Erase and Forget, Andrea Luka Zimmerman, 2017.
ERASE AND FORGET, released by LUX on 2 March 2018, is the provocative new documentary from filmmaker and cultural activist Andrea Luka Zimmerman.
It explores “the deep bonds between Hollywood’s fictionalized conflicts and America’s hidden wars” through a complex portrayal of controversial US soldier, whistle-blower and ex-presidential candidate Bo Gritz. One of America’s highest decorated veterans and ‘inspiration’ behind RAMBO, Gritz is still admired as a hero figure by white supremacists for his role in the Ruby Ridge siege of 1992.
Deploying confessional and exploratory interviews, news and cultural footage, creative re-enactment and previously unseen archive material, ERASE AND FORGET explores the implications on a personal and collective level of identities founded on a profound, even endemic violence and proposes a multi-layered investigation of war as a social structure.
Here, Andrea discusses some of the themes and motivations for the film.
You have said that you see ERASE AND FORGET as a work that is in dialogue with Sven Lindqvist’s 1992 book ‘Exterminate All The Brutes’. Can you briefly outline that work please and explain what ERASE AND FORGET has to say in relation to it.
Exterminate All The Brutes explores the origins of totalitarian thinking and ‘othering’, which led to horrendous acts of violence. It is an examination of imperialist ideas justifying genocidal thinking and practice. The book is an exploration of the way in which we have allowed, or narrated to ourselves, a very specific view of the past instead of the more uncomfortable examination of the persuasive way in which ideas of othering take hold, and what they lead to. Konrad’s Heart of Darkness ends with: “Exterminate all the Brutes”. It is a journey through history to extract strategies used to justify and deny acts of violence done upon other bodies (be it in the name of progress, empire etc), and Lindqvist challenges this forgetting. I start Erase and Forget with how Lindqvist starts his book: “You already know enough. So do I. It is not knowledge that we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions”.
The film is a form of investigative documentary, but quite different to what conventionally is expected of an investigative documentary. What are you investigating in ERASE AND FORGET?
Erase and Forget seeks simultaneously to investigate and perform the meeting and exchange between covert operations (real, but whose details, for reasons of official secrecy, can only be imagined) and their spectacular Hollywood renditions (imaginary, but projected in spectacular realism).
The aim here is to identify and analyse these exchanges – imaginary and material – between the spectral and the spectacular rather than point to the accuracy of detail (or otherwise) of the Hollywood account, or oppose a sensationalised and spectacular violence to a stealthy and lethal reality. By focusing on figures who bridge these sites of exchange (people who have been involved not only in actual operations, but also the staging of their cinematic representations), Erase and Forget also interrogates the form of film and unfolds by way of successive layering of performance and artefact, historical chronicle and fictional account, historical figure and fictive character.
In his biography of Allen Ginsberg, Barry Miles writes the following:
Allen was very fond of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s line: ‘Poets are the unacknowledged legislator’s of the world’, which he believed and often quoted. This belief gave him the authority to correspond with Bertrand Russell on nuclear disarmament, to telephone Henry Kissinger – and get through – to talk about the war in Vietnam and to challenge the head of the CIA to disprove Ginsberg’s assertion that the CIA was involved in shipping opium from the Golden Triangle. (Allen Ginsberg: Beat Poet, by Barry Miles)
Of course it was Ginsberg who initially suggested the CIA’s involvement in drug running in the Golden Triangle, as does Bo. But in terms of how seriously Ginsberg takes the role of the poet, I see you as taking the role of artist in a similar way. Would you agree? And secondly, how does all this relate to Bo if indeed it does at all?
Poetry is perhaps the one path through language capable of dealing with the in-between-ness sometimes called ambiguity – it is able to go through language, within language, to somewhere deeper than it. The people whose activism strengthens me were often poets. Poetry may be the place where we can encounter each other (as in art, or music). Ultimately, in language, the same words inside the same sentence can have opposite meanings, and politicians have managed to render even ‘democracy’ meaningless. The culmination of this is how language is used to de-humanise – anti-personnel mines, collateral damage, friendly fire, etc. Bo didn’t become an activist by choice but by necessity. Bo’s activism seems deeply bound to a belief system whose structure he does not question (only the people within the structure). The poets I admire inherently challenge the structures of their coming to being.
In making a film about and with someone like Bo, who some may find ridiculous but who still arguably is a charismatic figure, some would be seduced – by the stories he tells, by the chance to hear what it is like to kill. What grounded you?
I learnt a lot from him about the desire of the filmmaker to go beyond the layer of convention, and how I sometimes overstepped certain boundaries, possibly because of my own rage. I wanted to have him speak about what it was like to kill. I kept probing until he spoke about it. Why did I want to know? I think we need to name what we do so it can no longer be hidden. He talked about the split second before killing someone and how he would delay it so he could see the fear in their eyes. This is when he knew he was going crazy. He is not the only combat soldier who experienced this, of course. Once he understood that this killing was not for reasons other than economical ones he was left with the dead on his conscience. So, in order to survive the devastation of this knowledge, he had to find his own strategies.
When you listen carefully to conspiracy theories by people like him you can understand that they are grounded in some of the things he experienced. This world to him is normal, he has run his own armies, suicide commandoes where up to 80% of his command were killed, and he used yoga and meditation and martial arts to sharpen his mind. His extremism I think is bound by the knowledge that he would be capable of leading people and being a chosen one, because he survived whereas so many didn’t.
What grounded me was the need to find out, with him, what he was part of, and what I as a person paying taxes, am also therefore part of. We together needed to look the ugly beast in the face. But ultimately I think what grounds me is the people that gave me strength throughout my journey up to this date, the many thinkers and writers and artists and poets, and I would like to draw from one of the people whose work has so inspired me. “I do not intend to speak about, just speak nearby.” Trinh T. Minh-ha.
Andrea Zimmerman was in discussion with Jo Blair.