Notes From the Underground
They were ‘60s student radicals who wanted to take down The Man by “bringing the Vietnam War home.” Documentary filmmaker Sam Green on the saga of the Weather Underground.
by Matt Luem
Originally published in Arthur No. 6 (Sept. 2003)
History has a way of distinguishing acts of political courage from acts of political suicide. The Weather Underground, a new documentary by Sam Green and Bill Siegel, is a grave demonstration of the fine line between the two: it is at once a brilliant history of an American outlaw group, and a meditation on the consequences of political action.
The Weathermen, as they were commonly known, were a splinter group of the Students for Democratic Society, a politically radical student organization focused on opposing the American war in Vietnam. Weaving together the most gripping—and violent—images of the ‘60s with a series of intimate present-day testimonials from former Weathermen, The Weather Underground takes us to the doorsteps of Americans willing to trade their families, security and precious youth to take down The Man.
The following interview was conducted by email with Sam Green on the eve of the film’s theatrical roll-out.
ARTHUR: What led you to this story?
Sam Green: I read something about the group as a teenager. I’m 36 years old and I grew up in the ‘80s. The ‘80s was a pretty bleak time, especially in East Lansing, Michigan, where I grew up. The story of the Weather Underground somehow resonated with me, in part it was a kind of adolescent fascination with the violence and the outlaw mystique of the group. At the same time, there are a lot of serious issues there too. I always did feel on some level that radical change was, and is, needed in this country.
About five years ago, I found a report by the US Senate on the group during the mid -‘70s. In this book there were a few pages with mug shots of all the Weather Underground people. They were very powerful photos, and everyone’s expressions were intense–very defiant and tough, yet at the same time, you could see a little trace of these middle-class white kids. I was floored by these images.
What’s more, as I was looking through the photos, I realized that I knew one of these people! It was a guy who lived in Oakland who was a friend of a friend. I called him up and asked, “Were you in the Weather Underground?” He said, “You found out about my secret past.” There’s really very little info on the group, anything that has been written portrays them as crazy lunatics who ruined the ‘60s. When I started going over to his house and talking to him about the story, the version that he told me was much different, more nuanced and morally ambiguous than the popular version.
So I hooked up with my old friend Bill Siegel, who lives in Chicago, and we started work on the film about five years ago.
The majority of the film is structured out of archival footage and is filled with iconic images of the Vietnam War and student protest action, including lots of imagery which appears to be home movies. How you got your hands on this stuff? I’m thinking of the Fred Hampton murder footage and the Marin County houseboat footage in particular.
I spent a long, long time looking in odd places for old film. In putting this film together it was very important to Bill and I that it not be all “talking heads.” I’ve seen a million documentaries like this, and a million ‘60s documentaries like this. They put me to sleep for the most part. It also seemed especially important that if we wanted to reach young people with the film that we not have a bunch of 50-year-olds yakking on camera too much. So this meant that we had to find a lot of great imagery from that time, and find stuff that people have not seen over and over and over. Fortunately during the late ‘60s and ‘70s there were lots of young people with Bolexes out shooting stuff. The footage of Black Panther activist Fred Hampton and the apartment where he was murdered came from an amazing film called “The Murder of Fred Hampton,” which was made by a then-young filmmaker named Mike Gray (along with Howard Alk, who worked on Don’t Look Back). The problem with archival footage is that it costs enormous amounts of money to use. The network news archives can charge $50-per-second for their material, and they wont really negotiate. The good thing about these independent filmmakers is most of them could understand that I didn’t really have any money and was making this project independently, so most of them charged very little. For the houseboat footage, a friend of mine mentioned that there was a guy who lives here in SF who shot a film about the houseboats in Marin during the late ‘60s. At that time, it was a pretty wild, squatter community. I called this guy up and he showed me his film, it was gorgeous. I love that footage still.
Who gave you the most trouble when you were making this film?
Ironically, the hardest person to find in the film was the FBI agent. My partner Bill Seigel took care of that and it was quite a process, finding those old agents is hard! They’re underground in many ways. They know that the FBI comes out in this story looking pretty bad. Many of the old agents were willing to talk to us off-the-record, but when it came time to do an interview, they’d always demur. It took a lot of finagling to get Don Strickland (the former FBI agent in the film) to go on camera. I was surprised though when we went to his office to do the interview — he has a huge collection of old 8-track players! He’s an 8-track fanatic and collector. I guess it just goes to show that everyone is a weirdo.
There are popular icons that appear throughout the film, but Jane Fonda really sticks out, once at the beginning and then again, transformed greatly, toward the end.
