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Underground

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This is the story of how a documentary director managed to make a movie about some of the country's most wanted fugitives. We didn't know where we were and son of the door and then they walked in all smiling. One after the other, you know is a very rare moment in the life of the film. I mean, it was much bigger moment than having Robert Redford Marlon Brando organized show. Well, from KCRW Matt Olson, and this is the document looking at the world through the lens of documentary films fashion is a big bubble. And sometimes I feel like popping it. I'm like, you're the unexpected. I don't mind the needle being drugged up. This kind of like a reverse of a Reich's the riches story. This is almost like a richest rags story. The document is KCRW's mash up of documentaries and radio. This week's episode is underground. Travis Wilkerson is an artist who makes hypnotic films that he hopes will change the world with his baritone voice and keen sense of Justice. He mesmerizes our subconscious in defending some of the dubious foundations on which our society is based his latest film is did you wonder who fired the gun? It's a brooding mystery that looks into our nation's racist past, but it's also deeply personal since the subject of that mystery of the dark secrets that swirl around his own great grandfather. Now, I'm excited to announce that Travis has produces I radio piece. It's about another political film that turned out to be personal the subject is immediate Tonio one thousand nine hundred seventy six documentary at a radical left-wing group also dedicated to changing the world though instead of using cinema. But Travis they used explosives here is Travis Wilkerson and underground. The story for me begins in twenty fifteen in a fancy condo. Overlooking the ocean in Pacific Palisades where I'm talking to Haskell Wexler. He's the legendary Hollywood cinematographer who was at that time ninety four years old. I'm interviewing him for a retrospective. In Europe that he's too feeble to attend. What slur is one of the most celebrated cinematographers in history, you may not know his name, but you know, his films like the conversation and one flew over the coups nest high water marks in the new American cinema of the nineteen seventies. I got canned from Kuku when pictures almost through and nobody can tell me why I can. But I did find out from people in the office that the FBI was up there ton. You about me Haskell Wexler believes he was fired from cuckoo's nest because of his work on a documentary with a meal dantonio about a group of wanted radical fugitives. Deehan Tonio was an important and deeply political filmmaker. But he'd never made a film quite like this one. But no one else had either. In the nineteen sixties the students for a democratic society where the new left's largest and most dynamic group. They were dedicated to fighting racism and the Vietnam war, but some in the movement preferred more militant action and his SDS fell into pieces. They formed the weather underground organization. The weather underground planned and executed a headline making bombing campaign so called armed propaganda targeting symbols of what they were fighting only underground radical left wing group. The weathermen has claimed responsible to taper yesterday's dynamiting of a statue of Chicago place, the group promises more attacks on the establishment around the entire country starting next week the medium for this message was a tape recording reputedly by the fugitive weatherman leader, Bernardine Dohrn sister think petty a year ago, we do away the Haymarket pick statute and to start at a youth ride in Chicago. The head of the police sergeant association called emotionally for all out war between the pigs and us we accepted. Last night. We destroyed the pig again this time it begins a fall offensive of youth resistance that was sped from Santa Barbara to Boston back to Kenton, Kansas. Now, you're everywhere and next week families and tribes will attack the enemy around the country. We're not just attacking targets will bring pitiful helpless, giant to it's knees. The bomb the New York City police headquarters, the Pentagon, the US capitol Lingle bomb set off by a timing device. Left them in groom Chambal, demolished Ripston plaster ripped from wall. They planned their operations carefully. Trying hard not to hurt anyone in the process. And in fact, the only time anyone died in their attacks. It was when they accidentally bumped themselves three members of the group were killed when the bombs they were learning to make unexpectedly went off in the Greenwich Village townhouse they were secretly hold up in as far as we can determine the file is caused by an explosion down in a cellar. The blow out the front inside walls collapsed three of the flaws, and it causes severe fire. Engage involve the hall building. But the end of nineteen seventy twenty two members of the weather underground were on the FBI's most wanted list and the FBI devoted serious resources. Taunting them down. Director Neil dantonio believed. He could do what the F B. I couldn't that. He could locate the weather underground. This is the story of how he found them and how he filmed them, and how that film would change both their organization and their lives. Because like bombs in a townhouse. Films are incredibly hard to control. We're five people from the weather underground organization. We're in house. Could call it a safe house where here with a group of filmmakers and together. We're going to make a film. We're under ground