Interview: Andrea Luka Zimmerman (Erase and Forget)
Andrea Luka Zimmerman is a German-born, London-based artist, filmmaker and activist who has become known for her essay films on gentrification, Taskafa, Stories of the Street and Estate, A Reverie. At first glance her new film, Erase and Forget, seems to inhabit a different universe, that of James ‘Bo’ Gritz, the Vietnam vet and alt-right hero who is best known as being the model for Rambo.
However, Zimmerman has been working on this film for more than a decade, and what links all her films is a concern with the deeper structures that create these characters and situations, such as in Taskafa, where a film ostensibly about street dogs in Istanbul becomes a eloquent exploration of the effects of gentrification and social class.
Zimmerman certainly sees a consistency in her work. “With Estate, a Reverie gentrification became the context, but it was on a deeper level about the structures that determine how we are able to live within them (or not), and everyday refusals to accept a prescribed way of being. In this way it is an inquiry into how people negotiate and navigate power. Power is quite slippery and in disguise until one is affected by it, in the case of Estate the prolonged making invisible of a community in the public eye (the rhetoric of sink estates, benefit fraudsters, deprived communities, all these ideas lead to a sense of the abject that can then be ‘fixed’ by either demolition or large-scale displacement like on the Haygate estate), with eventual demolition of the estate. With Erase and Forget I am exploring again questions of power and structural violence, this time through the relationship between covert and secret military operations and Hollywood cinema based on or inspired by them, or even shaping them. So, public and private memory are at the centre of both films, who gets to remember, whose memories are visible, whose voices are heard and why (not).”
Certainly, Bo is a fascinating, complex, but deeply ambiguous character, but Erase and Forget is no mere character study. The Vietnam War was perhaps the biggest trauma to undermine the American national psyche in the twentieth century, as soldiers in the field and protestors at home came to lose faith in their government, and question both its and the media’s motives, effects which are still at play in American society today. Zimmerman explains, “I met him during research into US involvement in Indonesia during the 1960s. I found him at a time in his life where he seemed wanting to go on a journey to find out what he was part of. Initially I didn’t think of making a long film with him, and focused on research for a different film that would show many more people in it, but the more material I found that concerned parts of his history, such as Tudor Gates’ and Patrick King’s rushes to a (never completed) documentary about Khun Sa and the CIA, the Afghan training film, the hundreds of television clips, his presidential campaign, etc, I realised that through this one person I could explore the way in which we in the West, over the last 50 years, went on a journey that we today call post-truth.”
The visual texture of the film is a disorientating montage of verite, archive and Hollywood footage, combined with Bo enacting out aspects of his history, perfectly encapsulating the vertiginous slippage between fact, fantasy and mediated reality that Bo’s life has become. After all, not only was Rambo based on him, but Clint Eastwood and William Shatner financed the mission, where he may or may not have found American prisoners still held in Vietnam.
At first, the viewer believes Bo; as one commentator notes, his experience gives him authority in the field. But as the film progresses, the viewer’s incredulity becomes strained – did he really also inspire the A-Team’s ‘Hannibal’ Smith, and Apocalypse Now’s Colonel Kurtz, a film Bo predictably, can’t stand?
Zimmerman concedes that “Bo is an unreliable narrator. When you look at covert operations, those that succeeded we usually never know about, so we can only study their effects. I think the spaces in between official and private memory are where we might find truth. The gestures, the inflections of the voice, the words masking what’s unsaid behind them, and the action movie genre that even the news adopt at certain times speaking about war. Hollywood told its story, and people heard it and felt it. For instance, First Blood is a work of art, it is also very much an anti-war movie. Then the character became another kind of Uberhuman killing machine for the sequel (then the highest on-screen kills at that time). This I think this is another kind of fact, the making of myth, and cinema has a key part in that, which is of course used by governments all over the world, and why there is also direct support to works that are deemed favourable of certain positions. The betrayal of that myth is what is almost impossible to bear. Hollywood has always been part of the making of a truth (ideology), since Pancho Villa, Birth of a Nation etc, it is persuasive and powerful. The news tells us one story, Hollywood another, and Bo is the interlocutor, and in no way more stable. Then there is the devastating archive where he trains Afghan mujahedeen or films drug running with Khun Sa. So instead of finding out ‘what really happened’ we collated these different strands together into one montage to allow the viewer to see the way in which they all have different agendas and tear at each other, and that truth is ultimately something we need to ask for daily and rigorously, and not expecting to be told by one ‘stable’ narrator.”
While Bo enjoys the limelight, playing up to both public attention and Zimmerman’s camera, there’s a dark side to him, and a sense that his covert actions for the government have completely undermined his faith in the American state. His activities here have made him a beacon for the alt-right, as Zimmerman explains. “All of us are part of a system that makes enormous profits out of structural and political violence. Bo is really a witness to the excesses of the military-industrial complex. Given the enormous rise in alt-right activity in the US and elsewhere, it is crucial to understand where such ideologies come from, and how they express themselves over time, both among citizens, and within government and state structures.”
This puts him at odds with his devotion to the military life, where he tried to live up to his father’s memory, and the myth of machismo he attempts to emulate, trotting himself out at gun rallies, and encouraging young recruits to follow a military life. One kills himself the next day; Bo himself eloquently describes his own suicide attempt as, “You shoot yourself in the head, but that’s not where the pain is. The pain is in the heart”.
As Zimmerman notes, this is prefigured in the very first Rambo film. “In the original ending of First Blood, Rambo shoots himself in the heart (which is in my film). That ending was rejected by test audiences and instead Rambo lived on to become the segue to Rambo II, the most violent movie to date then. Sebastian Junger in Tribe writes about how in the US the suicide rate mirrors that of the unemployment rate. The suicide rate among veterans is roughly 22 a day. It is addressed through medicalisation and pathologising, not as a national crisis, which it is.”
While Zimmerman may have begun making the film over a decade ago, it has, if anything, become even more relevant over that time, with the rise of the alt-right, the increasing belief in conspiracy theories, the prevalence of fake news and the spiralling levels of gun violence which continually dominate American news. “Gun culture is a myth that is tightly guarded and protected. And myth is more powerful than reason, so we need to look at the big picture of structural violence, and to have a genuine dialogue around power and privilege. The statistics on mass shootings are shocking, and gun control needs a broader dialogue on why people feel the need to have them. I worked in one of the poorest places in the US to make this film and witnessed a suicide by gun, and it took a couple of hours for the police to arrive. Why are people so against their government – many of these people served in the US army, and many are very poor. Why do we think killing is acceptable at all?
“In this sense I genuinely believe that Erase and Forget provides a useful, personal, and socially relevant framework for understanding the complexity of these issues. Because it focuses on one public figure, someone who embodies all the contradictions of post-war American society, audiences can follow the choices such a character makes, and the ‘lines in the sand’ that each of us is required to draw, beyond which we won’t go, beyond which morality and ethics start to break down.”
Erase and Forget screens at Document, Saturday 21/10 at 6pm.
Andrea Luka Zimmerman and Erase and Forget producer Ameenah Ayub Allen will join Director of LUX Scotland Nicole Yip after the screening for a Q&A and for a SUPERLUX Masterclass on Sunday 22/10 at 12pm.
Andrea Luka Zimmerman will also take part in the Truth and Power 2: Ethics of the Documentary Filmmaker panel discussion on Sunday 22/1o at 4pm.
Tickets from CCA: Book online / 0141 352 4900
NB the screening and masterclass are free to all SUPERLUX members. Booking through LUX Scotland website.