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Film about 1968 protests resonates during this week’s DNC

by Nan Chalat-Noaker, Record editor

The night his film "Chicago 10" premiered at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival was "the most traumatic day of my life," confesses Brett Morgen.

The film, which was chosen to open the festival, recreates the events surrounding the riots during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago and the ensuing trial that epitomized the rift between generations and cultures in the 1960s.

Morgen needn’t have worried. After a passionate anti-war introduction by festival founder Robert Redford, the audience gave the young director a standing ovation.

"You are so exposed," Morgen says of each time one of his films debuts. At Sundance, of course, the pressure is magnified.

"Opening Sundance is one of the greatest honors for a filmmaker in this country. It is also terrifying. Every major film critic, buyer and filmmaker is in one room," he recalls.

This week, Morgen will be relaxing at his parents’ home in Oakley (they moved here after attending their son’s first appearance at Sundance) when Paramount Pictures begins distributing "Chicago 10" on DVD. The release is strategically timed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the infamous Democratic Convention of 1968 and, of course, with the current Democratic convention in Denver.

The parallels between the two conventions are not lost on Morgen, or on those attending this week’s event in Denver where protesters have coalesced into groups including "Recreate 68" and "Come On Up to Denver."

Morgen readily admits there are some big differences. "For one," he says, "this time the anti-war candidate won." For another, he notes, these days there are no big-name dissidents like Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Bobby Seale. "They were like movie stars. Cindy Sheehan (the mother who demanded to speak to President George W. Bush after her son was killed in Iraq) is the first to emerge on the national scene."

In fact, it was Morgen’s concern about voter complacency that spurred his interest in making "Chicago 10." As he and a friend reminisced about the leaders of the anti-Vietnam War movement, they began to look for those playing a similar role in the anti-Iraq War debates. "We said if there is no new Abbie Hoffman, let’s bring the old one back."

For the next two years Morgen combed through 22,000 pages of transcripts from the ensuing trial. "I can almost tell you minute by minute what was happening 40 years ago," he said on the eve of Barack Obama’s big show in Denver.

But Morgen emphasizes he did not just want to produce a rehash of 1968. He wanted to energize a new generation of free-speech advocates. To do that he updated the sound track from Judy Collins et al to Eminen and Rage Against the Machine and he mixed archival footage with computer-assisted animation.

The result may have confused some old hippies looking for a nostalgic romp through the ’60s, but Morgen insists he wanted to get through to today’s youth, "and that’s not their anthem."

"If you walk in and think it will be a historical documentary you will be disappointed. I tried to make a film that could be taking place in 2008. I want you to be PHOOM in the middle of these riots. I wanted to use elements of ’68 to tell a story for today."

Since wrapping up "Chicago 10," Morgen has directed another film, "Nimrod Nation," which recently won a Peabody award. The eight-hour series about a small high school basketball team in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, he says, is a celebration of family.

Morgen also directed "On the Ropes" and "The Kid Stays in the Picture" both of which premiered at Sundance. He is currently contemplating making a film about a small town in the West.

In the meantime, though, he will be watching the 2008 Democratic National Convention with a keen eye for the next Abbie Hoffman. And, if TV screens this week are filled with pictures of police in riot gear confronting a group of chanting students, it is a good bet he will be rooting for the bearded protestor holding a vintage peace symbol.

"Chicago 10" will be available on DVD at the Park City Blockbuster by Thursday or Friday.


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