All the buzz in documentary filmmaking these days is around investigative journalism, first person confessional, on-the-edge verité, doc-fiction hybrids—everywhere, that is, except historical documentaries. Sure, the casual viewer thinks, history is interesting and fun and occasionally revelatory, but it is, by definition, past. That attitude might be summarized as, “I want filmmakers to show me the world I’m living in now.”
It’s an understandable impulse, but a misguided one. For starters, I could whip out that old George Santayana chestnut. (“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”) In addition, docs with a historical perspective tend to stand the test of time better than verité or social-issue films. Above all, though, historical docs at their best transform our understanding of a previous era and, consequently, our own.
Here are a couple of Bay Area classics that succeed beautifully by that standard, and also by another: They repay watching again, and again.
(Editor’s note: This is the latest in a continuing series of articles compiling the key documentaries and narrative features by Bay Area independent filmmakers. Like any pantheon, Hall of Fame, or “Best of” list, it is a subjective selection, and invites comment and debate.)
Freedom On My Mind (1994)
Connie Field and Marilyn Mulford’s splendid doc revisits the Civil Rights Movement, a subject covered in innumerable films before and since, through vivid, vital oral history. The focus here is the voter registration drives undertaken from 1961 through 1964 in Mississippi by a cadre of local residents and Northern college students. Such an activity may sound innocuous today, but it’s hard to overemphasize the individual and institutional opposition and physical danger that young activists faced in the segregated South. (Unless, that is, the names of the late James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman are etched in your memory.)
Freedom On My Mind contains some remarkable archival footage, as you’d expect, but it is distinguished by the quality of its interviews, 30 years on, with the everyday people who were involved in the vote registration campaign. They don’t recite warned-over anecdotes or even badge-of courage war stories from their youth. To the contrary, they recount their formative experiences in a way that pulls us back into the moment, over and over and over.
This documentary came out after Ronald Reagan and various right-wing commentators in the mainstream media had commenced a systematic campaign (still ongoing) to discredit the citizen activism and social progress of the 1960s as nothing more than an ineffectual, self-indulgent bacchanal of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. Their goal was to destroy the idea of public protest as a strategy for future generations, as well as to erase the memory of unprecedented alliances between blacks and whites, workers and students, the middle class and the underclass.
Field and Mulford’s intent was to provide a corrective through the voices of people who were there and knew better. At its core, Freedom On My Mind is a plain-spoken testament to civic participation and individual conscience. Furthermore, by depicting a coalition of black Mississippians and white college students forged in an infinitely more threatening time than the present (whether that be 1994 or today), the filmmakers were reminding younger viewers raised in a climate of apathy that it can—and did—happen here.
You have to believe that that theme inspired at least a few of the various jurors who gave Freedom On My Mind the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, the IDA Award, the Organization of American Historians’ Erik Barnouw Award and an Academy Award nomination.
This film, along with her seminal The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (1980) and Have You Heard From Johannesburg (2010), a seven-part, eight-and-a-half hour opus about the worldwide movement to end apartheid in South Africa, puts Connie Field in the upper echelon of contemporary documentary makers. It’s a good bet, given the historical perspective and ongoing relevance of her work, that her stature will only increase.
The Good War and Those Who Refused to Fight It (2000)
Anyone who came of age during the Vietnam War was well aware that a substantial number of draft-age men claimed conscientious-objector status. A few, like Cassius Clay, challenged the U.S. government and paid a steep price, while most moved to Canada or Europe (which may sound pretty good, but entailed separation from family and friends).
It’s easy to understand one’s refusal to fight in an undeclared war in a small, faraway country against people who have committed no aggression against one’s country. But surely, after the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, not a single able-bodied man declined to take up arms against the Japanese and the Nazis. Right?
In fact, as Judith Ehrlich and Rick Tejada-Flores’s invaluable The Good War and Those Who Refused to Fight It reveals, some 40,000 people in this country filed as conscientious objectors. Quakers, among others, cited their religious beliefs, but the rest steadfastly refused to kill another human being, even in a battle between freedom and fascism, on the basis of their personal morality.
The film delineates in detail the punishment heaped on conscientious objectors during World War II, and the stigma they endured. This appalling, forgotten episode is sufficiently deserving of attention, but Ehrlich and Tejada-Flores are just getting started.
Many COs were assigned to fill undesirable jobs left either by men who joined the army or women who stepped up to work in factories. The work that sticks most vividly in my mind involved taking care of the mentally ill confined to institutions. At that time, the facilities operated on a kind of medieval model that treated patients as subhuman. The COs who worked there, and saw the hideous conditions firsthand, took it upon themselves to advocate for a more hygienic, respectful and humane approach.
The one-hour film describes numerous ways in which COs applied their individual codes of ethics and service, and laid the foundation for progressive-minded advances after the war and extending all the way to the Civil Rights Movement and beyond. It is as eye-opening and inspiring in its own way as Freedom On My Mind.
The Good War and Those Who Refused to Fight It, which likewise received the Erik Barnouw Award from the Organization of American Historians, isn’t simply a tribute to people of uncommon character who made unexpected contributions under the worst circumstances. It’s a tough-minded reminder that anybody, anywhere, anytime can make a difference.
That philosophy permeates the filmmakers’ other work, from Tejada-Flores and Ray Telles’ The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers’ Struggle to Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith’s The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. Makers of historical documentaries know a powerful secret: Looking back is another way of looking ahead.
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