in this country. We've been underground for five years. Those of us here today are fugitives. We've been asked to come here by our organization to speak for the organization Deon. Tokyo's movie begins with an image in a mirror of Haskell Wexler behind the camera. My name is Jeff Jones. And around the table is Kathy. Dean, Cathy, Wilkerson, Bernardine Dohrn. And Billy airs then pans to a gauzy nearly indecipherable image. You could say that this screen that's between us as a result of the war. In Vietnam are the result of racism in society? In cinema history. The film is utterly unique. It stars wanted fugitives being actively hunted down. Jeff Jones was the film's main organizer within the weather underground. More than forty years later. I'm on my way to meet him in Albany, New York to talk about the making of the film. The day of our meeting. He texts me address. My phone leads me to an empty field. I call him and without so much as the pause. He tells me to meet him in a Starbucks not far from the empty field in Starbucks. We sit in chat blandly for five or ten minutes before he abruptly suggests I follow him in his car to his office near downtown. For almost forty years. Now, Jeff Jones has lived above ground. He has an ordinary job a wife and kids. But as I'm following his silver Honda it suddenly occurs to me that he acts very much as if he still living underground. When I finally sit down with him in his freezing sprawling, but largely empty office steps from the New York state capital. He's both what I expect and not he's in his late sixties by now, he isn't a revolutionary anymore. But he's still a highly political person since coming above ground in the nineteen eighties. He's worked as a lobbyist for environmental organizations. But there's something in the manner. He carries himself that belies a common lobbyist. He's unequivocally been through something he moves with a certain apprehension, even though he's talking about events that happened nearly half a century earlier. He still ways his words, very carefully. So the discussion was going on in the underground. Are we moving toward an end of the underground phase? These are we going to dig in deeper because there's all the issues related to black liberation and racism for the most part still unresolved versus with the war ending would would there would it be smarter for us to those those who could to come from the underground be public and participate in the in the public movement back above ground. And I thought about it for a long time and knowing people. Home. I suspected know them. I just sort of let it float out that wouldn't it be interesting to make a film underground, the film's director Emile de Antonio. And the word floated back to me that it might be interesting. Would I write a letter explaining when I had in mind? And one bleary eyed hung over morning, I got up and type five single space pages. This is what Diene Tonio wrote in his letter to the weather underground. A well-made film about you would amplify your message and drown out. President Ford's shrill voice. Fuck the people. Fuck the environment. Fuck everybody. Your bombings, which never heard anybody, but yourself or a master stroke of political theater. They not only revealed the police state, but that it's possible to beat it. The letter was coherent enough to them that they reproduced and Senate around to the various collectives and a ROY arrived at collective decision that the film's should be mad. And then began a series of meetings between them in may. In different parts of the United States. Under the most efficient. Methods of of counter surveillance activity. I mean, you have seen newly weren't being followed. And nothing was ever going to be tip. We had set this whole system up. He wanted to make sure that that D has everyone called him was not being followed. And so my partner Eleanor Stein. And I were the ones who went to meet with him. And we had set a message that he should go to a certain place in sheep's head bay Brooklyn and walk across a certain bridge which allowed us to be often the distance but watching him to see what was see whether anyone was following him or get the lay of the land. And then there was there was a phone booth. I don't remember exactly where but just like in the movies told him to go to the phone booth and he went to the phone booth. And he soon as he got there. I called him and said meet us in London's the seafood restaurant. And there we went we went to London, and we had we had lunch. And and that's where we started the discussion about what the terms would be. I I've always me very cranky person in that I want to control the films. I that's why I'll never show a film that I worked on until it's finished. I don't want any distributor NBA putting his paws over those phones. So in this case, I'd be had to begin by seating kind of censorship. Dino, the essence of the terms were we understood he wasn't going to make a propaganda film for us. But the main thing we were concerned about was we didn't wanna put pictures of ourselves out there in such a way that it would help the FBI or anyone else who might be looking for us. It wasn't our intention ever to provide sharp clear images of these five people. So that the F B I could plans to them over the United States and at the same time. We did not want to present hostile images, MS very simple. A stock and cap over somebody's face. But then you make that person look at this just held up your friendly and pay instead of being serious underground revolutionary. I mean, the point of all film finally is in some way to reveal character and emotion through through the face