Breaking the Boundaries
of Documentary Film
by Arthur Kanegis and Rob Cochran
Chicago 10, a new movie by director Brett Morgen pushes the boundaries of the documentary art form, combining fast-paced editing, dramatic archival footage, and compelling animation to bring to life the famous 1968 trial of the anti-war activists Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Dave Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Bobby Seal, and others charged with conspiracy to disrupt the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.
With the beat of a rock video and the emotional charge of a feature film, the movie mocks, rocks, and shocks.
It mocks the establishment personified by Judge Hoffman whose own words create a cartoon caricature as he presides over the trial of the Chicago 8, feebly bounding and gagging Bobbie Seal, severing his case, and frequently scolding attorneys Bill Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass like naughty children. (They are the 2 others who make up the film title Chicago 10).
It rocks the young people coming to see it in droves, amazed to discover that, not too many years ago, American kids were putting their bodies on the line to rage against the war system – and doing it with outrageous humor, and a really cool clash against the conformist culture.
It shocks the ex-hippies who come to the film expecting to have their story told — like the raid on the offices of Presidential Peace Candidate Eugene McCarthy by cops swinging clubs and beating staffers – but that scene is nowhere to be found.
"How could you make a documentary about the Chicago convention and leave out Bobby Kennedy being shot?" Someone yells during the question period.
"I didn't make this film to be a history lesson about 1968," answers Morgen, whose film contains not a single interview. "Other movies do that. I made it to entertain, to reach young people, to put them in the moment and let them experience it themselves."
Rather than a soundtrack of Phil Ochs singing "I ain't a marchin' anymore," Morgen and his composer Jeff Danna punctuate the movie with the music of Rage Against the Machine, the Beastie Boys, Black Sabbath and Eminem who's song Mosh includes the lyrics:
They tell us no we say yea, they tell us stop we say go
Rebel with a rebel yell, raise hell we gonna let em know
Stomp, push, shove, mush, Fuck Bush, until they bring our troops home (c'mon)
What Morgen has created might be called a Rockumentary – a movie to rock your world and bring you into the experience of the 60's.
And so far it's working for it's target audience. After the movie and discussion, a 22 year old filmmaker came up to Morgen and said: "Listen, I have no idea who McCarthy or Phil Ochs are. Your movie fuckin' rocks, dude."
"I was born in 1968, so this was all totally new to me." Morgen said in an interview with Scene4. "I was totally drawn to Abbie and Jerry because I felt the Yippies were punk before there was punk. They drive the movie. They're the link between then and now. The Yippies brought theater and color into the movement and turned politics into a party. My movie's not just about them, it is them. I designed the movie to feel like a Yippie film."
The Yippies meant to shock and upset — to break Americans out of the lethargy that allowed our government to send 58,000 American kids to their death in a war that killed 5 million Vietnamese who never did anything to our country.
"What attracted me to the Yippies was not only their brash fearlessness in the face of oppressive authority, but also their humor and media savvy," Morgen continued.
"Let me give you an example. One day during the trial an undercover cop gives some very damaging false testimony– tries to paint nonviolent activists as violent revolutionaries. The defendants huddle with their worried attorney, Leonard Weinglass: 'this is going to be all over the news.'
Abbie responds: 'Want me to make it go away?'
When the trial resumes, Abbie does cartwheels across the courtroom as Marshals chase him around trying to maintain decorum.
That's the story that made the 6:00 news!"
Chicago 10 premiered January 18th at Robert Redford's Sundance Film Festival in Utah. "The film is very historically relevant." Redford said. "It shows what went wrong with the movement, as much as what went right, and that has great relevance today."
Nick Nolte, Hank Azaria, Mark Ruffalo, Roy Scheider, Liev Shreiber and other actors give voice to the courtroom drama drawn from the transcripts.
We had lunch with Morgen and his wife Debra Eisenstadt, who is the award-winning director of "Daydream Believer," She told us that when Brett makes a film he totally channels the character. "During the Kid Stays in the Picture, Brett became Robert Evans" she said, referring to the legendary Paramount producer. "His personality changed. And when he made Chicago 10 he grew out his hair and became Abbie."
"Was that hard to deal with," we asked her?
"No, it made life more interesting."
As he forked a bite of Thai chicken, Morgen suddenly transformed into the doddering old Judge Hoffman: "Please instruct your client to refrain from speaking… This loud laughter has got to cease." After our laughter died down Morgen explained that he acted out each character in the courtroom for the motion-capture that Curious Animation then used to create animation for the courtroom scenes.
