Author Topic: "American Anarchist" (2016) - A failed documentary, or a great one?  (Read 751 times)

Retinend

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As much as the next guy, I love a good documentary, and I have a special interest in the topic of political extremism, and so I was excited to find a recent documentary on this topic, and centered on a very interesting man.

You know "The Anarchist Cookbook"?

Quote
The Anarchist Cookbook, first published in 1971,[1] is a book that contains instructions for the manufacture of explosives, rudimentary telecommunications phreaking devices, and related weapons, as well as instructions for home manufacturing of illicit drugs, including LSD. It was written by William Powell at the apex of the counterculture era to protest against United States involvement in the Vietnam War.[2] Powell converted to Anglicanism in 1976, and later attempted to have the book removed from circulation, but the copyright belonged to the publisher who continued circulation until the company was acquired in 1991. Its legality has been questioned in several jurisdictions. (wikipedia)

This documentary takes us on a visit to talk to the current-day William Powell (aged 65) in his home in France. Far from the scrawny, radical 19-year-old who wrote the book, he has become a well-fed bourgeois, so to speak.

He left his native USA shortly after the publication of the book and never looked back. Anarchism was a passing phase for him and he now lives a conventional life.  He has since gotten married (twice), had two children, and has had a long and successful career as an educator - once a schoolteacher but now running seminars on inclusivity in the classroom. Apparently very lucratively. He is hard-working and career-oriented, and he prides himself on this identity.  As for the Cookbook, he finds the sort of thinking represented by it to be distasteful. In massive contrast to the bloodthirsty author of that book, the way the he talks in front of the cameras is always in "seminar" style: jovial and warmhearted, yet always very careful not to let any insecurities or emotion slip through the mask of "the educator".

This was an uncomfortable film to watch. As it unfolded, I began to realize that everything that Powell was saying was contrary to what the filmmaker was intending for him to illustrate.

The film begins with a summary of the violent content of the book: Powell makes the claim that it never exhorted people to take any action: the director, Charlie, (humiliatingly) makes him read specific passages which do exactly that. After that, Charlie wants Powell to talk about where his head was at when he wrote the book: in response, Powell tells a rambling anecdote involving fond memories of working in a left wing book shop and seeing the police attack anti-war demonstrators (regressing to his angry 19-year-old memories, but still not quite letting the mask slip at any time). Charlie begins to push him more and more on the theme he is circling around: are you responsible? Do you feel responsible?

But when he has no answer, Powell simply gives a seminar-like, round-about none-answer and stares into the air, before bog-eying Charlie as if to say "what do you want me to say about it?" Normally you never see these sorts of none-answers in a doco - they get edited out and worked-around in some way. I started to get the impression that this film was going off the rails.

So I sort of had two films in my head, that I was watching: the first was a failure, and the other was a true "fly on the wall" experience.

The failed film would have been a film about 60s counter-culture, New-Left radicalism, and generally the sort of generational conflict that birthed such an iconic book as the Anarchist Cookbook.

What's more, it would have been filled with profound lines (from the author of the legendary Anarchist Cookbook, no less) all about regret, growing older and wiser, the errors of one's ways and so on... At times it is comical just how uncooperative Powell is - and not because he is obstinate - but because he has blocked the subject out from his mind for so long. He just hasn't thought about the Anarchist Cookbook very much in the intervening 4 decades. He is a brick wall, as far as emotion, revelation or wise sound-bites are concerned.

But the film I actually got instead was valuable in its own right. Instead of an eloquent and wise subject, the director is faced with a man who had run away from his youthful politics instinctually, without really analyzing what it had all meant.

He is willfully ignorant about the extent of the destruction the book has been linked to (all sorts of terrorism: left wing, right wing, religious extremism). What's more, when confronted with his hypocrisies (e.g. accepting royalties to the tune of 50,000 USD over the decades), he starts to give increasingly empty, politician-style answers to his questions. The film begins to focus more and more - in a sort of frustration - on these blind spots and evasions. It culminates in a tense scene in the family home kitchen in which the aging couple are at their wit's end with the repetitive line of questions ("but do you feel sorry for it?") and seem just about ready to break of the filming process entirely.

...but in the end this is just as gripping - in fact more gripping - than the original, more factual, film would have been. Since all of the conventions of the film are breaking down, all there is left is the situation of the filmmaker dealing with a subject that - old as he is - is still clueless about the meaning of his notoriety: frankly, he has spent decades regarding himself as the victim of something he wishes everyone would forget. And, terrorism/the counter-culture/freedom of speech etc. all aside, what is more human than the fear that our worst mistakes will be remembered by others forever?

There's a lot more to the film but I'm running long already. I implore you to find the film (try the high seas) and give it a watch. It might not be the film it set out to be, but there's something very "real" about it that is thought-provoking in its own way.

The poignancy of Powell's inability to confront the destruction his book caused is compounded by the fact that only a year after the emotionally draining filming process, the man died of a heart attack aged 66.



