INTERVIEWS WITH THE DIRECTOR
Going Underground, 7 Feb 2018
Resonance FM, long interview with Kate Yoland, December 2017, March 2018.
Andrea Luka Zimmerman interview at Berlinale, February, 2017.
Andrea Luka Zimmerman interview at Document Film festival, October 2017.
Andrea Luka Zimmerman interview for Red Carpet News, LFF, 2017
An interview with Andrea Luka Zimmerman by Gareth Evans (Executive Producer and Film Curator)
Why have you made this film? This is a huge question of course, but I mean it in terms of you a German woman filming over a decade with an American soldier who has killed 400 people.
I was born in Germany and never had a chance to know my own family well: one grandmother having been expelled from her country of origin and the other abandoned by her mother who went to the US. Their children (my parents) became damaged people too. I never had a chance to know them well. The intergenerational trauma of silences around the legacies of war shaped their psyches. This may be why I have always been drawn to lives that are in various ways marginalised or lived apart from the ‘normal’, whether familial, cultural, or psychological. I am interested in the stories we tell ourselves and those told to us. Stories about who we are and where we come from. I also have a healthy disrespect for hierarchies and for inherited – not earned – authority.
I am equally intrigued by the contested relationship between public and private memory. Why do some people choose to perpetrate extreme violence and how does society use culture to create the conditions for such actions to be seen as heroic (or evil)? And most importantly, who gets to remember, and how I, as a filmmaker and cultural activist, can find a way through this dominance of memory towards a more challenging narrative, a refusal to take on established norms and articulations, whilst also using them to encourage dialogue.
How did the project begin?
I met Bo first in 2003 when my colleagues (Christine Cynn, Joshua Oppenheimer, Michael Uwemedimo and I, as part of our film collective Vision Machine) were researching US involvement in the 1965 genocide in Indonesia. We were exploring a way to use filmmaking as an experimental political tool, as well as a means for imagining or bringing to the fore, structural and state violence: the very things that can’t easily be expressed… the murky arena of power. We researched in London, Indonesia and in the United States. We interviewed several people, including Bo, who worked in Intelligence during the early 1960s. I soon realised there was an incredible story to be told. Through Bo as the nexus for various realities that came together in his life experience: propaganda, private memory, myth, public memory, etc… we learn about ourselves as a society and as human beings.
Through someone so different from me, I could enter a space that was unfamiliar, that allowed me to question my own attitudes and in this way the film became a negotiation between beliefs, between ideology and judgement. The film explores themes that are bigger than Bo or I, and since I believe we are implicated in the history we inhabit, we must never stop digging to see what we find. Otherwise, we are just walking along the edges of psychic and embodied knowledge and our times clearly show us that it is simply not enough to pursue such a strategy. We need to cross into ambiguous, often very difficult and complex territories to understand the reasons for our condition.
How easy was the film to make, and why did it take so long?
I needed to work through what I wanted to say as Bo revealed more and more. I also could not commit to a more commercial structure, which of course would have ensured more funding, earlier on and throughout. The film was made on a micro budget over more than ten years.
Tell us a little more about the production scale?
I work best alone or with a very small team. I like the exchange that happens in such conditions. I went to the US many times, often by myself. I also like the roughness of imperfection, I like the vulnerability of only one camera, of the trembling, searching eye and hand.
What particular challenges did you face?
The main challenges of a micro budget lie in post-production. I lost about a quarter of the footage due to a lack of sufficient back ups. I made the film over such a long time that we had a number of major format changes and faced technical/software obsolescence on several occasions.
In terms of Bo and his willingness (or not) to continue filming, in some cases I literally followed him and he was almost unaware of my presence. At other times he was very playful and entirely obliging regarding the more unusual approaches we deployed. He had only one blind spot regarding an episode shown late in the film. He also challenged me as a filmmaker, encouraging me to push him further into territory that would not be easily explored, as well as making me question why I wanted certain things on film.
We were never hindered from filming, by Bo or anybody else in the community or the wider society. I was not trying to find images to prove a previously held, politically aligned vision of Bo’s and American reality. I think this is why we didn’t encounter problems around filming sensitive material. The participants could tell that I was not motivated in a rhetorical, political way. Rather, I wanted to reach the truth of their experience, which I often felt sympathy towards, and through that form of meeting, to find the larger social and historical ‘truth’ of the times being investigated.
Aren’t you worried you are glamorising a mass murderer, one who seeks to be redeemed by the confessional aspect of the filmmaking?
Bo has killed around 400 people and is, through his training and development of methodologies of conflict, responsible for many more deaths. And my film seeks no redemption. Bo himself does not seek redemption. It is far more complex than that. He has these lives on his conscience and there is no-one but the dead who could alleviate that conscience. He knows that and is still willing to explore the meaning of his role in history, the meaning of all the medals he has been awarded, his recognition for heroism, the sense of betrayal he carries since his fall from grace, his activism against corruption and his openness regarding PTSD.
In recent years films such as S21: Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, The Act of Killing, and The Fog of War and others have interrogated such material. What is distinctive about Bo is that he embodies aspects of all of the protagonists of the above films in one person. He is both authorised to kill (S21, The Fog of War) and operates outside of conventional structures (The Act of Killing). Like the latter, he has not been tried for any crimes relating to his conflict involvement, and most importantly, he has been a senior ranking officer who has actually killed directly, many times, in what may be called a ‘personal’ capacity. He claims to know each and every killing. They were done in close combat.
