During the autumn of 1969, Los Angeles native David Zeiger found himself in Killeen, Texas.
“I don’t know if it was masochism or whatever, I decided to go to the most isolated place in the South that I could find, and Fort Hood was it,” he said during a phone interview this week from the office of his Los Angeles-based Displaced Films.
Killeen was also the site of Oleo Strut, one of dozens of coffeehouses that were opened near military bases and places infused with the voracity and veracity of enlisted Army soldiers who were against the Vietnam War. Zeiger had met people from the burgeoning GI anti-war movement, including some at Fort Hood, and he got a job working at the Oleo.
He purposefully landed that employment and not because he liked coffee.
“There wasn’t anything I wanted to do other than be part of the anti-war movement,” he said.
Zeiger wrote, produced and directed the 2005 documentary “Sir! No Sir!,” which includes archival footage and real-time interviews with veterans who were part of the GI movement against the Vietnam War. The film also includes his interview with actress Jane Fonda, who is also known by many as “Hanoi Jane.” She, along with other actors, including Donald Sutherland, created a traveling performance titled “Free the Army Show.” Veterans For Peace Humboldt Bay Chapter 56 will host a special screening of the film on Sunday at 8 p.m. at Arcata’s Minor Theatre.
Following the Sunday screening, which will have a discounted admission price of $5.50, will be a question-and-answer session with two of the soldiers featured in the film — Keith Mather and Tom Bernard.
In the summer of 1969, Mather joined the “Nine for Peace,” soldiers who refused orders to Vietnam. Mather was arrested and confined in The Presidio stockade in San Francisco, where he helped organize a sit-down protest when a mentally ill prisoner was shot and killed by a guard.
The “Presidio 27” were charged with mutiny and Mather escaped and lived in Canada for 18 years.
Bernard was trained as a Vietnamese linguist (Hanoi dialect) by the U.S. Air Force and spent two years on various assignments in Southeast Asia, 1970-72. It was after that Bernard became a member of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War/Winter Soldier organization and first became active in the GI anti-war movement.
Among the awards Zeiger’s film received on the festival circuit were an audience award for best documentary from the Los Angeles Film Festival and jury award as best documentary from Hamptons Film Festival. It was also an award nominee for the 2006 Independent Spirit Award for best documentary.
Filmmaking, for Zeiger, didn’t begin until many years after he was an anti-war activist. During the 1980s, Zeiger rediscovered one of his first loves, documentary photography, and that eventually led to filmmaking in the 1990s.
That decision was largely based on an experience he had with creating a photography series, “Displaced in the New South,” about immigrant communities that were moving into the South.
“I felt too limited in photography to tell the story I wanted to tell,” he said.
“Sir! No Sir!” is a story “that needed to be told” and that went back to his having been at the Oleo and feeling that the GI anti-war movement was a story that has since been largely “suppressed and ignored.”
Becky Luening, an associate member of Veterans for Peace, said she was first introduced to the film during a convention in Dallas in 2005.
“This style of documentary, I think, is very powerful,” she said. “It’s not just people chanting slogans. It’s people telling their personal stories.”
She added, “There’s an emotional impact through things like film and theater and poetry that has a tendency to go straight to the heart, rather than just the head.”
Zeiger agreed and added that his film is relaying a story, not making one.
“I’m not advocating one thing or another,” he said. “The simple fact this story has been denied for so long makes it a controversial thing.”
Is showing a film grounded in the Vietnam War simply dredging up a subject that has long passed?
Zeiger referenced what he considers a “powerful myth” perpetrated by government and even media stating that when soldiers returned home from Vietnam, people spat on them.
“It’s a very powerful myth and the existence of a widespread movement in the military against the war undercuts that myth so much,” he said. “We’re not making arguments for or against the Iraq war. There is a legacy and history of soldiers inside the military taking a very courageous and principled stand.”