American Anarchist (2016)
“Written” and directed by Charlie Siskel
This documentary is a portrait of William Powell who in 1970, at age 19, wrote a book called The Anarchist’s Cookbook.
The Anarchist’s Cookbook is an manual of revolution, how to make bombs and stuff like that. I’m not exactly sure what is all in it having never read or owned a copy.
The movie is made by Charlie Siskel. Documentaries are funny. If a filmmaker points a camera at someone and asks them questions, and edits all that together, the filmmaker gets to take credit as having written the movie. That seems pretty strange to me, especially in a situation like this where the subject, Powell, does most all the talking, yet he doesn’t even share the writing credit. Who came up with these rules? Powell’s wife also appears some in the movie.
William Powell is a very good talker. The delight of the film is getting to hear what he has to say. He handles Siskel’s interrogations with patient brilliance. Siskel keeps trying to corner him, to rattle him, to get some doc cinema gold with some kind of outrageous or angry reaction. He fails with the cool, thoughtful, and articulate Powell. Where Siskel keeps attempting to give Powell enough rope to get whatever he is looking for, he ends up defeated, hanging himself, as a hack documentary maker thinking he is on some scoop with a ruthless outlaw.
Yet Siskel was more or less fair in the way he edited most of the movie. We do get to see what a wonderful man Powell became, whatever one thinks of his writing 48 years ago.
William Powell, who died on July 11, 2016 at the age of 66 three months before the movie was released, spent his life as an educator of children with special needs. He spent his life working outside the USA. Siskel does spend some screen time telling us about this aspect of Powell’s life.
Even though Powell, as far back at 1976, regretted writing the book and stated that it should be put out of print, Siskel interrogates him bringing up that the book was in possession of the Columbine High School kid killers and others headline sensational killers. This gets to be a bit much with the implication that somehow Powell is responsible in association for the actions to these lost killers. Powells is very good at handling this stating that he was not aware that these people had the book. He says how could he be? He was living out of the USA and not one to investigate on the internet mass shootings. Siskel keeps up with this kind of stuff taking it to a ridiculous extreme at the very end when he attempts to compare Powell to Gavrilo Princip the man who shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on June 28, 1914 which somehow started WWI. Apparently Siskel is very proud of this moment. After he asks this he gives us the movie’s final shot with Powell sitting there a bit stunned at this silly implication and trying to think of a measured response. But what I saw at that moment was how a documentary maker can manipulate footage via editing to make his point, except this time it just doesn’t work because by that time we have looked into the eyes and heard the measured responses for 2 hours of a very good and decent man who clearly spent his entire life helping people, children, less fortunate than he.
Did Powell pay for his sins of free speech other than this interrogation by Siskel? He and his wife say that he did. Although very qualified in his teaching field of labor, when the employer institutions found out about the book, sometimes though anonymous sources, he was not hired at job after job. This is regrettable, most likely the children he could have worked with are the ones who suffered most from this.
But there is an association between Powell, the Columbine killers and other kid killers who may have had the book. Powell was bullied in schools as a child and sexually abused by an administrator. By the time he was 19 and inspired by the righteous and popular rebelliousness of youth at the time, he channeled his rage into that movement and produced the book.
So Powell did not create himself any more than school killers do? They are all a result of the bullying and injustice of school systems and the abuse of children that often happens there either institutionally or peer bullying, or both in the situation of young Powell. Powell was a bright boy and not a violent person. His reaction to the abuse, coupled with governmental injustice and the Vietnam war, was to call for revolution and write a book not act out violently.
The movie also implies that the Anarchist Cookbook is the only source of this type of information. It has never been so. Powell got some of his stuff from government pamphlets. And although we see brief footage of Abbie Hoffman from Vietnam protest, the revolution is imminent days, there is no mention of his book that covers a lot of the same material and more and was released at the same time, Steal This Book. Meanwhile this type of bomb building information and everything else in these books has been available on the internet for a least 20 years.
American Anarchist is worth watching.
It is currently playing on Netflix
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