One doesn’t watch Winter Soldier; primarily, one listens. But, there is also that languid, searching stare that can only come when one has truly stopped watching and have begun to pay attention.
In 1971, a group of Vietnam veterans were seated in a Howard Johnson’s in Detroit for a landmark public confession of the atrocities of the Vietnam War. Some of the soldiers spoke of war crimes they had seen committed, others of crimes they had committed themselves. All their stories had one thing in common, however: the unspoken acceptance of these horrors that had, up until then, gone unchallenged. Their stories lose impact when they are transcribed in words, especially the prose of a young man like myself who has never had to live through such times. Without the footage of their unflinching faces recollecting these atrocities, remembering stories spontaneously – even more brutal is how they were desensitized to where they could actually forget…without these, Winter Soldier does not exist.
Winterfilm Collective, the group behind Winter Soldier, has essentially created an anti-movie. It was the anti-thesis of everything cinema had evolved to. The semblance of a master creator (an auteur) was completely gone: no narration, no imposed ideology, no interviewer; even the camera lacked a presence. The shots were empty of technique, and existed only to capture the faces of those who spoke. Some shots would go on for several minutes, never adjusting even the focus, as a soldier broke the bond of silence and told the story of what was really going on in Vietnam. This un-interrupting camera is the pinnacle of non-judgmental trust.
In a recent interview with the filmmakers, someone blurted out that the black-and-white film stock used had been given to them for free since it had expired. It wasn’t so much an apology for the grainy look, but one of those providential stories about low-budget films that are so fecund in the field. Another blurted out that the film was never intended to be shown in a theater – it was supped to be a traveling film for the veterans for when they spoke. Even that would be contested by some of the filmmakers – they looked at it not so much as a project, but as a social duty, to be there when these people said something that had never been said before.
The lack of formalistic gloss in Winter Soldier makes for a non-analytical experience that is simple in its goal – to listen – and penetrating with its results. The film accomplishes technically what it set out to do – to record these testimonies and let the veterans speak for themselves. Never once do you get the feeling that the filmmakers are in control of what is being said; that they are never felt can only be attributed to the natural state of submission and awe that overcomes spectators when there is truly something worthwhile to be listening to.
Cullen Gallagher is a Brooklyn-based writer, musician, and curator whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Life Sentence, Moving Image Source, Bright Lights Film Journal, Beat to a Pulp, NoirCon, Crimefactory, Film Comment, The L Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Fandor, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, Hammer to Nail, Spinetingler, Between Lavas, Reverse Shot, and Guitar Review. He records instrumental music as Modern Silent Cinema and plays in the hardcore band Night Squad.