He was completely sanctioned by the state to do what he did, and that implicates us all (as voters, tax payers, bureaucrats, teachers, public servants, citizens, neighbours, family…). Unlike Robert MacNamara (The Fog of War), Bo actually killed, as well as providing and developing training methods for US Special Forces at what was then The School of the Americas, as well as working at the Pentagon. He was on the ground, in the action and worked in government. These multiple involvements and their implications continue to be relevant.
Why did Bo agree to make the film?
As you see in the film, Bo has appeared on screen many times, as actor and as presenter, so he was not averse to being filmed. It was more a question of getting beneath, or rather, working through the staged persona towards larger and deeper truths. I think I met him at a point in his life when he knew he needed to go on a journey to understand his own choices. The film offered a framework/ thread, into the space Bo the man who has no fear, found extremely frightening. Memory and its spillage into the present through PTSD is so insistent, and I was able to capture its flashes when they occurred, to perhaps show (back to him) some of the utter insanity he has lived.
Much of the US commentary to date around the film has focused on Bo Gritz’s associations with the Far Right and this seems to be unbalancing reception of the film’s wider exploration of all sorts of forms of violence, both personal and social.
My concerns have always been along these larger lines. Through Bo’s experience, I have sought to explore / grapple with these larger issues of structural violence (economic, political, military and often social). I have recorded his admissions to horrendous acts of violence in his foreign military activities. As citizens we support these structures (whether we like it or not). There can be no moral high ground. He is both caricature and legend as well as a contradictory human being, full of diverse impulses.
As the child of post-War German parents, I have lived alongside the notorious silence around Nazi association on a nationwide level all my life. I do not in any way want to diminish the seriousness of any concerns that do remain in this regard, and although he himself has distanced himself from any such ideology, he has not publicly condemned others who claim him as their hero. I believe that any proper and lasting understanding only derives from struggling to overcome the instinctual barriers we have to such dialogue. However, I do find it incredibly telling that Bo’s declarations as an individual have elicited, to date, very strong responses from certain quarters, while detailed descriptions of covert US atrocities in Latin America and elsewhere, have barely merited mention. We seem perennially unable to deal with large-scale structural violence, remaining obsessed with individual acts at the expense of larger horrors.
Any expression of extremism does not simply arrive fully formed from nowhere. This is why I have chosen to concentrate on the pervasive, ongoing and deeply disturbing structural violence which is at the heart of Bo’s life (which he has promoted as a soldier and almost literally embodied). It is the bringing of this violence into the light that is one of my main ambitions for this film.
What is your position towards Bo and his political beliefs?
By either ridiculing Bo, or turning him into a hero, we avoid the deeper and more frightening aspects of the reality that produced him (and that he helped produce). The film ends with him becoming almost literally a hollow man, fixed in a deserted land, one who finds it harder to live than to die. If we take a conventionally moral stance and refuse to examine the full implications of this, then we are all in a sense, hollow, as we are not engaging with as fully realised human beings with another of our kind.
How much do you think you might be serving his purposes in this respect?
Of course the film offers Bo a (complex) platform, but it is not a simple one, nor uncontested. To make a film about the outer limits of human conscience, moral and ethical questions are always at the forefront. But that does not mean one should make a moralistic film. Rather, I needed to show the history that has produced Bo, or allowed him to become who he is. In this way, the film serves nobody’s purpose other than to open a dialogue and begin a journey, along the paths we might be aware of but rarely take.
By denying the humanity in a human being simply because they have transgressed, outstayed their ideological time, we avoid asking the profoundest of questions of responsibility, on the part of ourselves and others.
Do you believe Bo when he questions himself?
Truth is not necessarily ‘the truth’… It is less about what Bo says than how he says it, or how he holds himself. The tone is crucial. We believe him when we see him attempting, and perhaps even failing to reach a truthful response, as it makes him more human. In this way he has been very open with me during the process.
What does Bo think of the film?
I am not sure Bo could really ‘see’ the film. At moments, he got very agitated. His rage at how he felt he was betrayed by the US government is still raw. I interviewed him about the film and some of this was then put into the very final cut. It was very telling in regard to the whole journey he has been on.
Why don’t you feature more in the film yourself?
On many occasions, I filmed alone and it would have been physically impossible to include myself! Regardless, I think the self reflexivity of this film is subtler. The film demanded a different kind of attention, so we are not simply relying on me as the guide through a difficult reality – but instead I hope audiences engage with the film on a deeper level. Like my previous films, I am not really in them, but I am present through the way I film, conduct interviews and so on.
Who do you imagine is the audience for this film?
The film displays a number of critical positions in relation to its material, but I hope it will be very broad: people interested in culture, history, politics and the difficult philosophical paradoxes of our time; fans of the Rambo series and of real life soldiering; and importantly, those who may at the outset appear to be a completely different audience – people who attend gun shows, live in small communities, young people, disenfranchised Americans (who might, in some way, see themselves and their lives portrayed on screen in a small but non-judgmental way). I hope the film will speak to them all, and that we might have a useful debate around the issues raised. We can no longer ignore them.