The times they were a-changin’

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THE WAR AT HOME, 1979 doc­u­men­tary, not rated, Jean Cocteau Cin­ema, 3.5 chiles – Hey, Johnny, what are you re­belling against? – Whad­dya got? — from The Wild One, 1953

Ev­ery gen­er­a­tion faces its own par­tic­u­lar chal­lenges, its own drag­ons to slay. For the post-World War II baby boomers, the gen­er­a­tion that came of age in the mid-1960s, the defin­ing beast of the era was the Viet­nam War. Some went to fight in it, some got draft de­fer­ments or left the coun­try to avoid it, some took to the streets of cities and col­lege towns across the county to protest it. Some did all of the above.

In 1979, just six years af­ter the sign­ing of the Paris Peace Ac­cords, with the na­palm still warm in the jun­gles of South­east Asia, a young film­maker and anti-war move­ment veteran named Glenn Sil­ber made a doc­u­men­tary (along with his co-di­rec­tor, Barry Alexan­der Brown) about the anti-war protest move­ment as it un­folded on and around the Madi­son cam­pus of the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin in the years from 1963 to the war’s end. The War at Home was nom­i­nated for an Academy Award as Best Doc­u­men­tary Feature. Sil­ber would get an­other nom­i­na­tion two years later for El Sal­vador: An­other Viet­nam.

In the nearly four decades since the film’s re­lease, new times have pro­duced new trau­mas, and the war in Viet­nam has re­ceded in mem­ory. For to­day’s col­lege kids, it is as shrouded in the mists of his­tory as World War I was to the young men and women who hoisted signs, handed out fliers, marched in the streets, and oc­cu­pied univer­sity build­ings as the Viet­nam War grew and be­gan to im­print it­self on the na­tion’s con­scious­ness and con­science.

Sil­ber, now a Santa Fe res­i­dent, looked around and saw peo­ple throng­ing the streets again, march­ing for women’s rights and in sup­port of sci­ence and im­mi­gra­tion and in protest against trou­bling devel­op­ments at home and abroad. He be­gan to won­der if this was not in fact the per­fect time to bring The War at Home back to the­aters, to re­mind grey heads of what those days were about and to in­tro­duce young peo­ple to the moral is­sues that gal­va­nized their par­ents and grand­par­ents to ac­tion.

“I walked up to the Jean Cocteau with a DVD and I said, ‘Hey, I’m Glenn, I’ve got a cou­ple of Os­car nom­i­na­tions, I made this film, and I think it’s pretty much in line with the 12,000 peo­ple who marched in town.’ ” The Jean Cocteau Cin­ema took up the of­fer. “Once I saw The War at Home,” said Jean Cocteau pro­gram­mer Jac­ques Pais­ner, “it quickly be­came ob­vi­ous that this film was some­thing Santa Feans would re­ally re­spond to. Boomers will have a chance to re­con­nect with the time and the mes­sage, and mil­len­ni­als can use it as a sort of man­ual for re­sis­tance.” The pic­ture opens on Fri­day, May 5, for a one-week run, and will launch a se­ries called Films of Re­sis­tance, which Sil­ber will help to cu­rate.

“The ba­sic idea was to tell the story of our gen­er­a­tion,” Sil­ber said. “I was there [at the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin] from ’68 to ’72, while the war was still rag­ing. I felt we had lived through this ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­pe­ri­ence in Madi­son. As a young film­maker, I wanted to make big sto­ries. And we had a great one that we knew so well. Ten years of sus­tained anti-war re­sis­tance, and how it changed and kept es­ca­lat­ing. You see in the film, it’s so vivid, be­cause I was able to gather all the lo­cal news film footage from that time frame. And I just didn’t want to let it go. I knew what the story was, but the goal then was, one foot as as­pir­ing doc­u­men­tary film­maker want­ing to change the world, and the other try­ing to hold onto

the feel­ings and the pol­i­tics I was still pro­cess­ing. I self-iden­ti­fied as a rad­i­cal film­maker.”