and the point of this film was everywhere to prevent that revelation from occurring. So that in a sense, it becomes almost alma daddy film. The filmmakers used a host of creative devices to obscure the faces of the underground the gauzy curtain at the beginning of the film shooting their subjects from behind shooting only their hands. Sometimes they remain altogether in the dark what we told the we will do it. We didn't want too much time to pass for people have second thoughts or start talking to the wrong people or something like that. And so we all had to get ourselves gathered in Los Angeles and set up a place to do it. And we found a little rental and set up shop there and couple people would start to live there. And then we slowly brought in supplies, and and that, and that's where we that's where we spent the three days where we did the shooting. They took us to that safe house in an extremely circuitous, man. I was the pickup person we had a rental car. Picked him up gave them big sunglasses that where the where the the the lenses had been painted out and ask them not to put too much effort into trying to see where we were going. And then I had people following us making sure that we were not being followed. And we went to this house and drop them off through a back alleyway, and they were in the house, and then car was gone, and we were in and that was it. We locked down for several days. We didn't know where we were and suddenly the door opened and they walked in all smiling. One after the other. You know is very rare moment in the life of the filmmaker. I mean, it was a much bigger than having Robert Redford, and Marlon Brando and I show him. The leadership of the weather underground introduced themselves to a meal dantonio Haskell Wexler and editor Mary Lampson. Everyone was business like and quickly returned to setting up their equipment. But this was no normal move. He said, no one could go in or out of the building. The stars of the film were among the most wanted people in the country. Everyone knew the police might kick down the door at any moment. And the film makers didn't even know where they were much less. What kind of weapons the underground might happen to them? They didn't appear scared. Maybe they were more frightened than we were at that particular moment because we were in control of the situation, and it was not completely foreign territory to us. Haskell Wexler must have been scared because the only question he asks the entire film. His one about fear. I would like to know. I'd like to know if people if people go round and afraid that some copper ceann PIN or some CIA man is going to it's going to grab my if you walk around with that fear fear. Yes. Every time I think for all of us. I know for me every time I see I have this. Rush of adrenaline. That's an interesting way to live nervous. Every day you wake up in the morning. And I wonder how many times I'm going to be nervous today. This was about as much insight into the personal lives of these people that they were willing to share. And so the filmmakers all wondered how could they make a compelling movie out of characters who not only wouldn't show their faces. But who wouldn't even talk about themselves at all characters who were only interested in revolutionary rhetoric and ideology, he was intrigued by the idea that a bunch of essentially middle class white kids would be taking this particular path of this particular point in history. And he wanted to find out why wherever we coming from. So really, I think from the perspective of film making it was a challenge to them. And of course, the dynamic of the film is this struggle with D over how much of our who. We are we going to actually reveal in the film. What is the best way for us to make a film that moves other people? It moves many people feel that they can make revolution in this country. Where on how you got you a woman of a certain age in the United States under these conditions under these events, you reacted in this way. You had these fears. You had these strength to these ideas. And so you've come to this place in in American society, which I think is a very good place to be in American society today, and how did you get then you can't say miss ax born of middle class parents in New York, it starts with the hell cares about msac to me. That's the essence of the film is the friction with the Antonio about. Are we going to reveal not what we looked like? But who we were as individuals that led us to this particular point? In time our attitude was we as individuals are not important. What's important is the ideology? And and it doesn't matter who we are. What matters is what we think. Now that drove the Antonio crazy, perhaps the reason that the refusal to share personal details. Drove Diene Tonio crazy was that he sends his film stars actually had deeply personal reasons for making. The film. They simply hadn't revealed them yet. This is the document from KCRW. You're listening to filmmaker. Travis Wilkerson and his story about a meal. The Tonio nineteen seventy six documentary underground will be back with more in a minute. On the newest episode of knocked turn. It wasn't just exhaustion. It was like I couldn't think stray. I couldn't remember words. I couldn't remember where I was and drive not know how I got to a certain place or I would just kind of zone out and send the arrive location that I never intended to be. But we really didn't know anything was wrong with me until I was twenty five years old fine Nocturne or every listen to podcasts. I'm at Holzmann, and this is the document in the mid seventies political filmmaker Emile de in Tonio