Credit: Erin Wilkerson
by Zach Lewis Feature Articles Featured Film Interviews

The Sound & The Image, The Street & The Cinema — An Interview with Travis Wilkerson

April 7, 2023

Though Travis Wilkerson is an American filmmaker, his subjects, methods, and tone mirror what’s called Third Cinema — politically charged movies made outside the Hollywood and European arthouse worlds, usually associated with Marxist movements in developing countries (quite the wide net). He’s earned this comparison through his tutelage under Santiago Álvarez — one of Third Cinema’s prime movers — when he lived in Cuba; but his films cannot be reduced to mere Yankee-flavored agitprop. His An Injury to One (2003) remains a landmark film in American documentary filmmaking thanks to its unfiltered political lens, its clever noirish storytelling, and its tiny budget. Watching it gives a similar effect to the oft-repeated anecdote of seeing a film made so poorly that one is inspired to pick up a camera and make one better; only, of course, that Wilkerson’s film is made so well and so simply that one is inspired to make a masterpiece with whatever resources they have.

His later films, starting with perhaps 2011’s Distinguished Flying Cross, have become more and more personal as Wilkerson’s own voice narrates the beats of his (still) noirish stories. None is more personal than his latest, The Fuckee’s Hymn, which focuses on his father’s legacy after his death. It’s something of an addendum to Distinguished Flying Cross, as Wilkerson focuses on his father’s Vietnam career, the individualized myths and narratives that inspired his father to first fight in and later protest the Vietnam War, the uncertainties that plagued his father in his last days, and the uncertainties that still plague Travis. The film’s only images are of the forested park outside Wilkerson’s parents’ house; they’re moving portraits of crowded flora that may bring to mind the jungles of Vietnam, until Wilkerson literally overlays Vietnam itself. For The Fuckee’s Hymn, the war never really ended, not in a way that matters. On the occasion of the film’s premiere at Cinéma du Réel, I spoke to Wilkerson about his career, this latest film, and family.

We’re in a strange position since we’re doing an interview for a film festival that is kind of in limbo today. Cinéma du Réel’s workers are on strike because they’re joining the Parisian protests against pension reform. But, I’m currently in New York, and you are in Croatia, so neither of us are there. It’s a little bit strange for us to be on the outside talking about a film that’s premiering at a festival that’s only nominally existing right now. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts about those most recent events with Cinéma du Réel and the position of film festivals within our broader political culture.

Yeah, I think it’s a super interesting question, and it’s hard to define precisely. I saw a slide that said something like “the reel is in the street” or something like that. Somebody had prepared a banner, and I think there’s something kind of beautiful about that, right? Because what they’re saying — and it seems like there’s a tradition within French cinema to say this — that a festival doesn’t supersede the events that are happening in the world. A festival should be engaged with those. It should find ways to confront them, to engage with them, to meaningfully understand them and participate in them. If the festival’s in limbo, I think they’re doing the right thing. Right? To me, the mistake would be to say, “we are forging ahead with a precisely identical festival because we scheduled it six months ago.” To me, this is what you do. You’re dynamic and you’re flexible and you’re thinking about being a human being more than you’re thinking about being someone who’s working for a film festival or a filmmaker or so forth. I think that it’s urgent that these kinds of movements are happening right now. There’s a clear attack on basic living standards happening in all kinds of different ways. I mean, the arbitrary demand that people work two years longer. Not that they can choose to work, but that it’s mandated, right. You think about that as a massive thing to demand of a people; to say that we’re arbitrarily going to do this without due process. So they’re definitely doing the right thing.  And, you know, if some movies show at the same time, that’s great. And if the movies agitate people and send them outside, that’s great. If outside agitates them and they need to come in and be reflective, I think that’s great. I think something like that, the dialectic between the street and the cinema, makes a lot of sense.

I think the most obvious comparison here is something like Cannes in Mai 68. It’s kinda like it was too obvious not to do it.  

And yet many people wouldn’t have, right? It took a core group of people who said, “we have to do this.” And it sort of changed film history. I’m not proposing that that will happen with this festival, but I think it’s coming out of a really strong tradition.

Since you’re both a teacher and a filmmaker, you’ve probably had quite the relationship with  exactly what we’re doing right now, which is  looking at each other through these screens, which is kind of a weird form of visual media. Whenever I worked as a teacher, I had a weird relationship with it because it does feel like a pseudo-improvisational kind of acting that then gets translated into something like a movie to those on the other side. But that shares with the form of some of the films that you’ve done recently. I’m curious if you have any huge feelings about a Zoom-influenced world.

