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No Spectators

The makers of the Cinequest documentary selection 'Weather Underground' discuss the film's subject, the Weathermen antiwar movement

By Richard von Busack

Sam Green is a documentary filmmaker from San Francisco. Green and co-director Bill Siegel's new film, The Weather Underground, follows the careers of several members of an underground left-wing group that detonated more than a dozen buildings during the 1970s. It screens March 1, 4:15pm at Camera 3 in San Jose, and March 2, 2pm at Camera 3 in San Jose.

Metro: It's been often pointed out that the morning Weather Underground member Bill Ayres' book was reviewed positively in The New York Times on Sept. 11. And then a profile of Ayres titled "Forever Rad" ran in The New York Times Sunday Magazine several days later. This caused a terrific hubbub, and the cancellation of Ayres' book tour. What affect did bin Laden's crime have on the making of this movie?

Green: I was still editing the film when 9/11 hit. My first reaction was, "I can't even finish this film." Everybody was so overwhelmed by the horrific nature of what happened. As things started to unfold, I changed my mind; the film was more relevant than ever. Looking at Bill Ayres and what happened to him, it seemed more important to approach the issue of the Weathermen in a more sensitive way. The Weathermen before 9/11 was an obscure and irrelevant subject.

Metro: They were thought of as figures of nostalgia, safe because the times had changed so drastically. They were like old celebrities or sports figures you'd see on Old Navy commercials.

Green: Still, Ayres was flippant about it, and he really got caught. I never would have approached the subject of the Weathermen as flippantly as he did.

Metro: We see in the film the Chicago convention of the SDS in 1969; there's a sign outside reading, "No vultures inside." By vultures they meant "the press." Were you dealing with people who were still suspicious of the media?

Green: They were skeptical before we made this film. There were only a few things written about them, emphasizing the sex, drugs and the craziness. They were wary any time they opened their mouths. Who knows the legal issues they face? They were a little nervous about that.

Metro: Since I know there's not a lot of archival footage around (your subjects were wanted by the FBI and didn't film themselves), it was an inspired idea to re-create some of the bombings using modern technology--particularly the speeded-up camera through the corridors of the San Francisco Ferry Building to show where one bomb went in.

Green: We wanted to make a film that resonated with young people. Most people under 40 hadn't heard of the Weathermen; one of the things we didn't want to do was just a bunch of 50-year-olds telling their story. So we had to use as much visual material as possible. Historical re-creations are usually so bad. We were lucky to find some old aerial footage of the Ferry Building, with the old Embarcadero Freeway winding around it.

Metro: I'd note also the footage at the end, with Lili Taylor in voice-over reading one of Bernadine Dohrn's last letters before she came out of hiding. Dorhn's talking about how sick and tired of running she is. We see a five-minute shot driving down a Chicago street in the mid-1970s. It looks like one of R. Crumb's splenetic cityscapes, very evocative of the general ugliness, economic blight and forlornness of the era.

Green: A number of years ago I was working at Fox TV. Mary Harron was a friend of mine; she's an executive producer on this movie. She directed I Shot Andy Warhol, and that's the connection to Lili Taylor.

As for the footage, the National Archives are so great. You can go to the television networks, but they charge so much for the footage, $50 or $60 a second. But the National Archives are free. For some reason, the Navy hired someone to drive around Chicago with a 35mm camera. Who knows why they did?

I'm fascinated by the 1970s. I really feel that the '60s have been dissected, but the '70s are largely unexplored. I'm 36 now, and I remember the era as a small child. I grew up in Michigan in the 1980s, always aware of the Weatherman and curious as to who they were. The '80s was such a bleak political time; it was easy to look at the '60s with false nostalgia.

Metro: Do you think it's possible that, as outlaw extremists who frightened the nation, the Weathermen helped Nixon get elected?

Green: It's hard to draw concrete connections that the Weathermen did this or do that. I wouldn't say they helped Nixon get elected, because really the Weathermen were such a tiny blip on the radar. ... In certain ways, they helped the antiwar movement, raised the idea that the country was moving into a kind of chaos. You could also say they set the antiwar movement back by closing down the SDS.

Metro: How did you get FBI agent Don Strickland to talk to you?

Green: Bill Siegel found him. It was harder to get the FBI to talk than it was to get the Weathermen to talk. The FBI agents we talked to agreed the Weathermen were an important story, but none of them wanted to talk on the record. Fortunately, Strickland believed it was important to get the FBI's side out there.

Metro: It's easy to watch this film and think of the Weathermen as performers. Take Communiqué No. 5: "A revolution is not a spectacle. There are no spectators. Everyone participates whether they know it or not!" It sounds like the motto of Burning Man: "No Spectators!"

Green: They were staging the bombings as a kind of performance, trying to get these ideas into the media.

Metro: How do Dohrn and Ayres strike you when you were interviewing them? Did you really see the old firebrand in them when you were talking to them?

Green: They're both really impressive people. They have maintained their principles. They're older and wiser, and stuck to their guns and haven't backed down. They have three kids. There was an article in the paper recently. One of them is David Gilbert's child [the only Weatherman member to serve serious time; still doing 75 years in Attica for a killing during an armored car robbery.] The kid was a year and half old when Gilbert was arrested. Ayres and Dohrn raised the child, and he's been selected to be a Rhodes scholar. All their kids are wonderful; Dohrn and Ayres are amazing parents. I've always thought that that side of somebody tells a lot.

Metro: What was the most difficult part of making this?

Green: It's a complicated story, and there are all sorts of tangents and subplots. We wanted it to really make sense, and yet we didn't want it to be four hours long and boring as hell. The 1968 Chicago Democratic convention, for example--we thought we can't tell the story without telling that. And the Vietnam Veterans Against the War protest--all sorts of things had to be cut. Without the context, without describing what moved these Weathermen, they all seemed crazy.

Metro: What's the film slated for after Cinequest?

Green: Now that it's premiered at Sundance, it's playing at festivals, and it will start to screen at theaters this summer. It's going to air on PBS in 2004.


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