As I said, I grew up in the ‘80s and that’s what she was famous for. Her first aerobics video came out in 1982, I believe. Incidentally, it is amazing to watch! It’s completely mesmerizing. She’s incredibly charismatic I strongly recommend that if you see an old tape at a garage sale, pick it up and take a look. I think that people of my generation grew up in many ways under that shadow of the ‘60s generation and the defeat or collapse of many of those dreams. We definitely are a skeptical and cynical generation. we saw how a lot of their idealism didn’t turn out. Jane Fonda was symbolic of that I thought. Just ten years earlier, she’d been ‘Hanoi Jane’ a radical activist that had forsaken a lot of her fame and privilege to protest against the Vietnam war and by 1982 she’s putting out exercise videos. I don’t actually want to beat-up on her. She seems like a good and committed person and lord knows she’s gotten way more shit over the years than she deserves. To me, that video evoked a certain mood that I felt as a teenager–a mood of resignation and hopelessness -I think that a lot of the youth culture that we created at the time reflected that–an intense mixture of cynicism and idealism.
I didn’t know until I saw this film that the Weather Underground actually broke Timothy Leary out of prison…
Yes. Leary actually wrote about this in one of his autobiographies. He was being held at the California men’s colony in San Luis Obispo, which is a pretty low-security place. He somehow managed to get over the fence and the W. U. picked him up and got him up to Seattle, disguised him, moved him to Chicago where he applied for and received a false passport. and then got him to Algeria where he joined forces (temporarily) with Eldridge Cleaver. The whole affair is pretty comical and would make a great movie in its own right. Very soon after arriving in Algeria and issuing all sorts of completely over-the-top statements, Leary began gobbling LSD and was put under “house arrest” by Cleaver. Incidentally, when Leary was finally busted a few years later in Afghanistan by the CIA, he ended up ratting all of the Weather Underground people out. You can take a look at the transcripts of his sessions with the FBI at http://www.thesmokinggun.com
At a certain point in your film the Weathermen became like pop stars: they’re “far-out,” sexy, loaded and dangerous. How conscious were they of their sex appeal?
I think that initially this was not something that they were very aware of. When they went underground, they tapped into some very deep American archetypes–the “Bonnie and Clyde” outlaw. This kind of narrative was in the air at that time. Incidentally, a lot of the W. U. people were very into movies and mentioned some of that era’s movies as being influential–Bonnie and Clyde, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Wild Bunch. I think that they were surprised that this had happened, and to some extent, embraced it. They probably thought that if they could make revolution cool, so be it.
The social forces which formed the Weatherman’s revolutionary activism are clearly articulated in the film. Looking at America today, what do you think are the events most likely to seed radical political action?
My personal feeling is that people are radicalized most by things that affect them directly. Thirty years ago, many young people faced the draft and the real possibility that they would be shipped over to Vietnam and killed in a senseless war. Even if they personally were not threatened by the draft, almost everyone knew someone who was over there or had been killed, so people had very concrete and simple reasons to oppose the war and to see the U. S. government critically. Things are different today, it is possible for people to live in a very sheltered manner–to go about their daily lives and have the turmoil and misery that exists in much of the world be simply an abstract matter to consider or disregard as one likes. However, it seems like it seems like it’s getting harder and hard to go on like this. Obviously, Sept 11th shattered a lot of our comfort and serenity. other global problems–global warming, globalization, SARS, etc.–are also making it hard to live in a bubble. I would think that as Bush and the corporate crooks around him continue to push war and aggression and GMO’s and globalization/imperialism on the rest of the world and look after the rich folks here at home while beating down everyone else, people are going to start to feel pinched and get angry. I think this is already starting to happen and will only escalate.
Someone says in the film that the “underground” is not a place but a state of information control. Do you think that this kind of an underground can exist in America today?
This kind of thing would be pretty damn hard to pull off today. Back then, the WU people were able to create fake I.D.‘s pretty easily–the trick was called ‘the dead baby method’–they would go to a cemetery and find a headstone for a baby that was born around the same year as them but died after a year or two. With that information they’d go down to the local DMV and ask for a license for that dead infant. This actually worked. The W. U. people would also talk to each from payphones. Today, this would never fly. Someone made an interesting point to me once, and that’s that there are lots of different undergrounds even today. People who are in this country illegally–they operate at the edge of society and with a lot of maneuvering in the same way that the W. U. people did.
What’s next for you?
Bill and I are spending a lot of time getting this film out right now. It’s starting to open in theaters around the country this summer. During the fall we’re going be touring around and showing it at colleges and galleries and underground film venues. For the moment, I’m just working on that kind of thing. Other ideas are starting to percolate though. I’ve been thinking a lot about Esperanto lately, you know, the universal language. There’s something about it that resonates with me.