I think about this a lot. People talk about, for example, the transformation of the cinema from something predominantly collective that took place in physical spaces to a more virtual thing, right? The streaming revolution and so forth. And obviously I could say, oh, I think that’s a tremendous loss. And this was such an important social experience. It was a huge part of what made films meaningful to me. But I also feel like there’s a more relevant question, which is “what do we do now?” I feel like accepting that this is a transformation that we probably can only do so much to fight against, but we also need to adapt to it and still make the medium meaningful.

And I guess I feel the same way about teaching. I remember my first Zoom classes that I had to teach. And to be honest, they were a disaster. I had no idea how to do it. I had no idea how to engage with people. I did not have any idea how to create discussion. I think the discussion element is a huge part of the successful class, and in a Zoom context, it’s just so easy to alienate oneself from the entire group, to turn the camera off, to space out, to be watching something else while participating in that way.

But over time, I’ve had models that have been shown to me that work a little bit better, and often they’re about duration. So, for example, Zoom classes need to be shorter.  It’s just torture to be online in a Zoom for hours and hours a day. It’s exhausting. So first of all, at the school that I’m teaching at right now, they have it set so that any Zoom class only needs to have half of the lessons to be synchronous, and half can be asynchronous. And that’s super helpful to have this mixture of materials that students can then engage with at their own scale, at their own speed. Similarly, I feel like what’s happening over time is that Zoom classes are becoming more organized around the needs of the students than classes were physically. And I’m not exactly sure why that is, but I think — maybe in terms of that performance you’re talking about — I’m trying to perform for them, and so I’m trying to figure out ways to really meet them halfway more assertively than I did in a classroom where I felt like it was a more comfortable space that I felt that I controlled or something.

So, it’s very different, and I feel like that’s very useful. And now, a huge amount of what I’m teaching is forms of video essays because I’m using that as a way to teach editing. And it’s very engaging for the students. So they’re working in the screen space through a class in a screen space. And I feel like that’s super helpful because then they’re thinking about that experience in the work. The work is being shaped by every other direction. I feel like it’s quite interesting. But, I haven’t really seen the great Zoom cinema yet, you know what I mean? I’m sure someone will be smart enough to know how to do it. I feel like movies that are about research in the screen space are often the most interesting ones to me at this point. It’s about creating a kind of mind map of the labyrinth of the way that we all pass through insane information on the internet. I feel like that’s something I’m seeing done well within the screen space. But in terms of some other form of cinema, I keep waiting for a good genre film to come out of Zoom.

Have you ever seen the Unfriended movies?

No, I have not seen those.

They were released during the Skype era, but I’m sure they could make another and translate it to the workplace and to Zoom. They’re clever Internet-based slasher films.

That’s exactly what I would’ve guessed. That makes sense.

One thing that’s always struck me whenever I’m watching your films is that you’re pretty specific to location in each one. I think that’s important in something like American filmmaking, since the country is so vast and diverse. You consistently make these essays about places as much as individual stories or people. I also know that these locations are still personal to you in the sense that you spent part of your life in each location. For example, in An Injury to One you cover Butte, Montana, and I believe you grew up around Butte, Montana.

I did partly, yeah. I moved there in my early teens and I lived there until I was almost 20.

And I know your immediate family is from Alabama, and you covered that in Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun.

Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

I’m wondering if location is at the forefront of your mind whenever you’re picking a new project.

You know, it’s a huge aspect for me because I feel like over time I’ve sort of focused on immersing myself in places and trying to find weird little stories that are interesting and have some sort of profound part of the narrative, but which are not widely discussed or understood.

And everywhere I’ve lived, I found those literally everywhere. That’s what’s really interesting. So it’s not that I’m always living in interesting places, it’s that those stories are everywhere. It’s just a matter of how we look for them. And then, in terms of place and making films, I’m making films in a really, really strange way. There’s no getting around that. I’m making films very modestly. I have very little resources to do it. I just have my teaching salary and then a little bit of research money for that. I’ve gotten three grants over the course of fifteen or twenty years. So I certainly don’t live off that money. I’m living off the teaching money, and so I have to work within the context of taking care of my family. I have two young children, and my wife is currently a graduate student, a PhD candidate, so I’m making sure that she has the support that she needs. I have to figure out ways that I can actually work that I’m still happy with and that are still meaningful to me. And that really has to do with, well, where am I now? And what do I have access to in this place? And then, what is interesting about that place? So it has to do a lot with the peculiar domestic pattern of my and my wife’s filmmaking, because she’s also making films. And so we’re both trying to think about ways that we can work while we don’t have the kids — while they’re at school or while the other parent is watching them — ways to work with things that are available to us to go jump out to rather quickly, but somehow also get into deeply since we can go to them over and over and over and over.

