Cinematheque Ontario’s Inextinguishable Fire, and the Heart and Mind of Director Peter Davis
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Cinematheque Ontario’s Inextinguishable Fire, and the Heart and Mind of Director Peter Davis

2006_10_14_viet.jpgTorontoist, recently, has been living in the early 70’s. Or at least it feels like it. Having only just read Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 we wonder if the American electorate will be doomed to make the same mistakes forever, and having had the chance to see some of the films from Cinematheque Ontario’s frankly timely season, Inextinguishable Fire: The Vietnam War, well, we wonder if America in general is just plain doomed to make the same mistakes forever. It’s a series of films, including the likes of the recent Sir No Sir! and the harrowing Winter Soldier, that yes, burn with a vital fire that we can but hope the best documentaries about the Iraq war will.
1974’s best documentary Oscar winner, Hearts and Minds, is perhaps the most incendiary of a series of explosive films, and we had a chance to catch up with director Peter Davis on Friday, before yesterday’s screening of Hearts and Minds, which was itself followed by a lively discussion.

Torontoist: What spurred you to make a film about Vietnam?

Peter Davis: I was aware that the war had been in living rooms every night for 10 years, and that there were also several good documentaries made about the war, but, there was something very much lacking in all the war coverage. And I felt it was a longer, more inquiring view of the entire relationship between the United States and Vietnam.
I reduced all of this to three questions. Why did we go to Vietnam? What was it that we did there? And what did this do in turn to us? I would never be so arrogant as to claim that it answers those questions, but every sequence in the film addresses one, or more of those questions.

T: Is the film mostly your own footage?

: Oh yeah, almost all of it we filmed. Hearts and Minds does have some stock footage; about 10 or 11 percent. Some of the most vivid footage is war time footage; the street execution during the Tet offensive, the little girl who’s been napalmed… But 80 to 90 percent of it was shot by us.
2006_10_14_viet2.jpgT: So how hard was it to edit the film into what it became?
PD: Very hard. We filmed for a whole year, and we filmed about two hundred hours of film which meant that for a two hour film, you’re editing it down on a ratio of 100 to 1. One of the editors lives and works in Toronto still, Susan Martin, and she still talks about what a gigantic job it was to cut all that down. We took a year to do that, too.
I made a decision, pretty early on in the editing process, actually, that even though we had filmed a number of peace activists, people very committed to the peace movement, that there just wasn’t room for them in the film, so in the end the only people in Hearts and Minds, that is, among the Americans, are people who either fought in the war, or supported the war at one time. So either people in the army, navy, the air force, the marines, or the policy makers who worked on behalf of the war, regardless on whether they may have changed their mind later.
T: I understand that some of those people made it difficult for the film to be released.
PD: Just one. Walt Whitman Rostow, named after the great American poet, Walt Whitman, who was a socialist [laughs] but our Walt Whitman was anything but a socialist. He was one of the most important interviews that I did in the film, and he sued, getting a restraining order against the release of the film. But it only lasted a couple of weeks.
After hearing from our lawyers, the judge said, “well, let me see this film, then”. After watching the screening, one of our lawyers overheard him saying to his clerk, “A picture really is worth a thousand words.”
The next morning he vacated the temporary restraining order. The film was released in theatres by Warner Brothers; Colombia pictures had financed the film but they refused to distribute it.
T: In the film you juxtapose an American Football game with footage and discussion of the war. As a documentary film maker Michael Moore seems to hold the position that it’s America’s “must win” attitude that pervades people’s lives and the foreign policy; is this something you were exploring?
PD: Yes, it is. I don’t claim that America is the only country that does this. Other countries play their own brand of football and that can be quite violent, and god knows, here in Canada, hockey is violent! But in the United States, as we have become more and more a world empire, I think that we have used our playing fields in a way the British empire once used its playing fields; which is really to train people in a method not only of violence, but of taking orders and obedience. A football team requires a great deal of obedience; it’s one person’s job to catch the ball, another to block to allow the catch. The quarter back throws a “long bomb”; some of the nomenclature drifts over from war into football and back too.

T: Did you ever meet any soldiers from Canada who fought in the war?

PD: No. But I did however include an American soldier who had gone AWOL to Canada. He went to Canada but returned, and appeared at a congressional hearing as a deserter.

T: In what way do you think the American public viewed Canada at the time? As it seems like Canada was quite openly opposed against the war and very accepting to deserting soldiers.

PD: I think that there were two very distinct attitudes. A lot of US citizen admired Canada for taking our deserters and not turning them back so they could face prosecution; a lot of people were very grateful for that, and then there were the others who said Canada should have been fighting by our side. “Your fight is our fight, the fight against communism, and everyone who is right thinking, rational should be eager to enlist in that fight.” Many Americans anti-communists did not feel that way about Canada, because we felt that that was not the right way to fight communism. However, the administration thought the crazy “domino theory”, which has been disproved again and again, justified our being lied into the Vietnam war. I say lied, because there was no real attack in the Gulf of Tonkin, even though the president declared there had been.
This was in 1964 and it was used as an excuse to invade and start bombing, and I think most Canadians were too sensible to accept that kind of lie. And I think most Americans appreciated the fact that our northern neighbour was more rational, more sensible, and did not believe that if you were fighting communism you had to immediately take up arms against a country that was settling a civil dispute.
T: I guess that takes us to where we are now; the parallels…
PD: As it happens, I also did go to the Iraq war, I wrote about it for The Nation magazine, and what I saw were many difference, and, unfortunately a few really horrific similarities. Such as that we were lied into war, and the lies for the Iraq war was that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, which of course he didn’t. And now the administration is lying again to say that they never claimed that he had weapons of mass destruction; well of course they did, and the footage was all over American television screens.
The other lie of course was the attempt to link Saddam Hussein with Osama Bin Laden, and of course, they’ve never been linked at all.
That’s a similarity that began the war, and the other similarity is that we’ve never taken the trouble to under stand the actual culture of Iraq, and the rest of the Middle East for that matter. So we’re trying to bring a popular Americana to a region that we haven’t taken the trouble to even inform ourselves about. It isn’t just a language we don’t know but a history, a culture, the politics, and of course, most of all, the religion.
All of that was true to a slightly lesser degree in Vietnam. This is worse. The Iraq war is in its way, much worse and has many more ramifications; all a result of our decision to try to force Iraq to become Connecticut.
T: The very title of your documentary, Hearts and Minds, is a phrase being used in discussion of the Iraqi people today.
PD: They are still using that phrase; the military is saying “what we’ve really got to do is win the hearts and the minds of the Iraqis”.
They had a saying in Vietnam. “Hearts and minds” was used earnestly by Lyndon Johnston and other leaders. But it was also used ironically by the US soldiers who said “yeah, grab them by the balls, and their hearts and minds will follow.”

T: Do you think people have forgotten the Vietnam war, then?

PD: I think that we learned some kind of lesson in the Vietnam war, which was that we shouldn’t go to war when our own basic interests are not involved, and when we are not attacked. And that lesson stayed learned for about 25 years; one generation. And 9/11 was like a blow to the head that causes amnesia; we forgot the lesson. The result, the consequences of that, of course, we are bearing today. And making the Iraqis bear.

For readers who missed Saturday’s screening of
Hearts and Minds, the film will be shown again on Wednesday the 18th at 8:45pm. Scott Camil, one of the major subjects of Winter Soldier, will be talking today following a screening of the film at 3:00pm. All showings at Jackman Hall, AGO, 317 Dundas W.