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Radicals and radio rebels highlight MadCat

By Peter Crimmins Daily Planet Correspondent
Thursday September 06, 2001

A former Bay Area filmmaker has made a new documentary about a group of Vietnam War protesters who embodied a maxim deeply rooted in American free speech: “If we’re about bringing change through nonviolence,” says a lifelong activist in the film, “then we should think seriously about being free enough to go to jail.” 

Lynne Sachs’ 45-minute film about Vietnam protesters in Catonsville, Md., is coming to Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive on Sept. 7 as part of the MadCat Film Festival, a series of mostly experimental films made by women. Three programs are planned: on Sept. 7, “Rebels With a Cause,” at 7 p.m. and “Is This Desire?” at 9 p.m.; and on Sept. 9, “In Search Of Home.” 

The festival also plays for several dates at San Francisco’s Artists’ Television Access and a bar in the Mission called El Rio.  

Nominally a presentation of women filmmakers and their compelling subjects, the festival, now in its fifth year, has proven itself to be less gender-centric than it is a playground of film aesthetics.  

The underlying point of “Investigation of a Flame” is the limits of civil disobedience, however spiritually fueled. In the face of sober political activism and religious motivation, it asks, how effective is man’s law in serving the citizens under its protection. 

When a group of nine activists – including a nurse, an artist, and three priests – publicly burned draft files with homemade napalm in May 1968, such acts of protest had not yet taken hold of the imagination of young America as they would a year later. The nine grappled with fervid political convictions and a solid religious backbone in their decision to make a symbolic anti-war statement as a kind of ideological publicity stunt. Their original plan to stain draft files with blood was deemed too lightweight in favor of a demonstration by fire that would make a stronger impact on the American conversation about its presence in Vietnam. 

Sachs had a whimsical hand on the camera while shooting the story of the Catonsville 9. Interviews might trail off out the window or move to a speaker’s fingers turning a small stone. Often the tight depth-of-field shifts the object – be it a bouquet of flowers sent by the Catonsville 9 from prison, or an anti-war newspaper ad – out of focus. Her stammering editing pace and hand-held camerawork is more avant-garde than MTV as the film moves apace with its idea that the history of Vietnam protests is more than simply a battle of hawks and doves. 

“Investigation of a Flame” is part of the “Rebels With a Cause” program, which also includes “The Magic of Radio,” a 23-minute documentary by longtime Bay Area filmmaker Greta Snider. In keeping with her punk-rock and counterculture roots (“Hardcore Home Movie,” “Portland”), Snider’s three-part film is a meditation on the phenomenon of remote signs of life moving invisibly through the air on carrier waves. 

A benign radio “pirate” bicycles a micro-transmitter through the streets of Portland, Ore., transmitting a cassette Walkman to anybody who happens to be tuned into her 30-yard reach while she pedals past. The process of putting out signal with a hands-on approach is its own quiet reward, because odds are very few people, if any, hear it. Not even we, the viewers, are allowed to hear whatever it is she’s broadcasting. 

A group of underground radio broadcasters called “Free Radio Austin” talk and play music out of a shack in Austin, Texas. Snider joins DJs Grinder Bitch and Feral as they rant and reminisce over the air about their crazy times spent in the shack and the other DJs they meet while doing their show. We never know who’s listening. The third subject is an amateur ham radio operator who seems most enthusiastic about building his own equipment to bounce signals off the moon than he is the content of the signal being bounced. 

The “Magic of Radio” visits three places in which an alternative space is being carved out of the airwaves, whether or not they have anything to say. Sinder’s grass-roots filmmaking, with montage sequences of sound and image pulled out of a night sky alive with signal, is less a call for communication than a need to stake a claim in the crowded ether. 

The films of MadCat have a drive to communicate, but often what is strongest is the filmmakers’ enthusiasm for their craft. Marketing and finding a niche audience is clearly not as important as getting their hands dirty with cutting and pasting celluloid, shooting and lighting sets, and with pushing ideas around a frame.