So today, we spent time at the first shopping mall in Yugoslavia here. It was built in 1979 for the  Mediterranean games, which were like this regional Olympic sporting event. That was a huge event here in the 1970s. It was a big reason that a lot of infrastructure was built here and why the freeways were built, why the sports stadiums were built. It had a big effect on the landscape and physical structure of the city. And one of the things they built was this shopping mall. It’s super interesting because it simultaneously looks really utopian, but it also looks really dystopian. Because it’s falling to pieces, it’s crumbling, and it both is futuristic-looking and also looks ancient. It looks like ruins and yet it’s still occupied — there are businesses in it. It’s also covered with swastikas and with the symbol that’s more significant here in Croatia, which is a u with a cross over it, which is the symbol of the Ustaše, which was the Croatian Nazis in the puppet state in World War II. It’s covered with those. So, that’s a place that’s near me, right? So, you have this hope of a society that was highly democratic and highly equal, building a shopping mall like they did in the great Western capitalist countries, right? And now, it’s been privatized over and over again, it’s crumbling, it’s a disaster, and it’s covered with Nazi graffiti. And we go there all the time. [Laughs] So what I’m trying to say is, that’s how the landscape interacts with the way we’re living at home and the way we’re doing research and the way that we’re digging deep.

We’re in Croatia and we’re like, well, what are the stories here? Stories that are important and interesting, but aren’t necessarily widely discussed. And ironically, everybody here knows what Ustaše is, but tourists don’t know. People who travel through would not be familiar with it.  And then the local relationship to it is really complicated because a lot of people despise it and recognize that the Ustaše were not just Nazis, like they were like ultra-Nazis. They created concentration camps that killed hundreds of thousands of people, mostly using non-industrial, primitive means like knives. And so a huge percentage of the population despises them and thinks that they’re terrifying. And then a significant percentage that is a minority, but a vocal minority, believes that they’re national heroes because they created Croatian independence for the first time, although it was as a puppet state under Nazi occupation. But they still regard that as the first period of independence. That’s the kind of stuff we’re just delving into because it’s nearby and because it’s actually weirdly poetic and beautiful, but it’s also accessible, too.

Credit: Travis Wilkerson/Cinéma du Réel

Right. I feel like there are specific textures of each place that you wouldn’t even necessarily know exist without being there. And that might be something that bigger budget Hollywood filmmakers might miss whenever they kind of read books, research, and ultimately mythologize it or something. 

Well, and I think also, it’s not even just big budget films, but even just any film with a crew is usually under tremendous time constraints. Because they don’t have time to just say, “it’s interesting looking over there, I’m gonna hang out here for a little.” But that’s the way we do it. Like, we spend time and we sit and we listen. I’m obsessed with audio recording now, obsessed with it. And I have just a simple recorder with a shotgun mic that I use. I literally don’t even know how I have that shotgun mic. It appeared in my gear 10 or 15 years ago. I asked everyone I knew if they had lent me a mic; I could never figure it out. It’s just been my mic now. So someone will probably read this and then immediately demand the mic back, which would be justice. But, in any case, I go out with that microphone and I just listen for five to ten minutes in a place. And I’m like, what is happening with the microphone and the headphones that I’m not hearing with my naked ears? And it’s remarkable what you discover. You just hear depth and narrative and weird distant sounds and menacing industrial sounds and weird conversations.

It’s just wonderful. Anyways, the way that they work, they’re just not allowed to do that.

So how did location fit into this new film? It’s your parents’ old house, is that correct?

Yeah. So it’s in Michigan, in a forest. The whole thing takes place in a park that is within 150 to 200 yards of my parents’ home.

We have that element of shooting around your parents’ house, but we also have a second element where a second location, Vietnam, is transposed onto it. So I feel like you’re playing with that location in a very interesting way here. 

