Machine Gun or Typewriter
Regissør: Travis Wilkerson

After 20 years of activist film work, American Travis Wilkerson can tell us something about war, racism and activism. And about the use of a radical form of expression.


What are the characteristics of a political essay film? Yes, that it is deeply critical – and subjective, reflective, trying and heretical. It is precisely such films that the American Travis Wilkerson makes. Ny Tid recently met the director at the documentary film festival Dokufest in Prizren, Kosovo. His films were shown there, and Wilkerson himself held a masterclass. His latest film is now being shown in Oslo Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (2017, see below) at the Artists' House.

But why care about an 48 year old American, raised in a vacant little American mining town, a former school drop-out who would rather be a radio DJ? The answer lies in his films.

His wife and manager Erin initially rejected our interview request, but then allowed us the 20 minute audience. Wilkerson speaks quickly and concisely in what will be an hour. His gaze is intense – it does not falter, but is illuminated by political commitment: “I want to make films with meaning, whether what I care about, read about, are concerned about and think about. What I'm talking about. I am a political person and can only make films based on passion. ”

Interestingly, Wilkerson's films are not traditional political documentaries. Beyond the activist content, the film's form is both aesthetic and suggestive. He likes to express himself in black and white, and the narrative voice is his special feature. Wilkerson blends fiction and classical dramaturgy, experimenting with both archival clips, pictorial variations and intense musical elements. “The artist's role is to present unpleasant truths, create works that intervene in the world. At the same time, it is important who you intervene on behalf of and who you do it to. ”

"My father experienced as soon as he came to Vietnam that the war was wrong, but it was too late to turn around."

I experience sitting with the true successor of French filmmaker Chris Marker. He is obviously also Wilkerson's role model, and the latter emphasizes in particular how Marker uses voice-over as a storyteller.

Wilkerson became especially known for his film In Injury to One (2002), in which he draws on budding trade union movements in his old hometown of Butte, Montana, and the miners' struggle against exploitative capitalism from 1880, which ends with the lynching of trade union leaders in 1917. The film has been called "one of the most important ever." and is reminiscent of Russian Dziga Vertov in the expression. The point is how easily the enormously war-profit capitalists of the Anaconda Mining Company outmaneuvered the strikers from the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World, called "Wobblies"). "If one is to criticize the exploiters and the power, one must also be able to look more closely at some of their conspiracies – those who do not investigate this are not open enough," he says.

From Vietnam to Iraq. War is a prominent theme in Wilkerson's films, and it is clear that the Vietnam War has particularly affected him, as such a trauma is often passed on to future generations. The father served as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam and was highly decorated for the effort, which is made clear in Distinguished Flying Cross (2011) (watch the movie here). In the film, we see father William tell from this war to his two sons Travis and Dylan, at home over the living room table, in a good mood over a few beers. "As soon as he came to Vietnam, my father felt that the war was wrong. But once he had enlisted, it was too late to turn around. He was only 20 years old at the time, "says the filmmaker.

Whether the United States has ever made an official settlement with the Vietnam War is a relevant question. "The United States has never spoken honestly and directly about the Vietnam War – a tragic intervention in a civil war, which ended badly for all parties."

The father was one of the few who was quite clear that the war was a mistake. Arriving in Hanoi, he still did the best he could, and survived as far as it was raining on the battlefield. After returning home, the Vietnam veteran was still very critical of US warfare. We hear him describe the racism of American soldiers Vietcong, the Chinese Communists. For the rest of his life, Wilkerson's father worked as an emergency physician at a hospital in Montana: "He never found peace, but as a surgeon he saved at least thousands."

Distinguished Flying Cross'archive clips were filmed by the military's own photographers. It is one hour long, but stems from 50 hours of recording, which remained for years before Wilkerson took it.

The film is about "that fathers' stories shape the future", as Wilkerson says, and he adds: "For my daughter of 15, the Vietnam War is as far away as the American Civil War."

"In the United States, the main discourse around war is now about honoring veterans. I do not believe that."

Myths, trauma and suicide. In the United States, a twelve-hour Vietnam series is currently being shown on television, made by the "patriot" Ken Burns. "In the United States, the main discourse on war is now about honoring veterans." Wilkerson does not think this is the way to go. "One can give them some respect, but honoring those who participated in the disaster is not progressive." That returning Vietnam veterans were spit on and called child killers is also not true, according to the director. "My own research shows that they were not treated as badly as one would have thought. This is a myth for which there is little evidence, "he says. What about the soldiers' trauma? I ask. "It is true that many take their own lives. My father probably thought about that too. But more people commit suicide while in active service than as veterans – 50-60 every month, "he answers.

