Attica is a film that I saw when it first was released in 1973. At the time I was a gung-ho radical with shoulder-length hair. (I would post a picture to prove this, but then I would have to kill everyone who visits the blog.) Here it is thirty-four years later, and 36 since the massacre of inmates and hostages by NY State Troopers and local sheriffs at the state prison at Attica and I'm a gung-ho radical with a growing bald spot and a yarmulke. Plus ca change . . .
Joking aside, I was curious how the film would hold up, particularly since I didn't have a strong memory of it from my original viewing. But I do have strong, almost ferocious memories of my rage when the all-too-brief negotiations with the striking prisoners were cut off and the D Block prison yard was turned into a killing field. In recent years, I have re-viewed many films that I remembered fondly from my anti-Vietnam War activist days and, regrettably, most of them didn't look too good to my fifty-something self.
Happily, Cinda Firestone's Attica is an exception, perhaps because it is a piece of very good reportage as well as an act of advocacy. This is never more apparent than towards the end of the film when she shows headlines from the major NYC dailies, reporting that the coroner's autopsies of the victims revealed that every single hostages who died was shot by the state troopers and local police who were sent in to retake the prison, in direct contradiction to what had been said by state officials. What makes this detail important is that it comes immediately after several people (including the late Bill Kunstler unfortunately) attacked the mainstream media for failing to report the autopsy results.
Truthfully, it is painful to watch Attica and to be reminded that Nelson Rockefeller, the governor who was responsible for the lethal decision to attack despite signs of hope in the negotations, and Russell Oswald, Rocky's commissioner of corrections, were never brought to book for those deaths. The cops were firing dum-dum bullets -- illegal under the Geneva Convention and in many states at the time -- indiscriminately. In the aftermath, there were violent reprisals against the cons that the film documents amply. And the final irony is that the demands that were being made were mostly entirely reasonable ones involving better health care, food and educational programs.
Of course, the situation today is vastly worse. America has more men and women incarcerated than almost any nation on earth and, with the privatization of prisons, the profit motive guides correctional decisions more than ever. While I was watching Attica, the thought occurred to me that if I wanted to do something concrete about the problem, it was imperative that instead of another film link, what I need to place here is links to criminal justice and penology websites. So here are a couple that may inspire you to action:
Vera Institute of Justice
The Family and Corrections Network
Action for Prisoners' Families (UK)
CURE (Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants)
The Criminal Justice Policy Foundation
Don't just stand there. Do something, dammit.
Moving back to a more purely cinematic vein, we have Vivere, directed by Angelina Maccarone who is, contrary to her name and the film's title, German and not Italian. (Hey, who knew?) This is her fourth theatrical film, essentially the same story told from the points-of-view of three women grappling with love and alienation. Francesca is a taxi driver in her 20s who is holding her family -- Italian father deserted by German mother, snotty 17-year-old sister Antonietta -- by sheer will. When Antonietta splits with her rock musician boyfriend on Christmas Eve, Francesca reluctantly follows her to Rotterdam. On the way, she becomes burdened with Gerlinde, an older woman who has been the victim of a car crash -- we don't know at first whether it is an accident or a suicide attempt -- depressed because her long-time lover is breaking off the relationship, apparently to return to her husband. With each subsequent repetition of the story, we learn a bit more about the three women and how they have become intertwined with one another. And, for the first two-thirds of the film, this device works adequately. Unfortunately, when we presented at last with Antonietta's version of the story, the film falls apart; the final set of repetitions is just once too often for what turns out to be a rather slender set of events on which to hang a feature film, and Antonietta's understanding of those events is by far the least interesting of the three. More problematic, though, is that Maccarone seems to have no concept of pacing or rhythm and, by the time the film is an hour old, viewers will feel a lot older. Too bad, because she wastes nice performances by Hannelore Elsner as Gerlinde and Esther Zimmering as Francesca; the near-seduction scene between the two of them in a dingy hotel room near the harbor is by far the best moment in the film.
For more info on these and the other programs, go to the Tribeca Film Festival website.