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.Continue reading