Headline: William Powell, ‘Anarchist Cookbook’ Writer, Dies at 66
March 29, 2017


William Powell was a teenager, angry at the government and the Vietnam War, when he walked into the main branch of the New York Public Library in Manhattan in 1969 to begin research for a handbook on causing violent mayhem.

Over the next months, he studied military manuals and other publications that taught him the essentials of do-it-yourself warfare, including how to make dynamite, how to convert a shotgun into a grenade launcher and how to blow up a bridge.

What emerged was “The Anarchist Cookbook,” a diagram- and recipe-filled manifesto that is believed to have been used as a source in heinous acts of violence since its publication in 1971, most notably the killings of 12 students and one teacher in 1999 at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.

Throughout his manual, Mr. Powell fashioned a knowing voice that suggested broad experience in warfare, sabotage or black ops, mixed with an extremist’s anti-establishment worldview.

“As almost everyone knows, silencers are illegal in virtually all the countries of the world,” he wrote before describing how to build a silencer for a handgun, “but then a true revolutionary believes that the government in power is illegal, so, following that logic, I see no reason that he should feel restricted by laws made by an illegal body.”

He declared that his book was an educational service for the silent majority — not the one identified by President Richard M. Nixon as his middle-American constituency, but the disciplined anarchists who were seeking dignity in a world gone wrong. To them, he offered how-to plans for weaponry and explosives as well as drugs, electronic surveillance, guerrilla training and hand-to-hand combat — a potent mix that attracted the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The book found a big audience. More than two million copies have reportedly been sold, and still more have been downloaded on the internet.

“It was inevitable that he did it,” James J. F. Forest, a professor of security studies at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, said in a phone interview. “If he hadn’t done it, somebody else would have. It’s human behavior to tap into a dangerous stream of knowledge, and in his case he was inspired to make that dangerous information available to anyone else who was interested.”

Mr. Powell never revised the book or wrote a sequel, but his original stayed in print, through Lyle Stuart and its successor company, Barricade Books, and most recently by Delta Press. Eventually, he renounced the book. In 2000, he posted a statement to that effect on Amazon.com. And later, in 2013, he expressed his regret in an article he wrote for The Guardian.



A sketch from “The Anarchist Cookbook.”Credit...Barricade Books Inc.

He chose a career as a teacher, not a revolutionary, specializing in working on behalf of children with special needs.

And then, on July 11 of last year, he died of a heart attack while vacationing with his family near Halifax, Nova Scotia. He was 66 and had lived part-time in Massat, France, when he was not working with his wife, Ochan Powell, on educational projects in other countries.

His family reported the death on Facebook, but few if any obituaries followed. His son Sean said that the people who needed to know had been told, and that the family had not thought of reaching out to newspapers.

It was not until last week that his death became more widely known, with the theatrical release of “American Anarchist,” a documentary about Mr. Powell. His death was noted in the closing credits.

The director, Charlie Siskel, said he had interviewed Mr. Powell over a week in 2015.

“What interested me was: How do you go through 40 years of your life with his dark chapter in the background?” Mr. Siskel said on Monday. “How does one sleep at night or get through the day?”

On camera, Mr. Powell seemed to struggle to absorb the idea that his book had apparently had an influence on a number of notorious criminals. One was Zvonko Busic, a Croatian nationalist who hijacked a TWA flight in 1976 while carrying phony bombs after leaving a real one at Grand Central Terminal that killed a police officer who tried to deactivate it.

Others included Thomas Spinks, who was part of a group that bombed abortion clinics in the 1980s; Timothy McVeigh, who bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995; Eric Harris, one of the Columbine attackers; and Jared Loughner, who killed six people during his attempted assassination of Representative Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona in 2011.

“When ‘The Cookbook’ has been associated with Columbine and the later characters and killing, I did feel responsible, but I didn’t do it,” Mr. Powell told Mr. Siskel, adding: “Somebody else with a perverted, distorted sense of reality did something awful. I didn’t.”

William Ralph Powell was born on Long Island, in Roslyn, on Dec. 6, 1949. His father, William Charles Powell, was a press officer at the United Nations; his mother, the former Doreen Newman, ran a phobia clinic at a hospital in White Plains.

Mr. Powell told Mr. Siskel that after his father was transferred to Britain, he attended a school where bullying was commonplace and where the headmaster had caned him. When the family returned to the United States, he said, he felt alienated as an outsider. His fifth-grade teacher mocked his British accent. At a prep school in Westchester County, N.Y., he said, he was molested by the dorm master.

He was working at a bookstore in Greenwich Village in late 1969 when he decided to quit his job to research and write “The Anarchist Cookbook.”

“My motivation at the time was simple,” he wrote in The Guardian. “I was being actively pursued by the military, who seemed single-mindedly determined to send me to fight, and possibly die, in Vietnam. I wanted to publish something that would express my anger.”

The book, a precursor to more recent publications like “The Mujahideen Poisons Handbook” and “Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla,” was at times angry, but it also came with cautionary notes (“This book is not for children or morons”) and common-sense tips, like one he appended to the 14 steps for manufacturing TNT.

