“How do we see each other, rather than mak[e] someone other?” With this question, filmmaker Andrea Luka Zimmerman gestures toward the ethical stakes of her latest documentary feature, Erase and Forget (2017). Made over the course of ten years, and in close collaboration with editor Taina Galis, the film centres on James ‘Bo’ Gritz, a decorated American war veteran turned libertarian folk hero, and the inspiration for 1980s action star Rambo. As a figure inextricable from military, government, and Hollywood institutions, Gritz invites Zimmerman’s nuanced exploration of the relationship between national myth-making, masculinity, and structural violence. Through a combination of interviews, archival footage, performative interventions, and observational techniques, Erase and Forget presents an intimate study of the multiple expressions of Gritz’s life against the backdrop of post-Vietnam America, gun culture, and the nascent alt-right. Yet, despite the political differences between filmmaker and subject, the film refuses to present Gritz as other – to grant us a safe distance from which to judge his actions and beliefs.
The film opens with an epigraphic address to the spectator: “You already know enough. So do I. It is not knowledge we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions.” Immediately, the film sets up a relation of shared complicity, before directing our focus towards the figure onscreen. Gritz stands against the parched Nevada landscape, brandishing a knife and uttering threats as if in combat. The camera follows the direction of his gaze, revealing an entrance to a cave – Gritz is alone, performing for the camera. This initial evocation of violence turns concrete as we follow Gritz to a gun show and later, to an ex-military gathering and scene of a murder-suicide. The film prevents us from witnessing the act and its aftermath. Instead, it focuses in on a still frame: a grainy close-up of the now-deceased’s face. We learn Gritz himself is implicated — the gun used his own. Yet, facing the camera, Gritz dismisses any feeling of guilt; “I’ve killed 400 people,” he explains. The film cuts to Rambo (2008): the action hero’s killings play out in rapid succession, video-game style. Body count: 236.
Through the edit of these opening scenes, Erase and Forget firmly situates the question of Gritz’s responsibility within a larger frame of structural power and violence, from Hollywood to militarism and gun culture. However, Gritz is a centrifugal force within the film, unsettling its carefully considered balance between the individual and the structural. We are pulled towards the contradictions Gritz lays bare, and yet, it is here, in the relationship between filmmaker and subject, that the film finds its clearest voice.
Erase and Forget unfolds in loose chronological form, structured in thematic fragments (Gritz’s life refuses linearity). Within the film’s 88 minutes, we move through Gritz’s experience as Special Forces commander in Vietnam and later Panama; his disillusionment and activism against the US government; and his creation of a ‘covenant community’, Almost Heaven, in rural Idaho. Archival footage fleshes out some of the more controversial facets of Gritz’s connection to the militant right, including a particularly damning (and discomfiting) scene of Gritz giving a Nazi salute. The focus, however, remains on his experience in the military, perhaps informed by the film’s inception: Zimmerman began interviewing Gritz in 2003, as part of research with film collective Vision Machine into the role of the US in the 1965-66 Indonesian killings.
This expansive timeframe, from 2003 to 2017, lends itself to layered reflection, exposing the complexity of Gritz’s response to his own history. Early in the film, Zimmerman plays Gritz footage of the gun show: an interview with two star-struck teenage boys, confessing Gritz has inspired them to join the military. We watch Gritz in close-up as their voices emanate from off-screen. He responds that his heart would break if he received a call from a parent, their son having died in combat. The footage prompts Gritz to reflect on the death of his father during World War II, which shaped his own desire to join the military. The camera lingers on a photograph of Gritz atop his father’s shoulders – his arms stretched upward. “We had the same kind of hands,” Gritz remarks. This shift towards the future as well as the past traces a certain lineage of militarism and masculinity, yet the intimacy of reflection draws us towards Gritz. Later in the scene, we are presented with a series of close-ups: guns scattered within his home, inextricable from the furnishings.
Erase and Forget constantly moves the spectator toward and away from Gritz, creating proximity before re-establishing critical distance. This negotiation articulates an ethical approach to “seeing” Gritz: refusing to distance him as other, or reduce him to a political binary. (In an Experimenta Salon at this year’s London Film Festival, Zimmerman discussed the challenge of sourcing funding for a project without a one-sided political stance. The support of The Wapping Project, a creation of the Women’s Playhouse Trust, was instrumental in the film’s eventual production.) Unlike Gritz, who frames actions in terms of what is “decidedly wrong” and “what is right,” Zimmerman asks us to consider our own complicity with the violence exposed on screen. By tracing the complexity of Gritz’s response to the vagaries of his own history, Erase and Forget attunes us to the discomfort of recognition.
Watch our In Conversation With interview with Andrea Luka Zimmerman here