"Hello, I'm going to read a declaration of a state of war," announces a young female voice over a static-filled radio. "Within the next 14 days, we will attack a symbol or an institution of American injustice."
The voice is a representative of the Weathermen, phoned into a radio station in 1970 just before the first official "attack" of the radical activist group that attempted to overthrow the United States government. It is also the beginning of The Weather Underground, a new documentary that traces the history of the politically charged organization.
A Students for a Democratic Society splinter group, the Weathermen decried the Vietnam War as well as U.S. policies on domestic issues. They believed that a violent overthrow of the government was the only solution. "There is no way to be committed to nonviolence in the middle of the most violent society history has ever created," states Bernadine Dohrn, one of the group's leaders and founders, in a 1969 television interview.
Directed by Sam Green and Bill Siegel, The Weather Underground is a fascinating chronicle that combines recent interviews with 30-year-old footage and retraces the story of an all but erased moment of U.S. history. "I've always been interested in histories that only exist in the aural forms. You can't just go to the library and find this information; you have to track down the people and get it directly from the source," said Green during a recent visit to Portland.
A small and volatile organization, the Weathermen held angry protests, smashed windows and detonated homemade bombs. From courthouses and police headquarters to the U.S. Capitol itself, the Weathermen bombed more than 20 locations across the country. Each bombing was in reaction to a specific event--the killing of civil-rights leaders, the Kent State shootings, events in Vietnam--and were fueled by the group's desire to "bring the war home." They said they had no intention of hurting anyone, always sending just enough warning for the evacuation of the doomed location.
The Weather Underground takes the stance of observer as it plunges off into the memories of six of the group's main members. Looking back at the events, the issues are separated from the angst in what becomes a fascinating retrospective: how the group came to be, what they did while they were in it, and what they are now doing 30 years later. From self-criticism to self-assuredness, each of the figures remembers the raging emotions that drove them.
"Our country was killing millions of people... This revelation was more than we could handle, we didn't know what to do about it," explains founding member Mark Rudd as he sorts through the reasoning, some of which he justifies and some he apologizes for.
The Weather Underground marks Green's feature-length documentary debut, although he has made a number of shorts and enjoyed popularity for years among film-festival crowds. He uses a stunning collection of archived news clips, interviews, and home movies that turn The Weather Underground into a visual time capsule of the era. In his first official "film job," Green was in charge of finding archival footage for a popular newsmagazine program, and his ability to unearth rare and poignant footage is a major element to his distinctive style of filmmaking.
"I must confess that I literally fall in love with archival imagery. I've always built films around the material because the old footage can evoke so much," says Green. "There's a shot towards the beginning of Weather Underground that shows some kids burning dollar bills. This shot is actually only about 2 seconds long, but it's such a good metaphor for so much that happened during that era. I realized that I could slow it down so that everything that happens in the shots takes on a hyper-reality and poignancy."
Though The Weather Underground ultimately asks more questions than it answers, it comes at an important point in history and offers a fascinating contrast to the events and issues of today. The film represents a slice of American history that isn't found in any textbooks or museums, and can only make one wonder which aspects of current events will be deemed "history."
616 NW 21st Ave., 223-4515. 7 and 9 pm Friday-Thursday, Oct. 3-9. Also 1, 3 and 5 pm Saturday-Sunday. $4-$7.
Directors Sam Green and Bill Siegel are scheduled to appear at the
7 pm showings on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 3-4.
Matt McCormick is the curator of Peripheral Produce, a Portland-based experimental-film forum that has screened several of Sam Green's films.