managed, an incredible feat. He tracked down men and women at the top of the FBI's most wanted list, and he made a movie about them he and his crew filmed for three days in what was to them. An undisclosed location today story is told by Travis Wilkerson who makes deeply political documentaries of his own. Here's part two of underground. Filmmakers Emile de Antonio Haskell Wexler, and Mary Lampson had already accomplished something extraordinary. They had located the leadership of the weather underground when even the F B, I couldn't find them and they'd convince them to appear on camera while still living underground. What the hell is essentially a white middle class revolutionary group doing an American the year nineteen seventy five was the two things involved. One is classical origin one his class stand. The class origin of many of us is intellectual. And that means that we have a lot of barriers to overcome in terms of developing full revolutionary consciousness. That's true of anyone who wants to become a revolutionary in any country at anytime, the filmmakers had somehow managed to get in and out of the safe house where the filming took place without being followed or seeing. The most dangerous part of the project. It would seem was over. But the weather underground insisted on something that even DeAnne Tony producers couldn't get from him final cut. And that very demand nearly got them caught. This is Jeff Jones a member of the underground who was their main point of contact on the film. They had agreed that. We would be able to look at the film, and and and get rid of the parts that we felt showed too much of us. Did you catch my face to are you? Sure Haskell Wexler lived in Los Angeles. And so he was the crew member tasked with showing them the material filmed in the safe house and destroying images. They thought might be dangerous to them. He picked us up in his car likes some days after all of this week climbed into the back seat. He put a rug over us, and we drove into his driveway up in the Hollywood hills are wherever the house was and then went into his, Dan and for an entire night state of watching all the rushes of the film and cutting out the pieces that we thought showed too much and throwing them in his fireplace. Was only later that we found out that the FBI had actually found out that this was what we were up to because we didn't realize that this was where the big flaw in the plan was but. The sound was processed at a sound studio somewhere in southern California. And. The people who are involved. I don't fully understand how this happened. But the some of the people realize what this was and the FBI had been alerted. So it's our belief that the FBI was actually watching Haskell's house, which is just another story about how the FBI apparently couldn't catch us took them. Another took them another six years to catch up with me Elinor. This is Haskell Wexler fifty years later to for the next weeks. I was found by a helicopter by two guys. In different cars are nowhere. Right. Went then came to the subpoena. From the New York Times June twenty second nineteen seventy five Hollywood was severely jolted three weeks ago when stories in several west coast newspapers linked movie figures with an Torius weather underground. Prominent documentary filmmaker Emile dantonio film, editor Mary Lampson at Academy Award winning cameraman director Haskell Wexler were subpoenaed to appear before a Los Angeles grand jury along with film and tapes pertaining to a documentary while the government made a tremendous mistake. It sense of timing is a and the government served us the subpoenas at such an early stage in the making the film in other words, immediately after the shooting of it and it introduced a whole series of constitutional notions. Which wipe the government's case out a concept of prior restraint. Which is the most blatant form of censorship. That is stepping in and interfering with the completion of a work particularly worth in its in its its isn't its earliest stages. Let's just acknowledge the fact that the film probably would not have gotten a lot of attention. If it wasn't for the F B I trying to force the filmmakers to hand over the film. So that they could look for pictures of us Diene Tonio and Wexler, hold a news conference where they announced the petition to support their right to make a film about any subject to choosing including a film about the weather underground. Among the thirty two. Signatories are Warren Beatty. Mel Brooks Sally field, Jack Nicholson, Terrence Malick or through Penn and Peter Bogdanovich. The kinds of people dantonio would have privately called coke snorting Beverly Hills. Snob marxists. The support of the Hollywood community. I think is one of the most extraordinary things it's probably ever happened because Hollywood has been extraordinarily pusillanimous. And these matters in the past going all the way back to the Hollywood ten we really had enormous support from this community, trim tremendous number of people, and we were blessed with hard tough lawyers who knew the score, and it would be up against the government faces summer. So the government withdrew its opinions. And thereby I think. Achieving an enormous amount of free, publicity, all of a sudden, they were able to market it as as the film, the FBI didn't want you to see, but even all the free publicity wasn't enough to bring audiences into the theaters to see underground because despite the cloak and dagger backstory and the filmmakers best efforts the film, never found an audience faceless radicals, political jargon Castro and now with the sixties quickly disappearing into