Winter Soldier

Format: DVD

Release date: 5 January 2009

Distributor: Stoney Road Films

Director: Winterfilm Collective in association with Vietnam Veterans Against the War

USA 1972

95 mins

Staged by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and funded in part by celebrities like Jane Fonda (aka Hanoi Jane) and Donald Sutherland, as well as other anti-war activists, the Winter Soldier Investigation was an attempt to heighten awareness of the alleged war crimes being committed by American soldiers in Vietnam, and in the words printed on the invitations, ‘preclude the further scapegoating of individual soldiers for what is in fact Official United States Military Policy’. Held over three days in early 1971 at a Detroit Howard Johnson hotel, the investigation saw over 100 veterans give testimony of atrocities they claimed to have either committed or seen during their tours of duty in Vietnam.

The event was documented by a coalition of filmmakers, who credited themselves as the Winterfilm Collective. Using donated equipment and film stock, they shot the documentary over four days and nights in Detroit, and spent eight months editing the footage, which included interviews with some of the veterans, interspersed with colour photographs taken in Vietnam. The result is a shocking anti-war film that strives to demonstrate that atrocities committed against civilians – from murder to rape and torture – were ‘standard operating procedure’, tacitly approved by the government as a means of conducting the war against the Viet Cong. Although Winter Soldier won the International Critics’ Prize at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival, it failed to secure a release in the US and was largely ignored by the mainstream media.

For the veterans involved, the investigation was a chance to lay blame at the feet of a military machine accused of encouraging brutality. One angry and ashamed veteran shows a photograph (eerily reminiscent of some of the images to come out of Abu Ghraib) of himself smiling over a dead body, urging the audience ‘not to let your government do this to you’. The litany of atrocities cited in the documentary paints a portrait of a vicious war that dehumanised both the young soldiers and their civilian victims, who, according to the testimony, were little more than animals, faceless ‘gooks’.

The stories recounted by the vets in the film are truly horrifying. But while Winter Soldier is a seriously disturbing film, it’s also extremely controversial. Critics (including veterans) have long claimed that many of the so-called vets who testified had never served in Vietnam; that the accounts of atrocities were either fabricated or exaggerated; and that the whole exercise was a case of anti-war propaganda that unfairly demonised veterans (see for an elaborate rebuttal to the investigation). John Kerry’s involvement in the hearing (although he appears only briefly in the film, he was a spokesman for VVAW and gave testimony in front of Congress later in 1971) explains the animosity he encountered from veterans during the 2004 US presidential election.

Winter Soldier is a powerful documentary that needs to be watched with a critical mind; most soldiers in Vietnam were not the monsters portrayed in the film. But regardless of the controversy, it’s a fascinating record both of an era and of a protest movement which, although well-intended, may possibly have used the same kind of heavy-handed propaganda tactics as the power it sought to criticise.

Sarah Cronin


Christmas on Mars

Format: Cinema

Screening date: 12-14 December 2009

Venue: Barbican, London

Also exists on DVD

Distributor: Warner Music Entertainment

Directors: Wayne Coyne, Bradley Beesley, George Salisbury

Writer: Wayne Coyne

Cast: Steven Drozd, Wayne Coyne, Steve Burns

USA 2008

82 mins

For a completely different take on the traditional Christmas movie, The Flaming Lips’ psychedelic, surrealist oddity Christmas on Mars falls somewhere between the slapdash, space-kitsch of Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space, the seasonal hope of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and the bizarre shockfest of Lynch’s Eraserhead.

Filmed over seven years in singer Wayne Coyne’s backyard in Oklahoma, it is the quintessential DIY movie, making use of household objects to create Christmas on a space station on Mars. A thinly disguised oven was used as the control centre, covered in personal mini electric fans rotating and spinning like the whirring cogs of a machine. Huge, disused oil tankers were transformed into 2001-like space tunnels to rather good effect, helped by the fact that the film was made to look as grainy as possible so as to make everything look otherworldly. Indeed, the print shown at the special screenings at the Barbican on December 12-14 (with Q+A with Coyne), had so many lines in it that it looked like it had been dropped a few times on the way.

Despite the jarring amateurishness of the set-up, some hammy acting and clunky dialogue, the film does manage to give an impression of what life might be like in a remote space station during the holiday season, as isolation and boredom send the mental state of the crew downhill. With the oxygen system on the blink, the crew member designated to play Santa in the forthcoming Christmas celebrations suffers demented hallucinations and commits suicide by exiting an airlock without the adequate space attire. The main protagonist, Major Styris, also starts experiencing a series of surreal visions, mostly involving a spaceman with a large vagina-like head holding a dead baby. Coyne himself appears as a benevolent, wordless green alien (in stark contrast to his real-life loquacious self) and later dons a Santa suit. He helps bring hope to those trapped at the space station, alongside a forlorn-looking Christmas tree and the seasonally significant birth of a baby.

The project was a labour of love and a family affair, with Coyne’s wife playing mother to the first human baby born on Mars and the other band members appearing as various and sundry characters in the space station. Thought to have the best acting chops, Flaming Lips’ guitarist Steven Drozd plays Major Styris. His weight fluctuates drastically throughout the movie: when shooting started seven years previously he had been a gaunt heroin addict and filming continued right through to his full recovery, which resulted in him being able to go through one door and come out the other side 10 pounds heavier.

Whilst the DIY, low-budget nature of the project could endear the film to Flaming Lips fans, who are already familiar with the band’s whacky stage shows, offbeat pop and fantastical lyrics, even Coyne himself admits that the regular cinema-goer might not quite take to the film so well. The fans, he hopes, will suspend disbelief and be caught up in the magic, wonder and fantasy of the movie. For a band who have spent the last 25 years making some of the most innovative and bizarre music to have nearly crossed into the mainstream, the film should really come as no surprise – the band directed numerous music videos themselves for albums with titles such as ‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots’. Yet, to other, ‘regular’ viewers the film might seem like a self-indulgent, pretentious vanity project where the only decent thing is the music. However, hearing Coyne talk at the Barbican about this project, which was so personal to him, you can’t help finding all that is endearing, hopeful, joyous and optimistic within the film. Perhaps the magic of a Mars Christmas and the mysterious green alien has spread some cheer after all.

Lucy Hurst