April 15, 2015

Playback: Barry Alexander Brown and Glenn Silber's 'The War at Home'

From Barry Alexander Brown and Glenn Silber's 'The War At Home'. Courtesy of First Run Features

I first saw Barry Alexander Brown and Glenn Silber's documentary The War at Home as a high school student in Minneapolis. Their portrayal of the anti-Vietnam War protest movement in Madison, Wisconsin, had a formative impact on my development personally and politically, and as a documentary filmmaker.

The film shows young people discovering themselves through a collective commitment to stop the war, using tactics that intensify from peaceful demonstrations to violent confrontations with local police and national guardsmen, to a bombing of a university building that kills a student.

Watching the film then, I understood that I'd learn as much outside the classrooms of University of Wisconsin as inside them. When I got to campus in 1981, it was Reagan's America. The film became more important, helping me understand how to use documentary to make the past relevant and useful by depicting the struggle to make progressive change as flowing forward, not frozen in time. That documentary can represent the struggle as a never-ending force that is as powerful, varied and as effective as the individuals participating in it make it to be is a crucial element that I try to incorporate in my own work.

The filmmakers put an amazing trove of archival footage to thoughtful use and weave that together with a careful cast of interviewees. The film was made shortly after the war's end, and the interviewees’ emotions and memories are clear. The result is that crucial distinction between a documentary that looks back at history from a gelled distance and one that is in the moment and propels viewers onward.

The film opens with a newsreel from 1963 describing Madison as "the American prescription," surrounded by dairy farms and lakes, where "everyone does The Twist." Into that myth comes Jack Colhoun, a self-described "all-American boy with conservative values," fresh off the bus and mulling over the anti-war fliers he's immediately given, having already enrolled in ROTC. Meanwhile, Karleton Armstrong initially decides to "stay on the sidelines," heeding his father's warning about having his name on government watch lists forever. And Ron Carbon returns from Vietnam to join "Vets for Peace." By film's end, Colhoun has left for Canada, Armstrong is in prison for the bombing, and Carbon says, "If I had the courage to do what Armstrong did, I would have."

The film shows the protesters having less concern about whether their actions make any difference, than deciding which ones will have the greatest impact. There is less of a sense of powerlessness than there is a deep conviction that active protest is a requirement, not a choice. The film shows them acting on that belief, relentlessly, and their determination stays with me still. Ultimately, their elders share their outlook. Former Senator Ernest Gruening, a World War I veteran in his 70s, calls the protests “a civic duty” and testifies at Armstrong's trial. The last word goes to Armstrong's father, who says that the protesters “were telling us the truth and we weren't listening."

As a filmmaker viewing The War at Home now, I have to admit that the editing seems clunky at times and the music cliché, but my high school self was less concerned with craft than a good story well told, one that left me wrestling with my own role and responsibility in this ongoing life-force that "we the people" wield. I’m still unpacking questions the film gave me, and The War at Home helped ignite the fire in my belly that I keep working to spread. If I'm ever in doubt about whether doing it through documentary film makes any difference, I need only to revisit the film to carry on.

 

Bill Siegel’s 2013 documentary, The Trials of Muhammad Ali, won the IDA ABCNews VideoSource Award for best use of news footage.

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