The last time Vermont filmmaker Walter Ungerer dabbled with overtly political material, the Vietnam War had not yet ended. Keeping Things Whole, a 1972 quasi-documentary that took six years to complete, looked at the spirit of those turbulent times. Since then the Montpelier filmmakers work has focused on introspective features and experimental animated shorts.
Sixty-six-year-old Ungerer, who pieces together teaching gigs at several local colleges, is now tweaking his first topical nonfiction project in three decades. He hopes his camera has once again captured the zeitgeist in an era of conflict. Ground Zero: Perspectives from Vermont examines the destruction of the World Trade Center. Beyond recognizing the horror of that act, Ungerers purpose is also to address concerns about American hegemony.
I wasnt aware of Middle Eastern history before, he acknowledges, referring to how much hes learned in the past nine months. Ungerers crash course began when he and colleague Leslie Becker left New York City just hours before the hijacked planes slammed into the twin towers. We got back home at 3 or 4 a.m., he recalls. I had a class at Goddard that same morning at 9. Thats when I discovered what was taking place.
Goddard College in Plainfield is where Becker, now 46, was one of Ungerers film students almost 30 years ago. They became friends after bumping into each other in April last year. On September 10, Ungerer was in his native Manhattan for a meeting at the Museum of Modern Art; musician-teacher Becker was elsewhere in the city, among protesters outside an advertising awards ceremony her specialty as an activist is exposing the medias manipulation of consumers.
Two weeks later, Becker and Ungerer returned to the city to cast a cinematic eye on the aftermath of the attacks, but without press passes they were unable to get near it. Then someone mistook us for the Discovery Channel and we were asked to drive some Seattle firefighters to a stationhouse near Ground Zero, he recalls. From there, we walked in as close as we could get without being part of the rescue-and-recovery team. I was just following my intuition.
Unsure what he would do with the footage from two days of shooting, Ungerer tried to find peace-movement people with national recognition willing to analyze the situation. He envisioned commentaries by Yoko Ono and Noam Chomsky, a scholar renowned for his contrarian, left-wing views. Neither was available, so they decided to stick with Vermont talking heads. Before long, Ungerer and Becker had interviewed Anthony Pollina a Progressive candidate for lieutenant-governor American Friends Service Committee Field Secretary Joseph Gainza and Ellie Ott of the Womens International League for Peace and Freedom.
The filmmakers also attended various forums around the state on current events, where they heard provocative, albeit sometimes naïve, questions, such as: How is it that were bombing Afghanistan when most of the hijackers were from Saudi Arabia? Given the U.S. penchant for oil-related geopolitics, is Operation Enduring Freedoms hidden agenda a potential pipeline in that region?
This [research] process made me aware that its not so simple as just some crazy people who wanted to create havoc, Ungerer says of the WTC terrorism. During one panel discussion at Norwich University, a former CIA counterintelligence chief was asked about the pipeline. He said, We want certain Middle Eastern countries to come on our bandwagon.
To Ungerer and Becker, the ex-spooks statement appeared to indicate that the U.S. has some ulterior motives in pursuing the war. They also talked with a Vermont Air National Guard F-16 mechanic who had been stationed in Saudi Arabia. He told them that Americas overseas image of excess was fueling Third World rage.
Im not suggesting Osama is innocent, Ungerer says, adding that the Hitlers and the bin Ladens of history always take advantage of resentment among the have-nots.
Ground Zero, in digital video format, will preview for the films participants and the press June 6 at Montpeliers Savoy Theater. Ungerer hopes to land a public or commercial television broadcast of the program as well. Were aiming to reach those who are oblivious or uncertain what to think, but we dont want to alienate anyone, he explains. The talking heads are articulate. Nobodys grinding an axe.
Is Ungerer a born-again documentarian? Ill tell you in another 10 years, he promises. On my other films, which are more elusive, I never know how anyone will respond. Right now, people seem interested in talking with me about this project, so I feel accepted. Im a part of the human race here.