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Winter Soldier and The Century of the Self

by Anthony Kaufman
August 11, 2005 6:17 AM
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"We think the control of the media by politics and by corporate ownership has created a state of affairs where the horrors of war are being left uncovered." -- Dennis Doros, Milestone Film and Video

Political film junkies have two powerful films to look forward to this weekend. Both historical documents, in a way, "Winter Soldier" and "The Century of the Self" provide backward glances at particular points in our nation's past to reveal bracing realities about our present. Made in 1972 and never before officially distributed in the United States, "Winter Soldier" shows devastating testimonies from the 1971 Winter Soldier Investigation, in which Vietnam vets painfully and publically relayed stories about atrocities they committed and witnessed during the war (trading severed ears for beers, throwing people out of helicopters, raping and mutilating Vienamese women, etc.). In the Village Voice this week, I wrote a brief story about the film, and its distributor Millarium Zero, a new company founded by Milestone Films and Video execs Dennis Doros and Amy Heller to release politically-minded cinema.

I spoke with one of the Winterfilm directors Barbara Kopple, who went on to work on a number of war-related nonfiction films and make the seminal Oscar-winning documentary "Harlan County USA."

"We can't let these things happen again," she told me about the horrible events that war encourages. "Filmmakers really have a duty to get their films out there, so maybe somebody will think about these mistakes that we have made and try to avoid them."

Milestone and Millarium exec Heller is not shy about her own political views, either. "Ideally, what I would really like is that people will think about the film and consider what's happening in the present, especially in terms of the tremendous civilian casualties and the treatment of POWs, which is really appalling in Guantanamo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The Geneva Convention standard is not too high for the American military to follow. My experience talking with vets is that they see this movie and some thick twice about going to be a soldier," she told me.

"I hope people can take away from this that sometimes owning up to the truth will make us stronger and healthier," Heller said. "One of the messages we get from the current administration is that secrecy is more important than transparency, but I don't think it's doing our country any favors, or helping our soldiers much either."

From the director of "The Power of Nightmares," Adam Curtis's 2002 documentary "The Century of the Self" looks at a less obvious, but no less insidious development in America's history: social control. Tying the history of public relations and propaganda to Freudian theories of the self, its needs and desires and how to manipulate them, the film begins in the 1920s with the advent of PR and takes us through the '50s invention of the focus group to '90s-era rampant capitalism. What's perhaps most fascinating about the 4-part series is how it blames the post-revolutionary '60s counter-culture of self-actualization and individualism for '80s-and-'90s-style self-centered greed and gross consumerism. It's essential viewing (like "The Power of Nightmares"), but unfortunately because of all the tremendous amount of unlicensed archival footage, no U.S. distributor will acquire the film (again like "The Power of Nightmares"), so it's playing as part of a nonprofit IFP-sponsored weekly run at New York's Cinema Village.

Oddly enough, some of the archival footage in "The Century of the Self" was actually shot by Barbara Kopple during the filming of "Winter Soldier." Needless to say, she was quite unhappy to discover that Curtis used her footage without asking permission.

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