"I had the freedom to control every gesture, every movement of the characters." Morgen continued, "I used animation because it allowed the film to feel more pop and kinetic, as well as serving as a comment on the trial itself. Jerry Rubin once referred to the trial as a cartoon show."
"Chicago 10 is narrative storytelling in documentary format," said Courtney Sexton of Participant Productions, Jeff Skoll's innovative company that produced the movie in partnership with River Road Entertainment. "Our company is built on films designed to inspire social action" including An Inconvenient Truth, Syriana, and Good Night And Good Luck.
While Morgen's approach has generally been hailed by reviewers, the movie is not without its detractors. Zoom In reviewer Annie Frisbie wrote: "By eschewing traditional documentary techniques like talking heads and text slates, Morgen denies himself his best tools for presenting necessary background information and nuance."
Diane Weyermann, an executive producer of the film, disagrees: "This film is a visceral experience; it was made to be seen in a theater with an audience to energize one another. It redefines what a documentary can be, which is why there is so much discussion not only about the film's conventions, but also, and more importantly the subject — which is especially relevant in our present times."
Instead of talking heads strung together by an omniscient narrator, Chicago 10 plays as a theatrical experience. This crossing of the line between documentary and fiction is one of the exciting trends happening in the documentary world today. We discussed this trend with Cara Mertes, who succeeded Weyermann as head of the Sundance documentary program when Weyermann moved on to become Executive Vice President of Documentary Production at Participant Productions.
"Chicago Ten is so ambitious in terms of the form and trying out new things, and completely audacious in terms of its vision," Mertes told us. "This is Brett's third film. You know, he doesn't have to take this kind of risk, he's had two very, very strong films, [ Kid Stays In The Picture, On The Ropes] and he throws it all up to the wind and tries to put this really big idea film together — really ambitious in a way that you just have to respect. It's a very emotional, very aggressive kind of filmmaking. The music, the soundtrack, has momentum from beginning to end. It's not a documentary, it's the next thing."
Everything about it stands your expectations on their heads. You just have to go along for the ride and see what happens. That's the invitation of the film, and I think the challenge to the audience. It challenges the older generation — those who were there or saw it happen on television — to rethink our expectations about how that story should be told. And it challenges the 20-year-olds can't believe that there were people like that, doing things like that in this country just a few years ago. I mean, when I first saw that film I thought, "Gosh, somebody that wasn't there and knows nothing about this, they're gonna think it's all made up." Mertes laughs, "They're really gonna think it's all made up."
Over the years Sundance has played a key role in advancement and evolution of documentary film. This year, three of the five documentary films nominated for an academy award– An Inconvenient Truth, Iraq in Fragments and My Country My Country – premiered at the Festival and/or were supported by the Sundance Documentary Fund.
The role of Sundance has not only been absolutely critical for filmmakers, but also for society as a whole.
In an era of corporate-controlled media called "fair and balanced" because every truth is balanced with a lie — then beamed out to confuse and anesthetize "consumers" dwelling in cookie-cutter towns of Big Macs and Walmarts — the Sundance Institute has been one of the most important channels for keeping alive the dream of America as a place where we celebrate our differences, our unique perspectives, and the importance of maintaining our freedoms by speaking out and challenging the powers that be.
At the same time as we see media consolidation at the top, we see a tremendous rise in media access at the bottom. Anyone can go out to that Walmart, buy a camera, learn to edit on the computer, and make their own movie – perhaps even one about munching on those Big Macs – as Morgan Spurlock did with Super Size Me which premiered at Sundance in 2004. Anyone can now post their video on YouTube, and speak their truth out to the world.
"Speaking Truth to Power" can be a daring and controversial task. For as David Korten, author of The Great Turning has pointed out, "the foundation of Empire's power does not lie in its instruments of physical violence. It lies in Empire's ability to control the stories by which we define ourselves and our possibilities."
"Where did the Roman empire exist? In the minds of Romans, as stories. When Rome died out in the minds of Romans, it died out". — Michael Patterson Storytelling: The Art Form Of Painting Pictures With Your Tongue
As artists, we have the power to influence culture and evoke social change.
With great power comes great responsibility. Do we, as filmmakers, have the courage to join with the Brett Morgens, dance with the Sundancers and participate with the Participants in daring to make media that has a voice? That shouts out our truths? That empowers each of us to break free and build a peaceful and sustainable planet?
Perhaps, as Marian Williamson wrote, in her book A Return to Love: "Our greatest fear is not that we are powerless, but that we are powerful beyond measure."
Arthur Kanegis is an award-winning screenwriter and film producer living in Baja.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives
His Company, One Films, also employs Rob Cochran, creative consultant, and Molly Post, general manager