come and help raise money for it. She's played a huge role with getting a lot of people to finally look at the film to see the significance of it and help financially. It's because of her that we're sitting here right now.
G21: We've learned to deal with celebrity in very different, but not necessarily better, ways. Do you have other people involved in supporting the film who were stars [then], or are stars now, who helped enhance the effort?
ZEIGER: People at that upper level of stardom are very self-protective at this point. It's been more folks like Danny Goldberg, who is CEO of Air America - he's gotten involved. Several people who are character actors and singers have gotten involved. Up to this point, we haven't gotten the Sean Penn endorsement.
G21: This film is with a relatively new distributor?
ZEIGER: Yes, they're great: Balcony Releasing. They are a service-deal kind of company. Rather than buying all the rights and then selling it, they are very specifically theatrical distributors and bookers. We pay them a fee, and they work their asses off for the film. They've done a very good job with small documentaries--they did really well with "Our Architect" and "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill". My favorite was "The Same River Twice", the one about the River Rats, who did river tours on the Colorado River. The guy who had filmed them was part of it and then went back. It was a beautiful, poignant film about the passing of time.
G21: These are the documentaries that have been getting attention.
ZEIGER: We're all pretty excited. They're a small company and only take on one film at a time, then just go crazy with it, which is great. Because of the nature of this film, a lot of the political supporters of it had an initial reaction of "You should put it out on DVD right away, like the Robert Greenwald model. Have it at house parties."
My strategy is that I want the story to take center stage as much as possible in American culture. You really can only do that through a theatrical release, because it's through a theatrical release that the mainstream media picks up on it. We got two thumbs up from Ebert and Roeper. That was wonderful! We want this story to at least be known beyond the people who see it in theaters, to take its place in American culture.
G21: Is there a next film?
ZEIGER: My next project is a feature, a narrative. I'm writing a screenplay now, based on a personal documentary I made about my son. I'm a little burned out at this point on documentaries - not in a bad way. I didn't start making films until I was in my early 40s. I came into this with some specific stories I wanted to tell in documentary form. I've told those stories now.
G21: Tell me about this film you're working on.
ZEIGER: My quirky love story? I made a film called "The Band" in the '90s. It was on the PBS series, POV. It was about my son when he was in the high school marching band. On one level, I spent a year filming him and his friends in the band. On a deeper level, the story had to do with the death of his older brother, Michael, seven years prior to that, and how both of us had our own paths of living with that. We had reached a point of change, particularly for Danny, being on the verge of adulthood. That was what the film was dealing with. The screenpla y that I'm writing has very similar themes.
Danny is playing a role in writing the screenplay - not necessarily writing, but in digging deeper into the whole experience of a teenager whose brother has died tragically and who has to live in difficult circumstances with his parents. It's a lifetime project, but not as a documentary.
G21: When filmmakers get involved with an issue-oriented film or someone they're passionate about, it's hard to divorce yourself as a filmmaker. You're part cause-oriented person and part filmmaker. It's a tough call which way to go.
ZEIGER: It's not so tough for me at this moment. I've known that [the GI Movement] was a tremendous story, that politically, culturally, and socially it needed to be told. It subverts the standard ideas of what happened during that time [and] I take a lot of pleasure doing that.
It has a huge influence on how people look at the situation today and what can happen. I promote that - I want that to happen. But I'm not an activist filmmaker. I really want to tell stories.