UCSB SUMMER CINEMA SERIES

There are only three Santa Barbara premieres among the eight films in the university’s summer series, but they’re all documentaries and each deals with American politics as it relates to foreign affairs.

The series kicks off July 12 with David Zeiger’s “Sir! No Sir!,” which won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the 2005 Los Angeles Independent Film Festival and the Jury Award at the 2005 Hamptons event. On August 9, Rachel Boynton’s “Our Brand in Crisis” follows a Bolivian political campaign that employed famed U.S. political strategist James Carville. And Laura Poitras’s “My County, My Country” examines how U.S. presence in Iraq affects the Iraqi people, with an affecting soundtrack by exiled Iraqi singer Kadhim Al-Sahir.

“Sir! No Sir!“ tells the story of the anti-war GI movement during the Vietnam War, finally attempting to dispel a myth that had survived in our collective memory – that the loyal soldiers were at polar odds with the civilian anti-war movement.

Zeiger, who was a civilian organizer at one of the coffeehouses that sprang up to serve the GIs who were protesting against the war by providing a forum for discussions and publications of underground newspapers, takes a fact-based approach to the subject, having painstakingly tracked down archival footage and nearly 35 former soldiers who retell their story on film. While the civilian anti-war movement has been well-documented in every genre, here the director retraces the story of the rebellion of thousands of American soldiers – the Pentagon’s own figures cite more than 500,000 “incidents of desertion” between 1966-71 – which has never before appeared on film.

It’s an astonishing revelation for those of us who lived through the era and yet don’t recall the extent of the protests within the military. As the nation is mired in yet another foreign conflict, the story becomes more relevant as each day passes.

A conversation with Zeiger follows.

Q. How did you come to make this movie today, 35 years after Vietnam?

A. I never wanted to make this movie at all. I knew it would be hard and very expensive. I knew it should be made, but not by me. I didn’t think there was an audience, or that people would care, or that I could get any financing. But the Iraq war compelled me to do it. The buildup made the story relevant again. It opened the door for me to finally tell the story.

What made this story relevant again is that after thirty-plus years, the whole mythology of loyal troops being hated by the anti-war movement became the national mantra, and we’ve got hundreds of thousands of troops dragged into another war, and we’re now faced with the question of what do you do about that. Nothing is exaggerated in the film. It’s just what happened. If anything the numbers are slightly conservative.

How do you think the story got so distorted over the years?

The myth of the anti-war movement spitting on GIs was a very conscious thing created and focused by the government with support of right-wing groups. The soldiers were angry coming home, but the anger was directed at the government, not the people. Not only for sending them there, but for what happened to them afterwards. They had to fight like hell to get any post-war benefits. There was no such thing as PTSD in the VA. If anyone turned their backs on the soldiers who fought in the war, it was the government.

Was it difficult to make the film? Did people hesitate to talk to you?

No, the easy part was interviewing people. It wasn’t a question of dragging their stories out of them but allowing them to finally tell it on film. It was like a revelation for some of them. What was hard was finding the footage, archival material to tell the story in a cinematic way. A lot of stuff doesn’t exist anymore – local TV stations that didn’t keep film back them, but I found several archives, some in college, and some libraries had the underground GI press. We found material that had never been seen, some things in the national archives that was still classified that we were able to get released. Weaving it into a narrative was the toughest part.

I noticed John Kerry – perhaps the best-known member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War – doesn’t play much of a role.

First, he had little to do with the stories we told in the film. Second, he was running for president, and it didn’t take much thought to realize that this is the last story he wanted to be associated with. He decided to dissociate himself from that period as best he could. So we didn’t even go there.

Didn’t that make you think that maybe this wasn’t the time to make the film?

That thought occurred to me all the time. When we started, I felt I was in the process of slowly committing suicide. But as it got rolling and took shape, it became clear that it was the right thing to do. This was a moment in time that wasn’t just mine, but was a moment in history that shaped personal lives of thousands of people. After years of that being buried and denied, to be able to put that out there in a way that people are responding to is very gratifying. Art gives people permission to feel emotions.

On the other hand, Jane Fonda is all over “Sir! No Sir!” Why?

She played a very central role in the GI anti-war movement. The FTA (Free The Army) shows were a huge thing, and no one even remembers it happened. But many of the top people in Hollywood were involved. Jane and Donald Sutherland had just come off making “Klute” and hit the road with the anti-war show intended for and attended by thousands of soldiers who cheered all the way through. It says so much about what the real mood in that military at the time. To not have that story in the film would have been ridiculous. And she was more than happy to tell it, in contrast to what her reputation had become. She’s been taking ownership of her own history over the last few years, and this is a big part of it. The GI movement is something Jane is intensely proud of. She’s come to openings of films, supported the film in every way.

How has the film been received in the military?

It’s getting a great reception. I’ve heard of several cases where current military people are citing the film. Lieutenant Ehren Watada – the first commissioned officer to refuse orders to Iraq (just last month) – referred to the film as helping him to make his decision because he realized there was military opposition in Vietnam, too. Iraq Vets against the War are also using the film.

(The rest of the UCSB series includes Montecito director Jason Reitman’s “Thank You For Smoking” (July 19), which closed the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and ran for 12 weeks in town; “Why We Fight” (July 26), the 2005 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner examining American militarism over the years; “Cache” (August 2), French narrative film on secrecy and security triggered by a voyeur; “Sisters in Law” (August 16), about unusual justice in Cameroon, and the winner of the Social Justice Award at SBIFF; and “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days” (August 23), another SBIFF entry and Oscar Foreign Language film finalist, recounting the final five days of an anti-Nazi student. All screenings Wednesdays at 7:30 pm, and cost $6. Call 893-3535.)

Montecito & Me

The film version of John Grogan’s runaway bestseller “Marley & Me: Life & Love with the World’s Worst Dog” won’t be released until 2008. The book just came out last October, and producer Gil Netter (“My Best Friend’s Wedding,” “Dude, Where’s My Car” and forthcoming “Flicka”) snapped up the rights last January. But the memoir’s success has already had quite an impact on its author.

“The irony is that the book celebrates the simple joys of a family and the time they spend together,” Grogan told me during a brief chat before he spoke at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference last month. “But because of the success of that message, I’m getting pulled in so many different directions, I have no time to spend with them anymore.”

To address his problem, Grogan brought his 14-year-old son for a mini-vacation at Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort, and yours truly steered the car-less duo – who were headed for Hamburger Habit – to instead check out the ethnic restaurants on Milpas and take a bike ride down Coast Village Road.

The results?

“Santa Barbara seems like the best planned town in America,” Grogan says. “It’s like city planning on steroids.”