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“American Anarchist” Breaks the Wrong Rules

Alessio Franko
August 5, 2017

by Alessio Franko

EVERYTHING I KNOW about documentary film, I learned from Judy Hoffman at the University of Chicago. Her course was possibly the most information-rich I’ve ever taken, as she regaled us with insights from her prolific career in documentary, cinéma vérité, experimental video, and more. In a class session on shot composition for interviews, Judy played us a video from her personal archive, originally recorded off television onto a VHS tape. A Bush-era Colin Powell appeared on screen, addressing the camera in a run-of-the-mill interview . . . but something was off. The graphic behind his head, possibly a word with a V or a W, protruded diagonally from behind his head with two outstretched arms. A cascade of laughter swept over the classroom.

“Don’t put devil horns behind your subject,” Judy proclaimed, just to drive it home.

In American Anarchist, a 2016 documentary newly available to stream on Netflix, director Charlie Siskel breaks Judy’s rule in a big way.

American Anarchist is an up-close portrait of William Powell, author of The Anarchist Cookbook. Written in 1970, when Powell was a 19-year-old in New York, then home to an explosive Vietnam-fueled counterculture, the Cookbook combined Powell’s anti-statist philosophy with practical “recipes” for bombs, weapons, traps and other tools of combat that can be made at home. Millions of copies have been sold over the years, and, after being discovered among the belongings of the Columbine school killers, the book became associated with the resilient strain of young, male domestic terrorism that continues to rear its head in our schools, movie theaters, and places of worship. Before dying of a heart attack in 2016 (weeks before the film’s premiere), Powell was a novelist and a specialist in education for children with learning disabilities. He and his wife Ochan led a quiet life in the French countryside, where Siskel traveled to shoot the film.

Cutting long interviews with Powell together with family photos, archival images of New York, and crude illustrations from the Cookbook, Siskel seamlessly integrates the historical with the personal as he sets the stage for the Cookbook’s origin story. But Powell himself, we learn, was never the hardened militant that comes through his adolescent prose -- he looked up the “recipes” at the public library and tried few of them himself. He hardly thinks about the Cookbook anymore, he tells Siskel. If anything, he has come to profoundly disagree with its violent calls to action, and wishes the book would cease circulation. As Powell tells of his early misgivings after the Cookbook’s instant, wild popularity, we realize that, decades later, he is still working through his feelings about it and his authorship of it.

It is a rare and intimate thing to witness someone question their own beliefs. Allowing the camera to linger on Powell as he thinks in silence is a risky creative choice that pays off. The viewer can’t help but want to hear more.

So it’s disappointing that American Anarchist does not end up giving Powell much space to unpack his fraught history with the Cookbook. As the film goes on, Siskel’s presence in it becomes increasingly ambiguous. As his questions to Powell begin to appear in the final cut, Siskel’s tone shifts without notice, moving from that of a removed documentarian to that of an investigative journalist to that of a disciplinarian. Siskel wants to know why, when a domestic terrorist was found to have owned the Cookbook, Powell did not speak out. And in the several cases over the years when Powell did speak out, Siskel wants to know why he didn’t do even more to take responsibility for his creation. Siskel multiplies a downright tiresome number of examples of such attackers, and watching Powell grow increasingly uncomfortable is neither fun, nor edifying, nor interesting.

PEOPLE WHO AGREE to have documentaries made about them often don’t know what they are getting themselves into. It’s impossible to describe the invasion of having even a bare-bones camera crew in one’s home, and documentary terms like “fly on the wall” seem designed precisely to underplay it. But there is one feeling documentary subjects tend to be clear about: they want their side of their story to be taken into account. They want a sympathetic lens, not a voyeuristic one. By stepping behind the camera with an unspoken, clearly unflattering thesis about Powell, Siskel only heaps obstacles in his own way. Pushing Powell to account for the inconsistencies in his activism is Siskel’s method of fishing for a hidden truth about his subject’s psyche, but the effect of the director’s interrogation is to make Powell that much more reluctant to speak freely.

It is tempting to overlook the above as a bizarre yet isolated choice in a film that is firstly committed to bringing a complicated personal story to light, but the film ultimately leaves no room for such a reading. In a long sequence, Powell and Ochan stand in their kitchen, speaking gently but directly to their unease with Siskel’s “leading” questions and passive-aggressive style. “Charlie, I’m getting the impression you want me to say something I’m not saying,” says Powell, choosing his words carefully. This clip is Siskel’s proud announcement that his counter-productive strategy is altogether intentional. (Certainly Powell’s paranoia shows just how necessary it is!) We are left to wonder how a documentary project could go all the way through production without even once being surprised by its subject.

The answer may simply be that we hate anarchists. American media and academia persistently conflate “anarchy” (a state of lawless disorder) with “anarchism” (the belief in organized society without rulers), and treat anarchism as a reductio ad absurdum of politics, too impractical to take seriously. If you turned on the news during the G20 Summit in early July, you likely saw first-hand how pitifully out of practice we are at talking about anarchism: Reporters on the streets of Hamburg were hard-pressed to say just what the “Welcome to Hell” marchers, a mix of peaceful and provocative demonstrators, were protesting. Capitalism? Trump? Just, you know, everything? The question was ignorant in and of itself; the thousands of protesters represented a highly diverse array of groups with distinct, if overlapping, agendas. I watched a cable news reporter herald the arrival of a group of “self-styled anarchists” onto the scene, in an utterly patronizing turn of phrase that served only to dismiss anarchism into the realm of pure aesthetics.

We are trained to think that there is no such thing, really, as anarchism, that it’s thinly veiled nihilism for people who want an excuse to commit senseless acts of violence. What Siskel wants Powell to admit, it seems, is that by arguing that there exist justifiable forms of violence, he has directly enabled school shooters and domestic terrorists. In other words, all violence is equivalent, and advocating violence is equivalent to violence. Even we who are wholeheartedly opposed to violence know that dogmatic formulations like these do little other than derail critical thinking about violence. For all of the historical context that American Anarchist elicits from Powell, it can’t seem to explain his move toward violence as anything other than the inevitable expression of Powell’s angry, aberrant nature. American Anarchist’s success as a character study and not a political statement (dirty words to most commercial producers and distributors) depends on its leveraging our knee-jerk mistrust of Powell, even as someone who hasn’t identified as an anarchist for decades.

The Cookbook may very well be, as the FBI described it in an internal memo, “paranoiac, and low brow.” It’s by no means a good example of anarchist thinking, past or present. But in failing to treat the Cookbook evenhandedly, American Anarchist only interferes with the viewer’s ability to form an opinion about the issues it raises. The conspicuous absence of interviews with anyone at all other than the Powells contributes to the sense that Siskel fell back on conventional wisdom where his film would have benefited from more research. And this is a shame. Events like the G20 and January’s on-camera right hook to the jaw of white nationalist posterboy Richard Spencer have sparked interest in a return to counterculture, and prompted many to revisit the question of violent resistance with more nuance.

Of course, American Anarchist does narrowly predate this still-developing cultural moment. With our willingness to entertain alternative visions of civil society growing, entertainment is as promising a barometer for our progress as ever.

Alessio Franko, our contributing writer, is a Brooklyn-based writer of teleplays and radio plays. He trained as an actor at HB Studios in New York and earned his bachelor’s degree in Cinema and Media Studies from the University of Chicago.