Historical documentaries have a staid, ho-hum reputation with large swaths of the citizenry, who taint them by association with either the musty educational films they watched in public schools or ponderous marathons that get the highest billing on public television. It also must be acknowledged that, for many viewers, the past lacks the relevance and immediacy of verité social-issue docs. However, just as the breadth and style of written biographies has expanded far beyond the once-standard neutral assemblage of facts, contemporary documentaries more often embrace point of view, creative structures, dramatic storytelling, unique characters and moral complexity.
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles compiling the key documentaries and narrative features in Bay Area independent filmmaking. Like any pantheon, Hall of Fame, or “Best” list, it is a subjective selection, and invites comment and debate.
The best ones go even further, and reclaim a legacy that has been forgotten, erased, obscured, misrepresented and/or outright lied about. They provide an invaluable corrective to the historical revisionism practiced by calculating conservatives, cynical politicians, and the middle-of-the-road mainstream media. Clearly, there is a political dimension as well as a civic responsibility to this work, so it is inevitably undertaken by independent filmmakers, not the “subcontractors” (largely based in New York and Los Angeles) hired by the myriad cable networks or even PBS to produce nonfiction programs under narrow constraints.
It’s clear to me, at least, that Bay Area documentary filmmakers have made the most significant contributions to reversing revisionism, and to correcting the historical record. While there are certainly political filmmakers in New York and (to a lesser degree) Los Angeles, it is the rare Bay Area doc maker who is not informed by some exposure to or affinity with West Coast trade unionism, the Free Speech Movement, gay and lesbian rights, social-justice activism, or the anarchist tradition.
Here are three exemplary Bay Area documentaries of national importance distinguished by a profound respect for justice and high ideals. They are imbued with an unshakeable belief in democracy, a fundamental American view that—thanks to 30 years of revisionism—now seems radical.
Berkeley in the Sixties (1990)
Mark Kitchell’s thrilling and sobering documentary packs the upheaval of an earthshaking decade into two mesmerizing hours. More than a decade, actually, since it begins in the buttoned-down ’50s and extends, at least psychologically, until the end of the Vietnam War. In reality, by illuminating any number of social and moral stands adopted by U.C. Berkeley students during those fraught years, and thus asking us to question our own character—i.e., what would we do under similar circumstances—the film carries forward all the way to the present moment.
Meshing stunning wall-to-wall archival film with interviews of 15 former activists, Kitchell and editor Veronica Selver craft a raw-nerve, high-stakes drama that draws us in step by step. The first section of the film, depicting the early days of student sit-ins in support of civil rights, and the establishment of the Berkeley Free Speech movement (with Mario Savio emerging as the hyper-articulate front man), is sufficient all by itself to demolish the endlessly repeated canard that the ‘60s were only about sex, drugs and rock’n’roll.
Along with all the stuff we know (and forgot), a first-rate historical doc like Berkeley in the Sixties is crammed with revelations, such as the visual evidence that (at least in the beginning) the clean-cut students don’t look like radicals so much as middle-class kids who took seriously their higher-institution lessons in critical thinking. On the other hand, we are shocked to learn that that sanctified icon of compassionate conservatism, California Governor Ronald Reagan, ordered the brutal tear-gassing of students to break up a demonstration on the U.C. Berkeley campus.
The film (which received an Academy Award nomination) also encompasses the Black Panther Party and the emergence of the women’s liberation movement, providing a context at once expansive and inclusive. All in all, Berkeley in the Sixties is an immersive experience that reminds us why, until recently, “Berkeley” was shorthand across the political spectrum for engaged activism (on the left), politically correct obstructionism (on the right), and easy punch lines in any number of Woody Allen movies.
In an interview at some point after the film’s release, Kitchell recalled, “No public funding was to be had in the Reagan years and private foundations almost universally turned us down, so we were forced to go to the people whose story it was to raise the money to make the film. And that meant we had to listen to lots of opinions and feedback about the film, which we screened throughout the entire process. In some larger sense, we triangulated all that advice, took what was best and most germane, and distilled it down into two hours.” So in various ways, Berkeley in the Sixties came out of the community. That seems especially fitting.
Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin (2003)
The entire Civil Rights Movement has been conveniently distilled in the public consciousness into two figures, Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Nancy Kates' and Bennett Singer’s splendid documentary does the great service of pulling a third figure from the shadows—the philosopher, strategist and organizer Bayard Rustin, whose defining accomplishment (among many, it should be noted) was planning and supervising the vast logistics surrounding the landmark March on Washington in 1963.
Prior to Kates' and Singer’s film, I had never so much as heard Rustin’s name—he died in 1987—and I doubt I’m the only person in that category. How could such a remarkable and commanding individual be so unknown to the general public? For the simple reason that Rustin was gay, which made him susceptible to exposure by J. Edgar Hoover’s racist FBI and, before Stonewall and The Boys in the Band, a potential focal point for unwanted public opposition to the Civil Rights Movement.
For those who believe that individuals were only expunged from history in the former Soviet Union, Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin is a mesmerizing eye-opener. But the film goes beyond rescuing and “rehabilitating” its subject to inspiring audiences to carry on Rustin’s worldwide crusade against injustice, discrimination and poverty. Because the fight for freedom and equal rights is taking place somewhere around the globe at any given moment, the documentary plays like a front-line report in an ongoing struggle rather than a relic of some excavated past.
From a filmmaking standpoint, there’s a specific element that provides a poignancy and delicacy lacking in the great majority of historical docs. In their research of interviews and source material containing Rustin’s voice, the filmmakers found three albums he recorded of traditional spirituals and work songs. By weaving these soulful tunes into the narrative, Kates and Singer came up with an artful way to maximize Rustin’s presence without over-relying on recorded interviews. Equally important, the purity and vulnerability of his singing voice guides the film onto a whole other plane.
The Weather Underground (2002)
One of the enduring myths in American history is that all domestic terrorism derives from the left. Exhibit A, of course, is the Weather Underground, the radical and militant anti-Vietnam War splinter group that undertook what they saw as a desperate campaign to disrupt the U.S. war machine. Were the Weathermen patriots or terrorists? Heroes or cowards? Difference makers or delusional failures? Sam Green and Bill Siegel’s riveting and wrenching documentary confronts these uncomfortable questions with unwavering courage and clarity.
In addition to providing a detailed chronology and crackling factual history, the filmmakers serve as conduits for the surviving Weathermen (and women) to revisit and grapple with their younger, idealistic, monomaniacal and self-sacrificing selves. There are no well-hashed recitations of recollections and anecdotes in The Weather Underground; the interviews provide raw material in the most literal sense. For those who agreed to speak to the camera, the live-wire events of the ’70s are as fresh and painful as ever.
To put it another way, the film comes alive because the experiences and the issues are palpably alive for its subjects. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the forlorn figure of Mark Rudd on an empty, windy beach, struggling mightily to reconcile the gains and losses of the Weathermen’s activities (as well as his present-day work as an anonymous teacher with the largely forgotten life-and-death struggle to end the Vietnam War). At its core, The Weather Underground is a unique and profound film about making moral choices and living a moral life.
That’s not a subject that generates much discussion in our culture; as a further complication, in the wake of 9/11 many viewers were distracted by a debate over violence as a political tactic. I see the movie as a timeless litmus test, even more than Berkeley in the Sixties, of how far one will go to stop injustices perpetuated by one’s government.
Incidentally, one of the Oscar-nominated doc’s great contributions, given the historical whitewashing and amnesia that have been endemic since the Reagan Administration, is detailing the FBI’s notorious and illegal COINTELPRO program to undermine and squash political dissent. For a whole lot of viewers, that juicy slice of incipient fascism was the most shocking thing in the film.
I am enduringly fond of these three films, obviously, but there are several other Bay Area historical documentaries that I could have easily included. The Good War and Those Who Refused to Fight It (Rick Tejada-Flores and Judith Ehrlich, 2000) is a revelatory exposé of the mistreatment of conscientious objectors during World War II, and how their alternative service led to postwar improvements in prisons, mental institutions and civil rights. Connie Field and Marilyn Mulford’s Academy Award-nominated Freedom On My Mind (1994) revisits the 1964 Freedom Summer voter registration campaign in the South, a pivotal event in the Civil Rights Movement. Another Oscar nominee for Best Documentary, Rick Goldsmith’s Tell the Truth and Run: George Seldes and the American Press (1996), profiles an uncompromising investigative journalist whose likes we won’t see again.
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