Fragments of a Dissolution (2012) deals specifically with soldiers' suicides. Wilkerson listens silently to a widow who tells of her husband, who for four years in Afghanistan killed infants, women and other innocents. This was more than he could live with – and he never got to see his own son grow up. Another mother, Mary Cookhill, tells Wilkerson about her son's fourth suicide attempt after Iraq – about how he eventually succeeded. U.S. officers then described the soldier as a "liar" and a "coward" (watch the short film here).

American warfare. With a reflective American on the other side of the conversation table, I want to go deeper into what his fatherland is doing internationally – a country that has established around 800 military bases outside the United States. An old phrase says 'war is profitable'. The United States is engaged in armaments, they are training the world for war and have fought in most of them. They have created most of the world's weapons and tested them, and they are constantly developing new weapon technology. In this my home country – which itself sells and uses the most weapons in the world, and which is totally driven by the war economy – most people believe that North Korea is the world's most dangerous state! "

The consequences can be fatal, Wilkerson believes: "Since the United States was established nearly 350 years ago, the country has been without war participation for just 13 years. Today, in Syria, Libya and Yemen, warfare and armaments have major consequences. The so-called free Syrian army was for the United States a billion-dollar operation – catastrophic, without having created anything positive. " He elaborates: "We did not even have a basic understanding of what the United States did in Afghanistan, a war that began long before September 11, 2001 – something many perceive as the starting point for the wars of recent years. Nor is anyone talking about bin Laden actually being a CIA agent. Americans admire Kissinger – but which of his ideas have really worked? Cambodia and Laos both ended in disaster. However, people do not seem to care, despite the fact that millions of innocent people have to pay with their lives. But large parts of the political left in the United States are positive about warfare. "

American racism. Given the racism that exists at its best in today's United States – and Charlottesville as the latest example – Wilkerson's new film about his own great-grandfather is highly relevant. We're on first name now. Travis tells that Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun (2017) will soon be shown in Oslo (see below). The film is almost a detective story, where Travis digs into the background of his own family. He takes hold of the rumor that great-grandfather Branch Wilkerson shot a black man – the 48-year-old family man Bill Spann – in his local grocery store in Alabama. It turns out that Spann could have been saved if he had not been taken to the place's worst hospital, where the doctors staggered around in alcohol intoxication.

Handguns are known to be common in the United States, and the great-grandfather had used his 32-caliber revolver against the deceased. But he also had a 38-caliber shotgun under his pillow. The great-grandfather also killed another black man who owed him money – without being convicted. Wilkerson feels guilty about coming from a violent, racist family: “My great-grandfather killed two black men and spread fear by abusing people. Just because of the distance in time, I can confront what he did – something others in the family can not do. He died when I was little and is not so frightening anymore. "

"My great-grandfather killed blacks, and spread fear by abusing people, including his own family."

Although Travis does not take the same risk as his father, the helicopter pilot, he has filmed both nationalists up close while talking about "American blood" and "white culture". People who rode while shooting around them, as if they were participating in the 1860s American Civil War. Among these people, Travis thought he would find his mother's aunt Geene, who is still openly racist: “Geene was always kind to me and never said hateful things. But I can read her political activism online. " In the film, where the aunt finally responds to his inquiries, she presents a "cover story" about her great-grandfather (her father) rescuing a black woman whom the African-American chased into the store through the murder of Spann. But at one point, people in Alabama think that Travis has asked and dug too much – and he himself experiences being persecuted. This is how one feels a touch of the threatening atmosphere of racism on the body – three generations after the worst racial persecution – and must get away in time.

Ignored. Travis shows that many blacks – like Bill Spann – ended their lives in an unnamed grave in a foreign city. Many of them were killed without the culprits being taken; the local sheriff gladly looked through his fingers with such. Whites can still kill blacks without having to deal with it. I remember Giorgio Agamben, who refers to such victims as' it naked man »(Holy man) – those who can be taken off for days because they are not counted – and remember that quite recently a southern state policeman came with the outburst: "Do not be afraid, we do not kill whites here!" (See the article on James Baldwin here).

Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun is also a kind Agita-pop, where Travis leaves the chorus "Say His Name!" repeat in parallel with text edits. Several other forgotten African Americans are honored in this way in the film. Travis dwells poetically on black-and-white images of his great-grandfather's shop between trees on a street corner, while his voice-over messes suggestively.

Aunt Geene and others in the family covered up both her own and this place's violent past. Did they react to the film? I ask. 'Exactly as one might expect. In the southern states, there is a strong distinction between the external face and the private. The facade must be maintained at all costs. The reaction was that they mostly ignored me. "

The theme of racism is found in several of Wilkerson's films. IN Machine Gun or Typewriter (2015), who also won the main prize in Kosovo two years ago, he uses images of blacks being lynched, hung and burned. The film is referred to as one punk Agita-noir. Travis is often seen in the film behind the radio microphone, in a fictional story that, among other things, criticizes the police in Los Angeles. In this city, known for the Rodney King riots, the director makes a future fable about a haunted man in search of a lost love via his illegal pirate radio. But behind this narrative hides a story of racism, abuse and criticism of power (watch the movie here).

activism. One question to address to a "heretic" like Travis is whether his films have an impact and have consequences. "I think that larger protest movements must start with a private engagement. Conversations like the one we have here across the table can be spread in a meaningful way. I follow my own convictions; do what I believe in in line with my own role in the world. The hope is that people start getting more involved than they do today. "

Travis was early inspired by South American Third Cinema, and especially by director Santiago Álvarez from Cuba, whose films, according to Travis, changed his life in five minutes: “That's where my real education started. If you want to tell radical stories, you have to use radical expressions so that both the political and the formal are innovative. " In 1999, Wilkerson completed the documentary Accelerated Under-Development: In the Idiom of Santiago Álvarez (1999) about the Cuban filmmaker.

"I am always drawn to such ideas as anarchism. Oppression leads to resistance, and direct action can have a substantial effect. "

Travis is currently a film professor at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, and not dependent on financial support. He is a little disappointed that the young students are most interested in making Hollywood films: “I try to be useful to them, but also to challenge them, to make them sensitive to the outside world. Here in Kosovo, extraordinary films could be made – but this does not seem to be happening. The young people may be too preoccupied with the financing of their films. But it is here – in these surroundings – the resources lie! ”

Post-anarchism. What does Travis think of post-anarchism – the recurring theme of the New Age – as a form of resistance and organization to avoid capitalist exploitation? "I'm always drawn to ideas like anarchism. Oppression leads to resistance. And direct action can have a substantial effect. Black Workers, a movement in the 60s and 70s in Detroit, for example, was almost an incarnation of the film's IWW. This is still a good example of revolutionary organization in the United States. The IWW opposed individual lawsuits, even though the 200 or so leaders ended up with them. The consequences were fatal: the state liquidated the resistance movement overnight. People were sent away, imprisoned or even executed. "

"Today we see something of the same in the Occupy movement: anarchism, or grassroots horizontalism – in its beauty, inspiration, deep motivation and commitment. But the fact is that these movements are ready to be eradicated, simply by some people being arrested or fined dearly, which is enough to discourage many. Such movements are vulnerable and need to rethink their strategies. Grassroots people and anarchists do not realize that one must sometimes be organized and disciplined in order to fight oppression – it applies to everything from Black Lives Matter to Occupy and immigration activist groups. "

We end the conversation by returning to Travis' father. "He was a very moral person who tried to live an ethically dignified life. He recently died of cancer, so it was difficult to see the footage from 20 years ago again here in Kosovo. My father had made intense and violent experiences through life, he experienced chaos, but loved the adventures of life – as well as standing up for what he believed in. Every day I think about how he always encouraged me to do something meaningful, and to make decisions based on beliefs rather than fear. "

Wilkerson, like his father, has traveled to violent places such as Gaza. But in recent years he has become more cautious; his three children and his wife got fed up with the fact that he kept sticking his head out too far. "I have to get back to activism somehow, be more of – and remain an optimist, he concludes with a sigh of relief. "

Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun will be shown at Kunstnernes Hus 24.9. kl. 18.00
(debate follows) and 1.10. kl. 20.45:XNUMX.

See Machine Gun or Typewriter here
See Distinguished Flying Cross here
See Fragments of a Dissolution here

Video interview coming soon

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