September 27, 2006

Winter Soldier and The Police Tapes

Reviewer: Erin Donovan
Rating (out of 5): **** for both

Both Winter Soldier and The Police Tapes were made cinema verite style by film-making teams (Winter Solider by a 19-person collective, The Police Tapes by husband and wife team Alan and Susan Raymond). When viewed together the films provide a time capsule into the tail-end of a period of social upheaval in America, but also two unique voices about the destruction wrought by moral indifference and national ennui. In the case of Winter Soldier it's a "blank check" approach to a poorly strategized war against a misunderstood enemy; in Police Tapes it's the cycle of unrelenting brutality that flourishes when poverty goes ignored.

The Winter Soldier Investigations were a three day public hearing held in January 1971 at a Howard Johnson's in
Detroit wherein 109 honorably discharged veterans gave public testimony about the horrific crimes they witnessed and participated in during the Vietnam war. Their stories are startlingly grotesque and sadly similar, each arrived fresh faced and eager for action in the fight for freedom but over time were so worn down by lack of leadership and violent scorn from the locals they resorted to rape and torture to relieve boredom and frustration.

The Police Tapes was recorded with one of the first portable video recorders (that probably weighed more than 35mm film cameras do now) over the course of three months in 1976. The Raymonds interviewed rank and file police officers, bureau chiefs and people who had been brought into the station for help or under arrest. At the time, the 44th precinct of the South Bronx had become a national symbol of urban blight and street crime. In the film, in a few rather poetic monologues, the Aristotle-quoting borough chief outlines how ignoring the moral dilemma of poverty left gangs, drug abuse and mental illness to run rampant to the point where the Bronx had become a breeding ground for violence: "I am a very well paid commander in an army that occupies the ghetto, and that is a great tragedy. I don't know how useful one's life could be in that situation, and that's where my sense of defeat and frustration comes from."

Cinema verité employs little to no voice-over, b-roll or reenactments -- quite refreshing as we reach what is hopefully the high watermark of the "I-am-the-story" approach to documentary story-telling (paging Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock, Ross McElwee and Alan Berliner). And in an age where pundits seem to have more credibility (or at least talk-time) than people whose lives are affected by the issues of the day, there's an almost luxurious feeling of credibility in such direct

Winter Soldier 's dvd extras include a roundtable discussion with the Winterfilm Collective, which included future Oscar-winning documentary director Barbara Kopple (Harlan County USA and American Dream), editor Nancy Baker (Born into Brothels) and prolific television documentarian David Grubin. Twenty-five years later they regroup for the first time to discuss the process of working with such emotionally daunting material as first-time film-makers and their subsequent activism. Also included are three short films made by and about the veterans who spoke at the investigations. The Police Tapes DVD includes a 13 minute interview with the Raymonds (where we learn that the film served as the inspiration for the television series Hill Street Blues).

See also: The Fire Next Time, Doing Time, Fog of War, the "Up" Series and Night and Fog.

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Posted by cphillips at September 27, 2006 2:43 PM
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