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Building The 'Issue' Documentary: On Surveillance And South Africa

Albie Sachs is the subject of the documentary <em>Soft Vengeance</em>, which played at the AFI DOCS festival this weekend.
Albie Sachs is the subject of the documentary Soft Vengeance, which played at the AFI DOCS festival this weekend.

What used to be Silverdocs, the week-long documentary festival in downtown Silver Spring, Md., is now AFI DOCS, a four-day festival split between Silver Spring and a variety of D.C. venues. There's a fuller explanation of the festival's change and history in a piece Andrew Lapin recently wrote for the Washington City Paper, but one of the more prominent alterations is the strong shift toward "message" — the idea that the purpose of documentary film is to "inspire change." It makes sense, practically speaking: the D.C. location brings a policy-hungry audience with a deep investment in current events.

But as you learn again and again when you watch politically charged films, there is a difference between an audience that goes to have its mind opened or changed on the one hand, and one that goes to be assured of the correctness of its existing opinions and the righteousness of its well-formed outrage on the other. It's one of the underlying tensions of making agenda-driven documentaries: there is a fine line between a useful spotlight on a neglected or misunderstood social problem or piece of history and a "comforting the comfortable" restatement of what the documentary's intended audience, and perhaps its creator, already believes.

The surveillance-themed film 1971, from filmmaker Johanna Hamilton, lavishly advertises its connections to high-profile stories of the moment: it declares that "before Watergate, Wikileaks and Edward Snowden, there was Media, Pennsylvania."

It tells the story of a straightforward break-in at an FBI field office in Media that led to the release of documents detailing the FBI's surveillance of, and attempts to disrupt, the anti-war movement as well as other activist groups. Particularly because the burglars were never caught and only came forward in the last year or so, there's certainly a story in how the break-in happened and how it affected later history, including Congressional hearings that, at least temporarily, caused huge consternation about surveillance. (It's a surprisingly little-known tale in the details; this happened very, very near where I grew up, and I didn't ever remember hearing about it — neither did a friend who grew up in Media itself.) Unfortunately, what actually emerges in the film is less interesting than it might have been because the film is so fixated on stressing the break-in as an example of uncomplicated heroism.

There are essentially two stages to 1971: the break-in and the fallout. In the first section, the participants explain how they determined that the Media FBI office had minimal security, they practiced lock-picking, they went in at night, and they stole all the files.

Here's the thing: a well-executed break-in at a minimally guarded facility that goes largely as planned is a less exciting story than you might think, as is the fact that they were never caught for the simple reason that they kept their mouths shut about having done it. That has nothing to do with how risky or brave or valorous you find the action to be; it's simply a reflection of the fact that things were planned and executed without the kinds of surprising details that make a good yarn. In a way, the better at breaking into offices you are and the more smoothly you execute, the less you have to say. That's not a problem when what you're doing is journalism, but it is a problem when what you're doing is filmmaking. The need to goose the excitement might account for the film's heavy reliance on cheesy reenactments that look much like what you might see on true-crime cable television, a choice that's both distracting and, as it always is in documentaries, a little concerning.

The back half of 1971, which follows the fallout and the hearings that resulted, suffers from a different problem: this part is well-covered territory. That has nothing to do with whether or not you find it appalling, of course, but the entire reason this break-in was important in Hamilton's telling is that because of it, all this surveillance became common knowledge. There are undoubtedly people who are unfamiliar with the history of FBI surveillance of political dissenters in the '60s and early '70s, but the film doesn't feel aimed at them.

Instead, it feels aimed at those who already believe everything it is telling them: that these people are heroes, that what they uncovered was terrible and significant, and that massive government surveillance continues to be a huge and dangerous problem. If you do believe that, though, you may find its tone glib and simplistic, meant to inspire knowing chortles rather than change.

Every time 1971 sneaks up on something genuinely complex, it retreats. The issue, for instance, of a married couple with three children deciding to commit a crime that could land them in jail is a tricky one: how much of your children's immediate well-being do you choose to place at risk for the greater good? Might you decide that one of you would participate and one would stay behind? But, as if afraid of clouding the purity of the couple's good deeds, the film only tiptoes up to that question and then quickly runs away from it with little more than a simple "you gotta do what you gotta do" shrug. It seems certain that the calculus was more complex than that, but if it was, it doesn't come across in the film.

