Three non-fiction films offer radically different perspectives on culture and society in late 1960s America. They also cast a shadow on contemporary American life.
Agnès Varda first travelled to America in the late 1960s with her husband Jacques Demy, who was filming Model Shop (1969). But as she has shown on countless occasions since, if there’s an interesting subject to be filmed all Varda ever needs is the means to shoot it. (if you see her on her brief visit to the festival, it’s more than likely she’ll be carrying a small camera with her.)
Varda arrived in California as the state was descending into chaos. The Watts riots had torn LA apart, the mostly peaceful hippy movement prompted repressive police action and the increasing power and popularity of the Black Panthers was becoming a concern for the FBI.
Varda’s 20-minute film Black Panthers is more reportage than conventional documentary, recording the group’s response to the imprisonment of one of their leaders Huey P. Newton, charged with the murder of a police officer. They clearly saw something in Varda, allowing her to interview Newton in jail and film them at a number of demonstrations. It’s gripping and, sadly, all too relevant now. The problems faced by black people in America with regards to police coercion hasn’t changed, as evinced by the Black Lives Matter movement.
Orange Sunshine documents how a bunch of twentysomething middle class Californians tuned in, dropped out and became the most successful producers of LSD in the substance’s history. At one point they had produced 100 million tabs in one single, never-to-be-repeated batch. Their industry was funded by importing a significant amount of hash from Afghanistan, but their goal wasn’t to amass a fortune. In their eyes it was altruism – a desire to bring on a better world.
Setting themselves up as the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, the group’s aim was to enlighten the world through the consumption of acid. Timothy Leary was a fan and for a while they created some kind of utopia at Laguna Beach, a small coastal town north of LA. However, they became victims of their own success – and Leary’s political ambitions – and made an enemy in the US Government. President Johnson escalated the fight against drugs, then Nixon transformed it into a personal crusade, the effects of which are still felt today.
Ironically, while most of the subjects in William A. Kirkley’s hugely enjoyable documentary serve little time for the total amount of drugs they were responsible for dealing, the members of the Panthers who fell foul of drugs in the 1970s were dealt a more brutal hand. Nixon’s war has changed little since the 1970s, while the ratio of black to white convictions for drug-related crimes has only worsened.
Keith Maitland’s Tower unfolds in a world far removed from California. But what it details has also had a profound impact on American culture and its psyche. Keith Maitland’s understated yet visually striking film details the events that unfolded on the campus of the Texas State University in Austin on 1 August 1966. As students attended classes and people carried on with their daily lives, a lone gunman in the tower overlooking the campus began firing randomly at people. 90 minutes later, after Charles Whitman had been shot by police officers, 14 people were dead and another 15 wounded.
It proved to be the first in a series of shootings across America, in colleges, cinemas, shopping malls and schools, that now resembles an epidemic. There is a brief coda showing the aftermath of more recent shootings, but Maitland’s film doesn’t preach. What it does brilliantly is to draw us into the moments following the firing of the first shot. Employing archive footage, recent interviews and clever use of Rotoscope animation, the film puts us into the shoes of the witnesses, police and surviving victims. Amidst the chaos there are remarkable acts of bravery, from the cops who finally put an end to the shootings and the shop manager who helped them, to the young students who ran out on to the concourse in full sight of the tower to carry Claire Wilson, heavily pregnant and shot, to safety. But the story’s true hero is Rita Starpattern. She was an art student at the University. Following the first shots she hid, but then saw Claire lying on the concourse next to her dead boyfriend and bleeding profusely. Desperate to help Claire but unable to carry her alone, Rita walked out on to the concourse, lay down as though she were shot and just stayed there talking to Claire, keeping her conscious until help came. Her act of bravery didn’t require guns or grand heroics, just her humanity. And with it she saved a life.
Ian Haydn Smith