Yeah. Thanks. Honestly, it was an expression of what was happening in my brain. You know, I hadn’t been home in several years, and I love going into that forest. I lived in that town for a few years on and off throughout my life, although again, I didn’t grow up there. I lived there more as an adult. And that particular park, which is called The Bluffs, it’s in Ann Arbor. It’s in the middle of the city, in the middle of a neighborhood. But it is like a dense forest that could be a very distant place. It could almost be like a jungle or something. Like, it’s quite intense — with the exception of the sounds of the freeways that you can hear, especially if you put on the headphones. But other than that, it’s extremely isolated, and no one ever goes in there. I’ve walked in probably hundreds of times in my life now, and I’ve seen people maybe 20% of the time. And it’s this place where I go to breathe, to exercise, to reflect. It’s this space of contemplation for me. And when I was going there this summer, the light was magical and weird and just flowing like water into the leaves. And in the leaves I was seeing shadows and figures and faces, and it just felt alive to me.

And so I just started documenting it. And as I was documenting it, I was thinking about the things that were in my head — the aftermath and narrative in my own mind of my dad’s death. And it had to deal with the films that I was watching to reflect on that. I’m obsessed with watching films about the Vietnam War, and some of them are not so good and healthy for me apparently. I mean, for the American films, that’s the case. But I’ve been doing video essay work even on the American films. I have been working on one about Apocalypse Now; I’ve been working on one about Full Metal Jacket. But I’m really, really drawn to these counter-narrative films. These films that are made from filmmakers that we haven’t seen that are telling different stories about the war from different perspectives. And one is this film, The Abandoned Field: Free Fire Zone, which is just a fascinating and bizarre and unprecedented film. Once I encountered it, I just was like, how could I have never seen this film? It’s just such a strange, beautiful, different film in which the perspective is just inverted and disrupted, but it’s not just inverted because part of what’s weird about that film is it has so much compassion even toward its villains.  Which is often not the case at all in the American films. So that’s what was happening.

I was in that landscape. That movie was playing in my head. I was seeing memories and shadows and figures and dreams in the dappling light in the forest. It may seem hard to believe, but that’s just what it was. And then there’s a funny thing about how this film came about.

So my wife, I mentioned as a PhD candidate, was at a two-week summer intensive in Liverpool.  So I was staying at my mom’s house because my dad is gone now.  And I had my two younger children. I was making sure they were in good shape, had proper snacks, and were comfortable and safe, and then I was taking my cell phone and then running 150 yards and filming. So it was like this extremely weird domestic thing. And of course, part of the reason your brain goes to these places is because you’re avoiding being around children 24/7 [laughs], who are asking you for snacks and treats and demanding entertainment. So the landscape was really interconnected to all of those things at the same time.

I noticed that it’s not all shots of just this forest; I think you include these three or four haunting shots of the house itself. Do you have particular memories with that specific house?

The primary memories I have of the house at this point are like a set of different memories that are cordoned off. So I have these memories of it being a house that I would go to spend time with my parents. And then to see my brother and sister. It was often around specific holidays. I lived in the city, but not in that place. So again, it would’ve been a place we would go for Sunday dinner or, you know, just time with the family. And then later it became very much associated for me with my father’s disease. Because that was like the epicenter of where he was being cared for. And the furniture had to change. He went from like these chairs and sofas that they’d always had to suddenly these things that had a motor that would lift you up or push you back.

So, because he couldn’t move around, he needed these different devices. And that became a big association for me because, because for several years in a row, I was going back either in order to deal with my dad’s health situation and to be a member of the family in that process, or going to a family occasion that was being defined by the fact that he was terminally ill. So, if it was Christmas, it’s like, well, is this gonna be the last Christmas? So it was always this charged space. I think in my own brain it’s sort of hard for me to know how to separate all those out. Like there’s a lot of really, really wonderful memories. And then there are also some memories that are challenging, right? But I would say that little sequence was shot at night exactly as it seems. Everybody was asleep, and I was definitely channeling that sense of anxiety that I associated with it at that point, for sure. 

I’ve noticed that a lot of your films recently have really focused on the audio aspect, especially narration. Whenever I see a film of yours now, I think that I should prepare for it like a visual radio show. So, are there particular pieces of media that you would listen to in order to prepare for that?