Similarly, the fact that the burglars weren't caught meant, according to the film's telling of the story, that the FBI incompetently descended on suburban Philadelphia, harassing and accusing a wide variety of people as they searched for the perpetrators. Rather than treating this as the vexing, profoundly complicated issue it is – the possibility that innocent people could be punished for something you made the decision to do, the prospect of your community bearing the burden of your choices, even if you are convinced they're righteous choices – the film plays this stretch largely for comedy. It's a Keystone Kops-y sequence in which the FBI makes its hapless efforts to crack down as our heroes go about their business.

When one of the participants in the burglary (which they consistently call "the action") talks about how amusing he found all the flailing and false accusations against other known activists, there is a gaping hole where it feels like some caveat should be, some recognition that there might have come a point where it was necessary to come forward, or at least there were real consequences for those people and their families who were falsely accused. That might well be an acceptable price to pay — and the other activists in the area might well have thought so, too — but it doesn't seem funny, exactly. There is something about 1971 that ultimately feels angry but not serious, far too ready to encourage the audience to depart from the issue at hand to have a laugh at an unflattering photo of J. Edgar Hoover.

Candidly, the chuckling of a comfortable, largely affluent audience at a screening of a film like this can feel unpleasantly smug. The man behind me seemed insistent upon being noticed by everyone as he expressed how knowing, how cynical, how worldly he was for finding everything the FBI did so hilarious. He would say, undoubtedly, that he found it grotesque and terrible and sobering, but his laughter and snorting and sighing felt ... performative. We are gathered here today because: the FBI, right? Those guys are the worst. That may be inspiring catharsis or bonding over shared contempt for Hoover, but it is not inspiring, exactly, change.

It's particularly unflattering to compare a film like 1971 to the stunning documentary Soft Vengeance: Albie Sachs And The New South Africa. Sachs is a white South African who lost an arm and an eye in a car bomb that was planted by a member of the South African secret police who – having received amnesty from the Truth And Reconciliation Commission after confessing – appears in the film to talk about what he did. Sachs, now 79, is a fascinating individual with a life full of hard choices: he was an attorney who became known as an anti-apartheid activist, spent months in solitary confinement, was nearly killed while in exile in Mozambique, helped draft the new South African constitution, became a judge on the country's first Constitutional Court, and in 2005 authored the court decision legalizing same-sex marriage in South Africa.

Soft Vengeance, while made by director Abby Ginzberg from a position of unapologetic admiration of everything Sachs accomplished – he is praised by anti-apartheid figures going right up to Archbishop Desmond Tutu – is more interested in using his story to get at some of the complexities of the movement in which he participated. Like many really good biographical films, it is as much about human behavior as it is about history. You watch Sachs in this film not only to learn about South Africa, but to hear him talk about the profound experience of meeting and trying to forgive Henri, the man who orchestrated the attack in which he lost his arm.

It's an "issue film" not simply because it deals with the heavy matter of apartheid, but because it explores elemental and broadly applicable questions about cooperation, forgiveness, and yes, political organizing. For instance, there comes a moment, when the negotiations for the new government are underway, when a hugely popular activist is assassinated. Everyone immediately understands what an existential threat this represents to everything he was trying to achieve, because the threat to the movement is not just political difference, but the anger that follows from the infliction of pain.

After the screening of Soft Vengeance, there was a Q&A with both the filmmaker and the South African ambassador – a black South African who, like Sachs, spent time in prison before the formation of the new government. In fact, he was in prison at the time the bomb nearly killed Sachs. He spoke about how important he believed the story of Sachs was as, in his words, "an inoculation against becoming a racist." He talked about how easy, and how understandable, it would have been to emerge from apartheid hating white people, but he said the existence of white activists who made such sacrifices helped him remain committed to everyone's humanity. That kind of flash of insight is what makes "issue" documentaries so rewarding to watch, not the chuckling sense that we all share the same contempt for the same historical figures.

There is a certain sense in which political documentaries often feel either closed or open: they are for true believers to share, or they are for everybody to experience. There can be, absolutely, a useful role for a closed documentary as a rallying cry, a holler of encouragement, a stoker of passions that functions as in-group encouragement. There is a place and a function for pure anger; Sachs would undoubtedly be the very first person to say so.

But there's also a risk that feeling that anger, sharing that righteous chuckling with the crowd, will take the place of doing anything. (The title Soft Vengeance refers to Sachs' desire that the attack on him be "avenged" only through a deepened commitment to a successful and peaceful movement toward a constitutional democracy.) And there's a different and perhaps rarer grace, I think, in the more open documentary that runs on an engine of curiosity and questioning. The underlying issue is not, as it were, the issue: you could make a 1971-toned documentary about Sachs or a Soft Vengeance-toned documentary about the break-in in Media. It's just that even if you posit that a cause is worthy, not every way of bringing it to light is equal.

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Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.
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