Sil­ber had the good for­tune to be taken un­der the wing of veteran doc­u­men­tar­ian Emile de An­to­nio (Point of Or­der, Rush to Judg­ment, and

Mill­house: A White Com­edy), who ad­vised him to fo­cus on the area he knew the best. “‘Glenn,’ he told me, ‘you’ve got the whole story right there in Madi­son. Don’t go to Berke­ley or Columbia or any of those other places. You don’t want to be a mile wide and an inch deep.’ ”

Madi­son in 1963 was an Amer­i­can post­card. Fif­teen years ear­lier it had been dubbed “the best place to live in Amer­ica,” by LIFE mag­a­zine, and on the surface not much had changed. Drum ma­jorettes led pa­rades, and the Badgers went to the Rose Bowl. But there were a few early stir­rings on the univer­sity cam­pus, amid lin­ger­ing rip­ples of the civil rights move­ment and a dawn­ing aware­ness of a far­away place called Viet­nam.

Then John F. Kennedy was as­sas­si­nated in Dal­las, Lyn­don John­son be­came pres­i­dent, and Amer­i­can troops by the hun­dreds of thou­sands were be­ing com­mit­ted to the spread­ing com­bat. In Au­gust 1964, the Gulf of Tonkin in­ci­dent pro­vided the trig­ger to plunge the U.S. deeply into the war. Ev­i­dence soon emerged that the Tonkin story had been rigged to jus­tify the mas­sive de­ploy­ment of troops, and protests erupted on ac­tivist col­lege cam­puses. The war at home was on.

As chron­i­cled in Sil­ber’s skill­fully as­sem­bled footage, much of it from tele­vi­sion news and in­ter­views with the still-young par­tic­i­pants, we see the es­ca­la­tion from peace­ful protest to con­fronta­tion with club-wield­ing po­lice, and fi­nally deadly as­sault on both sides. The stakes rose with the chaos at the 1968 Demo­cratic Na­tional Con­ven­tion in Chicago, and the sub­se­quent elec­tion of Richard Nixon as pres­i­dent. One lethal en­counter was the Na­tional Guard’s killing of four stu­dents at Kent State. An­other was a bomb that ac­ci­den­tally killed a grad­u­ate stu­dent in the U.S. Army Math­e­mat­ics Re­search Cen­ter on the Madi­son cam­pus. It had been set to go off in the mid­dle of the night by four young ac­tivists protest­ing the univer­sity’s re­search con­nec­tion to the war.

“We learned the hard way that bomb­ing build­ings is not a very good idea, when you’re try­ing to win peo­ple over. I could un­der­stand that act — that’s a big part of the film. And that was a per­sonal chal­lenge to me as a twenty-year-old, that some­body did that, that they felt so strongly about it. I know their plan was to im­me­di­ately give them­selves up and have a po­lit­i­cal trial and spend 10 or 15 years in jail, but for the fact that a per­son was killed be­cause he was typ­ing his wife’s term pa­per at 4:23 in the morn­ing, be­tween semesters, af­ter they called in a warn­ing that was not paid at­ten­tion to. Once that hap­pened, the whole thing changed.”

Sil­ber’s film takes us through the arc of the Viet­nam protest move­ment step by step, show­ing the flash­points that spurred the change. “The War

at Home to­day is not a nos­tal­gic blast from the past,” Sil­ber said. “It does con­nect. It’s al­most like Cliff Notes on how to re­sist, be­cause you see that the en­tire spec­trum of re­sis­tance is there. It com­presses 10 years into a hun­dred min­utes. To­day’s gen­er­a­tion can’t un­der­stand that pe­riod by read­ing a book. You have to see a film like this to vis­ually and vis­cer­ally get it. It’s pre­served his­tory, but it’s liv­ing his­tory.” — Jonathan Richards

Di­rec­tor Glenn Sil­ber will par­tic­i­pate in a Q&A with the au­di­ence af­ter the screen­ings at 7 p.m. Fri­day, May 5; 2 and 7 p.m. Satur­day, May 6, and 2 p.m. (ben­e­fit for KSFR Pub­lic Ra­dio) and 7 p.m. Sun­day, May 7.

Bomb­ing of the U.S. Army Math­e­mat­ics Re­search Cen­ter, Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin, Madi­son, Au­gust 1970, photo Nor­man Len­burg; be­low, di­rec­tor Glenn Sil­ber

A clash at the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin, Oc­to­ber 1967

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