You know, I feel like there was a time when I was thinking that way, but not so much anymore. I feel like it’s almost like the landscape issue. It’s very rooted in what’s practical for me and what’s available to me. I actually really love it when I come up with ideas that don’t involve me doing any talking, but there’s just other ones that, if I did it that way, it wouldn’t be honest, you know? In terms of the sound more broadly, I can really identify the moment where sound kind of changed for me. And that was when I started collaborating, initially informally and then eventually more formally, with my wife, Erin. That was the first time that it was possible for me to have a second person, so-to-speak, so suddenly one of us could have the camera, and one of us could have the audio recorder. And I don’t think I understood when that first started happening. When I was doing some shooting for Los Angeles Red Squad, she helped me a lot. And I remember as I started listening to these recordings, I was like, oh, instead of getting one minute of the tone of that place, she recorded ten or eleven or twelve minutes while I was filming. And then sometimes she would shoot a thing here or there, and we would reverse. And it was just so vibrant for me. I felt at that moment that I had been neglecting sound, not as a lack of understanding that it’s an important part of film, but just not making priority of it until I started hearing it good enough. 

And so from that point on, I started saying to myself that I am always going to dedicate roughly as much time to the sound as I am to the image. I have a backpack where I carry my audio gear and then just a tripod. And I just say to myself, okay, in this space, if I can, my goal is always to have at least five minutes of me just still in the space. And sometimes I do it longer, because sometimes, like when I was in the jungles in Singapore, I’d hear this narrative of the life of the jungle going up and down for twenty minutes straight. So then I would just sit there for twenty minutes and just listen to this insane chorus of these crazy jungles.  So now, instead of grabbing images and then grabbing sounds to match as an afterthought, I’m always thinking of it as interconnected. And I’m also always running around with the sound recorder. For example, if I hear fireworks outside any place I live, I immediately get my sound recorder and I record the fireworks. Because fireworks sound terrifying when you listen from a distance, recorded with a good microphone. It sounds combative, it sounds like war, it sounds like violence. It’s always terrifying. And I now have them in Los Angeles, some of the most insane ones you’ve ever heard. I also have them in Spain. I also have them in Singapore. I also have them in Croatia now. And they’re all kind of amazing.

Credit: Giai Phong Film Studios

Going back to Vietnamese cinema: I watched The Abandoned Field yesterday. And by complete coincidence, I’ve been watching more Vietnamese cinema in general.  And it’s interesting to see in what ways it develops. I watched one from 1961, called A Phu and His Wife, and the same concerns as The Abandoned Field are there. And because of the Vietnamese method of film production, they can all kind of almost blend together because they’re kind of made with the same method, same monetary support, and often the same gear. So that 1961 film can look contemporaneous with a 1988 film I also watched yesterday called The Traveling Circus, even though their styles and concerns are distinct. I’m wondering if you learned anything surprising in your lifelong research into this.

I feel like the main thing I take away from the films is what I take away from the war itself, which is I’m pretty astonished by the improvisation of the Vietnamese people. And I feel like the films have that, too. It really goes far back for me, as I first began to encounter these ideas when I spent six months in and around Havana, mostly with Santiago Álvarez, which would’ve been in 1995. I was in my twenties, and it was this extremely powerful experience for me of meeting this filmmaker who just had this mentality that said, “I want to express the following things in a film,” and then he didn’t necessarily then go and say that these are the resources that I need. He would say, “these are the resources I have,” and then he’d make something good with it.  And so this mentality was very interwoven with the way the Vietnamese were approaching the war as well. I mean, they obviously were collaborating with the Cubans culturally and politically and socially. So the films are improvisational in the sense that they’re saying, “what do we have?” I mean, The Little Girl of Hanoi, to me, is a really, really special and weird and beautiful film — a very odd set of genres, again, blended together in a very unexpected way. But at its core it was asking: “How do we make a narrative out of the fact that we now have this immediate live footage of this concentrated bombing of the city during the Christmas bombing campaign?” I think a lot of people could say that that was a nightmare. But somehow, they said that this is an opportunity as well, and they seized that opportunity to make something that I find extremely powerful. 

Sometimes it’s hard to get access to their reality and to have real meaningful empathy for the Vietnamese because we don’t see it very often. It’s not described in Western media. So, you know, it was the Christmas bombing campaign. We had the fiftieth anniversary just this last year, and I remember that I looked on CNN, and their article was about how many American pilots had been shot down in the Christmas bombing campaign. So, arguably the most concentrated bombing in human history against the people who had already won the war, designed to change negotiating tactics, and this article is just about pilots who got shot down during it. I can get that you have both perspectives. I can get that. You tell an American story, you tell the Vietnamese; but it was a strange article, and that narrative is really interconnected to the American way of perceiving things.

In terms of the relationship of the films, I would say the films speak to me because I have that particular bias already rather leading me to that position. They’ve deepened my beliefs about that, but I also feel like we tend to identify with media that reinforce our views to some extent. I think I do that as much as anybody else.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 14.