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Film

Can't jail a revolution

Brett Morgen talks about introducing Abbie Hoffman, Yippies and political theater to a younger generation

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Published 4/23/2008

Can a movie change the world? Probably not. But it can inspire conversation, which is exactly what former eBay president Jeff Skoal hoped to do by forming socially minded Participant Films. Since 2004, the studio has produced an impressive roster of documentary and mainstream movies with a decidedly political or social agenda. From An Inconvenient Truth to Syriana to Charlie Wilson's War, the studio aims to tell entertaining stories about real issues while rousing audiences to get involved.

Which dovetailed perfectly with documentarian Brett Morgen's mission to use the violent anti-war protests of the 1968 Democratic Convention and the ensuing Chicago Seven trial as an inspiration for political activism today. The confrontation between smart-ass lefties (led by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin) and overreaching prosecutors before a draconian judge made for an absurd carnival of twisted justice. Unfortunately, the public, weary from mounting war casualties and an in-your-face counterculture, was not amused.

Morgen's entertaining and colorful doc, dubbed Chicago 10 because the government similarly scapegoated Black Panther leader Bobby Seale and the protesters' two defense lawyers, presents this watershed event as a metaphor for all politics as theater. In a country and era when political activism is mostly eschewed by the public and ignored by the media, Morgen hopes his film will inspire a younger, politically awakening generation to take their complaints to the street and make some noise.

Chatting with him over the phone, the talented filmmaker seems heartened by reactions to the film, but flummoxed as to how it can reach the generation he hopes to encourage.

Metro Times: So, how do you get a generation more attuned to the Web than art-house cinema to care about a trial of war protesters from 40 years ago?

Brett Morgen: I wish I could answer that question. We were the opening film at Sundance last year, and when the head of the festival called to invite me, he said 95 percent of the movies they screen preach to the choir. But he then said, "What I love about Chicago 10 is that it's made for an audience that would otherwise have no interest in the subject matter." The challenge, of course, is how do you get that audience to see the film? I think this story and these images should be presented to audiences each generation. This is a moment that shouldn't be forgotten and, unfortunately, 40 years ago is ancient history to somebody who's 39 years old.

MT: The Vietnam era was filled with so much political upheaval and so many historic moments, what makes this trial stand out?

Morgen: The immediacy of it, the sense of theatrics. The 1960s were a decade filled with watershed moments, and this particular moment was probably the spectacle in a decade of spectacles. It was perfectly tailored to be made into a movie. In almost every clip of Abbie — and I wanted to put one in the film but couldn't figure out where — he would say somewhere, "Man, I can't wait to see this movie. It's gonna be a hell of a movie." Even the riots in Chicago were almost conceived as political theater.

I didn't want to make a film that trivialized history by regurgitating every event up until 1968. I wanted to make a very specific film, about the protesters that showed up in Chicago to protest the Vietnam War. It was more of a Howard Zinn approach. The trail transcripts alone were 23,000 pages long. My first script was over 400 pages long and I only managed to squeeze about 35 pages into the film.

MT: The thing that stands out for me was how much this event was driven by personality as much as politics. There was a real rock-concert aura to the thing. These guys were showmen. Is there anyone or anything like that today?

Morgen: Not that I've seen. But I think the line that drives the film home is when Abbie's walking with the reporter from ABC and he says, "It's all theater, man. Everyone's going to play their part. If the cops want to come in and beat us over the head, great. If we throw rocks at them, great. It's all political theater." And I think that idea not only played itself out on the streets of Chicago but in that courtroom, where you couldn't have cast a better character than Judge Hoffman or a group of defendants better than these seven guys. Everybody across the board from the smallest key players, like David Stahl, the deputy mayor, to the central characters, it's almost like they're ripped from the pages of Shakespeare. Everything feels so epic.

And then on top of all this personality and eloquent rhetoric, you're also dealing with this sea of imagery that's as violently kinetic as The Wild Bunch. It's an unbelievable canvas to operate from, especially because of how pertinent it all is since we're at war and the audience can draw parallels between 1968 and today.

MT: So why are there no more Abbie Hoffmans? Why aren't there these kinds of protests anymore? Is the draft the only difference?

Morgen: I think we do have Abbie Hoffmans. I think they're called Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert and Michael Moore. We have many people who have made careers out of fusing comedy and politics, which is what I think Abbie Hoffman did so successfully.

MT: Is that the ultimate accomplishment of the Yippies: To make poking fun at the powers-that-be acceptable?

Morgen: No, their ultimate accomplishment was making sure Dick Nixon got elected. I don't think anything could have had as much of an impact as that. But, yeah, the Yippies brought a sense of fun and theater to the anti-war movement. If you're not familiar with the Yippies, you're probably going to have one of two reactions: You're either going to think they're obnoxious or you're going to be totally inspired.

There was a moment in Sundance where I was asked to attend an anti-war rally, and I'm sitting there with about 40 other filmmakers and the crowd is chanting, "Stop the War. Stop the War," and I turned to the organizer and said, the next time you do this get a kegger and a band because this is really burnt.

MT: Do you think protests today have lost that sense of theatricality because all that political humor is already in the mainstream media?

Morgen: I don't know. I wouldn't be surprised if Denver and Minneapolis turn into big raves this year. I think it's going to be really exciting to see what happens. ... Assuming you have Obama as the candidate, you have someone who inspires kids like nobody since John Kennedy. Plus you have people out there to protest the war. That fusion could create something that would have made the Yippies very happy without the violence.

MT: What do you think of the way the media covers protests then versus now?

Morgen: Do they cover it now? Do they show coffins coming home from Iraq? Listen, the media has been complicit in this war from Day 1. One of my favorite moments in the movie — which reminded me of Colin Powell's testimony to the United Nations — is when Allen Ginsberg's talking about a conversation with Abbie Hoffman and he says: "We were talking about how politics is theater and magic; it's the manipulation through media of the public to believe in a war that doesn't really exist."

They [the mainstream media] agreed not to show the coffins, though I don't know who they made that agreement with. And they rarely if ever show any of the anti-war protests, protests that have attracted hundreds of thousands of people. And even those protests were locked down. When you look at the Republican convention in 2004 it's clear that whoever was organizing it studied Chicago and figured out what not to do and what to do. I mean, one of the things they did in Chicago was arrest people, then put them back on the street two hours later. In New York, they had people locked up for three days. Power to the people.

Morgen's next projects include a multimedia documentary about the life of Kurt Cobain and a narrative screenplay about Iran-Contra. Nimrod Nation, a TV series he created for the Sundance Channel, set in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, recently won a Peabody Award.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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