“The temperatures used in the preparation of TNT are exact,” he wrote, “and must be used as such. Do not estimate or use approximations. Buy a good centigrade thermometer.”

In an interview at the time of the book’s publication, Mr. Powell told The Bennington Banner in Vermont, “I don’t see myself as crazed or bomb-throwing, though I could be if driven into a corner.”

By 1971, when Lyle Stuart — considered a renegade for his belief that the American people had a right to read anything — published “The Anarchist Cookbook,” Mr. Powell was attending Windham College in Putney, Vt. After graduation, he received a master’s degree in English from Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y.

His early teaching focused on children with emotional and learning needs. He moved overseas in 1979 and worked in Saudi Arabia, Tanzania, Indonesia and Malaysia, teaching marginalized children and training teachers in how to better include them in the classroom.

Sean Powell said in an interview that his father did not exile himself from the United States because of “The Anarchist Cookbook.”

“The book came out in 1971,” he said, “and he went to Saudi Arabia in 1979. Why would he take eight years to go into exile?”

In addition to his wife, the former Ochan Kusuma, and his son Sean, Mr. Powell is survived by another son, Colin; four grandchildren; a brother, Christopher; and his mother. His first marriage ended in divorce.

When “The Anarchist Cookbook” drew the attention of the F.B.I., agents were assigned to track which stores sold the book and to find out if William Powell was a pseudonym, according to the bureau’s file on Mr. Powell. It noted a request by John W. Dean III, counsel to President Nixon, for a copy of the book.

But agents could find no reason to take action against Mr. Powell. Though he did, as the F.B.I. wrote, “submit for consideration recipes for nearly every type of explosive” whose manufacture and distribution violated federal law, there was no evidence that he had been guilty of either.
« Last Edit: February 04, 2021, 11:02:51 AM by Retinend »

sirhenry

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Re: "American Anarchist" (2016) - A failed documentary, or a great one?
« Reply #1 on: February 04, 2021, 10:33:08 AM »
Quote
But agents could find no reason to take action against Mr. Powell. Though he did, as the F.B.I. wrote, “submit for consideration recipes for nearly every type of explosive” whose manufacture and distribution violated federal law, there was no evidence that he had been guilty of either.

Such innocent times...

Thanks for the heads-up on the film. Having read The Anarchist Cookbook back in the 70's (and I know where a copy is still buried in case of emergency), the moral conundrums will be interesting to rehash in the 21st century. And watching cognitive dissonance being confronted is almost always fascinating.

Dex Sawash

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Re: "American Anarchist" (2016) - A failed documentary, or a great one?
« Reply #2 on: February 04, 2021, 11:32:47 AM »

Just now occurred to me that some sort of joke could be made with Antichrist Cookbook, incomplete and 40 years late.

Shit Good Nose

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Re: "American Anarchist" (2016) - A failed documentary, or a great one?
« Reply #3 on: February 04, 2021, 03:52:02 PM »
As much as the next guy, I love a good documentary, and I have a special interest in the topic of political extremism, and so I was excited to find a recent documentary on this topic, and centered on a very interesting man.

You know "The Anarchist Cookbook"?

This documentary takes us on a visit to talk to the current-day William Powell (aged 65) in his home in France. Far from the scrawny, radical 19-year-old who wrote the book, he has become a well-fed bourgeois, so to speak.

I thought it was terrible - a completely wasted opportunity and, it seemed to me, the director was less interested in Powell and his background, and the background to the book, and the legacy of both, than he was trying to get Powell to accept blame for the stuff the media has historically very tenuously linked the book to (it needs to be repeated that the book was nowhere near the first publication to "reveal" how to make bombs and drugs) - very much a Daily Mail subjective response, when it would benefit far more from a more objective (and, let's be honest, more experienced and bigger budgeted) production.  It's no surprise that Siskel previously worked with Michael Moore.

Your synopsis/review sells it VERY VERY well, which is more props to you than it is the doc itself (in my opinion).


One last comment - you might want to get shot of that image of the detonator.  I've no idea how legal or illegal it is, and I know you can easily just do a Google image search, but given no one on here is ever going to need or want that diagram, you may as well save Neil the stress...
« Last Edit: February 04, 2021, 04:12:22 PM by Shit Good Nose »

Retinend

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Re: "American Anarchist" (2016) - A failed documentary, or a great one?
« Reply #4 on: February 04, 2021, 05:33:03 PM »
Thanks - that's a real compliment :)

I'm not surprised that you have that opinion, because I do think Siskel made things uncomfortable. I do feel for Powell: I imagine that in Powell's head he's just thinking "no matter how hard I try, it's never enough for the guy".

But on the other hand I see why Siskel was so adamant and stubborn about his line of questioning: the man seems to have a big block in his mind about the book and the whole footage would have been next to useless if Siskel hadn't forced the confrontation.

Can't edit anymore, unfortunately. I was reproducing the image from the NYT article itself: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/29/arts/william-powell-anarchist-cookbook-writer-dies.html

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