the rear view mirror. It was a difficult sell. But the film still had an enormous impact on the weather underground itself. It started at the very first screening for members of the organization organized clandestinely, just like the shoot. We've probably had about fifteen or twenty people gathered in house to look at it. And I would say about half the people there who are all part of the organization really didn't like it at all. Even hated it. It did become very tense very quickly. And that was the beginning of a just another step in a process that that is a whole other story about how the organization basically came apart in nineteen seventy five seventy six because the film represented a move away from being an underground armed organization. But the desire to return to their roots above ground wasn't just political for members of the weather underground all of them had abruptly left behind lives, friends and family and fifty years later. Jeff Jones was finally ready to tell me his very personal reasons that he wouldn't reveal to a meal Antonio's camera. I asked her a personal favor from DeAnne Tonio, which was would he showed the film, or at least a a near final cut of it to my father? I had not had contact with him for five years. We were very close. But he was very political person in his way, he was a pacifist and a Quaker. And the violence aspect was what I was doing was very painful to him. So I asked d to show him film, and he set up a screening for my father. And I said a couple of things in the film, which clearly whether I meant them to be or not directed at him one was about why I had given up on pacifism, which is the way I was raised as a as a as a as a way of life as a religious belief in as tactic when you're putting forward the idea of revolution. You have a responsibility to build in from the very beginning. The realization that no revolution can take place. Successfully without an armed confrontation with the with the statement. And I took it. I took it one step too far. And and I feel that pacifism and nonviolence becomes an excuse for not struggling for not fulfilling what I feel is a human obligation in this world to to bring about revolutionary change into destroy the imperialist system. And I deeply regret saying that because some of the most militant people I have ever met and still work with today are fearless. Pacifists? I was using. I personally did use the film to communicate to a community of people that I had grown up with and my family Jones wasn't just using the film to tell a father. He hadn't seen in years that he was alive. And well, he was also using the film to renew a debate at the center of both of their lives. A debate about the use of violence to change. From the paranoid claustrophobia of the safehouse. Jones was continuing the central animating debate of their entire relationship. And this is how the most political of all films. Suddenly also becomes the most personal because perhaps even more remarkably his father found his sons message convincing. More than half a decade later after Jones had returned to his life above ground. His father would publicly use those very same arguments to defend his son and his actions. Never forget this Quaker community that reunion that I went to because that's where I grew up in a in a Quaker community, and it was like, I don't know it was sometime in early eighties and every single person showed up. So there were like fifty or sixty Quakers in their room and Eleanor. I've always described it as our Quaker trial, but my father at that point in time was defending us by then he is was defend he was using Vietnam analogy, and the analogy was he said as far as he was concerned we were on point for the resistance to the war and racism in this country in military jargon to take point means to be out front of your unit to lead it through hostile territory. It's one of the most exposed and dangerous positions a soldier can take. So that's how he understood when it was all over what we had been doing. So what can movies do? Can they change the world? I'm movie can get you fired. Even when you're working on it. Can stand the test of time. Movie can try to promote an organization. Instead, destroying it. A movie can help reconcile an estranged father and son. Of course, movies changed the world. Which means they change people to. Because movies are powerful. But they're incredibly difficult to control. Disappointed by the meagre audience for underground Emile the Tonio only made two more films before he died in nineteen Eighty-nine Haskell Wexler when his second Oscar the year after making underground, and what about the members of the organization that appeared in the film by the late nineteen eighties. They'd all come above ground and most of them spend time behind bars and two thousand three Kathy Boudin was the last paroled. They all continue to be activists and many of them went on to teach at major universities. And that's the document for this week. We have a link to underground and the amazing films of Travis Wilkerson on our website at KCRW dot com slash the document. If you want to communicate with us, and I hope that you will send us an Email app. The documents at KCRW dot ORG or get social at documents KCRW on Facebook or Twitter. I'm at Holzmann and Travis Wilkerson. And I produced today's show with Sarah pelagreeny, Mike Schlitt and Ray Qurna just Kong is our intern thanks to Katie skip and the international documentary association for their assistance and to the Pacific archives. For interview tape of the Tonio, the document is a production of KCRW.

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