“Hello, I’m going to read a declaration of a state of war…within the next 14 days we will attack a symbol or institution of American injustice.” -Bernardine Dohrn
These words were spoken thirty years ago on behalf of a radical group known as the “Weather Underground,” now the subject of a documentary of the same name. Documentary filmmakers Sam Green and Bill Siegel have assembled a wealth of interviews and archival material, (including photographs, film footage, and FBI surveillance documents) which they skillfully use to present a concise and interesting film.
“The Weather Underground” was an activist group formed in the late 60’s in response to the many injustices they believed were making America uninhabitable (particularly racism and the war in Vietnam). These articulate and charismatic students shed their middle-class comforts to lead an underground life while executing several successful operations, which included bombing government buildings and breaking acid guru Timothy Leary out of prison all while evading one of the largest FBI manhunts in history.
The subject matter of this film creates a historical playground in which the filmmakers fully explore. This includes an easily created narrative as well as taking advantage of the ample archival footage available that shows this turbulent period in U.S. history. A glaring example of this is the violent atrocities committed by Americans against the Vietnamese shown to illustrate the activists’ plight.
The documentary form is much more effective in tackling this subject matter than Hollywood “docudrama” attempts (Oliver Stone’s Born of the Fourth of July comes to mind).
With regards to the classic documentary problem of presenting events in an objective manner, the directors handle this with skill and precision. This is not to say the film doesn’t have a political agenda, as there are some questions left unanswered (was anyone ever hurt by any of the bombs?). The filmmakers claim, “this film will in no way endorse or glamorize violence,” however, the individual members of the group are romanticized and conveyed as being enlightened Bonnie and Clyde types.
The unanswered questions also lend to a certain ambiguity present in the film. This is exemplified by its depiction of events in which the “Weather Underground” were flirting with blatant terrorism.
Their “Bring the War Home” slogan almost led to actions with grave repercussions, and it’s easy to see how those who believe they have a monopoly on morality (from Hitler to Hussein) are those who are capable of the most horrific actions.
In light of current events, (both foreign and domestic) the coming of this film is both timely and relevant. The story of this group’s formation, exploits, successes, failures and eventual demise is compelling from start to finish and has extra pertinence for Concordia students who are no strangers to activism and its repercussions. The film has already received several accolades (including Best Documentary Feature at the 2003 San Francisco Film Festival) with more likely to come.
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