Activism and ‘Chicago 10’: taking a stand now
January 20, 2007
Filmmaker Brett Morgan went to great lengths to illuminate transcripts of the conspiracy trial following the 1968 Democratic National Convention. He waded through research about the anti-war protests, police crowd control tactics and counterculture theories, then hired animators to painstakingly recreate the furniture and faces in the courtroom with high-resolution computer graphics.
Actors Nick Nolte and Hank Azaria were among the all-star cast lending their voices to the activists-defendants known as "The Chicago 8" including Bobby Seale, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Lee Weiner, as they attempted to undermine the authority of the court proceedings, calling themselves "orphans of America," flying paper airplanes at the jury, and arriving dressed in judicial robes and police uniforms.
Interspersed with animated scenes, Morgan inserted archived reels of Abbie Hoffman’s anti-establishment antics with television commentators and raw footage from the demonstration.
Remaining Chicago 8 member Tom Hayden, spoke after viewing the premiere. Like the audience Thursday night who gave Morgan a standing ovation, he enjoyed the film, however, he wished that there had been more of the archived footage.
But first and foremost, Morgan said he hoped his film, "Chicago 10," selected as 2007’s Sundance Film Festival opener, would entertain. Only then, he said, could he achieve his greater goal to attract and therefore inspire a younger generation to "raise their voice" and "take a stand."
"The idea [behind The Chicago 10] was to show people what it means to take a stand," Morgan said in the festival’s afternoon press conference.
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Festival founder Robert Redford supported his ambition.
"I’m with Brett," he said. "This film is about the kind of risk-taking it takes to make a change in this world."
Redford added, that what he appreciated about "Chicago 10" was how the film showed not only where 1960s and 1970s activists succeeded to be "on," but also where they were "off."
To further discuss Morgan’s historical remix and ponder the current modes of making waves in the new millennium, Morgan will join a panel of scholars and authors that will convene to consider the fate of counterculture, under the banner, "The Times, Did They A-Change?"
Patricia Zimmerman, a new media technology and film scholar on the panel, expects to contribute the historian’s eye on the topic.
"Absolutely, if you look at Sundance, you can argue Sundance comes out of the counter-culture, because it’s a place where work that cannot be shown anywhere else can be shown," but to assign "counterculture" as a term to anything in 2007, in Zimmerman’s opinion, is something of an anachronism.
In 1969, when the eight members of the counterculture movements both political and lifestyle were tried for conspiracy and for inciting the violent riots during the Chicago Convention, they were fighting a different system, she says.
The distinct characteristic of that counterculture movement and what film theorists call "counter-cinema" was that it created oppositional political movements with a focus on the image, she says.
"I think that in the 1960s and 1970s, there was this belief in an image can change the world you make an image that big media is not making images of ideas, people and movements that are invisible you give them a voice and make them visible.," Zimmerman said. "Most of it was in film and on video or what I would call flat on the wall. This was massively important at the time, because of media blackouts on the Vietnam War, media blackouts on coverage of demonstrations, media blackouts on feminism, civil rights, the early gay movement. All of this was kind of erased from popular consciousness."
Governments and what Zimmerman calls the "machines" of fantasy and publicity have learned from the demonstrations from the counterculture era, she says: they’ve learned to hide the image.
"One of those lessons from the 60s and 70s has been learned by the Bush administration," she observes. "We’re not seeing images of wounded, bloodied, dead soldiers. This is prohibited. They know now, every demonstrator you beat up is going to galvanize more demonstration The whole world of publicity, crowd control and spin has really changed the configuration of politics."
Northwestern Law Professor Bernadine Dohrn, a former national leader of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), helped to organize the protest during the convention alongside many of those brought to trial in 1969 for inciting a riot and conspiracy.
Like Zimmerman, Dohrn notices the mysterious absence of the image in the coverage of the Iraq war.
"It’s ironic in a way that in this time of cell phone technology and Internet you have less images that people associate with the war in Iraq than ever before in human history," Dohrn observes. "We don’t know what Iraqi people look like and we have very few images of Iraqis grieving over those who have been killed or even American soldiers being wounded and killed and under attack."
Though Dohrn will not be participating in the festival this year, she came to Sundance four years ago as part of the documentary "The Weather Underground," a film about the radical fraction of the SDS. Dohrn was not tried, but recalls protesting outside of the opening day of the trial, and subsequently being arrested by Chicago police.
She calls the 1969 trial a "showcase of a generation" a metaphor for the gulf between young people who were being asked to fight the war and an older generation bent on halting the spread of Communism.
"The trial changed legal history in a lot of ways, because it just broke the rules [the Chicago 8] just said we’re going to be who we are in front of this jury. We’re not going to dress up in a suit and cut our hair and pretend to be like everybody else. We’re not going to respect the judge if he doesn’t respect us," she explained. "Not being intimidated by these charges and not letting a culture of fear take hold, was just extremely important."
The fact that the government failed, that all the defendants were eventually acquitted, was a harbinger of the fact that the administration itself was overreaching, Dohrn says.
Dohrn sees a lot of similarities between Vietnam and Iraq. Though the enemy has a different face, she notes the United States is at war with a country with a very foreign language and culture and in a war without a foreseeable end.
Also like the Vietnam War, Dohrn observed, like Morgan, that though recent polls show that more than half of the United States is against the war in Iraq, the war continues. If history repeats itself, the war will continue for a great deal longer. The demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention marked the change in public opinion about the war in Vietnam, but American troops did not pull out until 1975.
"The bigger goals of revolution and anti-imperialist wars [surrounding The 1968 Democratic National Convention] certainly were not achieved," Dohrn concedes. "The war continued for another six years. Another one million people died. The Black Panther party leaders were assassinated, bugged and wiretapped and jailed and criminalized."
But Dohrn likewise lists some positives that came after the demonstrations, namely that they served as a kind of incubator for equal rights for women, gays and African-Americans. She looks forward to seeing what the "Chicago 10" might mean to a younger generation, she says.
"I think sometimes history is just history and interesting to historians and old people, but sometimes I think history can illuminate the present," she observes.
Zimmerman likewise applauds "Chicago 10" for taking on what she considers to be the biggest problem in history: public memory.
"The archive should be an active, mobile, alive organism that circulates, gets re-made and gets re-considered and re-thought," she argues. "History that stays isolated and quarantined in archives can never circulate and become part of public memory, and that, in the end, is anti-democratic."
But what the "far out" images, don’t translate so directly in today’s techno-savvy culture. Creating democratic media practices in the 21st Century digital age has much more to do with new technologies and interface such as manipulating barcodes like those at the supermarket, and creating swarm tactics on cell phones.
"There’s no longer just this easy divide between bad commercial media and good ‘indie’ media," she claims. "I believe now there is a very, very blurred border between the professional and the amateur and between the commercial and the nonprofit, between the narrative and the avant-garde, the political and a-political.
"It’s a shifting environment right now. All the coordinates have been mixed up and changed and the very simplistic oppositions between big, bad, corporate media and pure and wholly independent media no longer exist."
"The Times, Did They A-Change?" panel discussion will be held at 2:30 p.m. in Prospector Square Theater for ticket holders only.
The next screening of "Chicago 10" is tonight, Jan. 20 at 6 p.m. in the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center in Salt Lake City.