People have a lot of ways to change their lives when discontent settles upon them. They might get a new job or a new haircut, upgrade their Palm pilots or switch to chai latte. After sitting through a triptych of documentaries being presented at the Fine Arts Cinema as “Designs For Living” a viewer might be tempted to live off the power grid, or become a political anarchist, or grow potatoes on a communal farm in Russia.
He still wouldn’t get it, though. The films do not comprise a how-to handbook for alternative lifestyles. Famed anarchist Emma “Red Emma” Goldman, back-to-nature gurus Scott and Helen Nearing, and the Downs’ syndrome farmers in a small Russian village called Svetlana are the subjects of an evening of film, which instruct, by example, the benefits of living closely to one’s ideals.
Emma Goldman was thrown out of the United States in 1919 for her ideals. The American government had exiled the outspoken anarchist with her long rap sheet of political rabble-rousing for organizing draft resistance in the face of World War I conscription.
“She loved the U.S. She loved U.S. culture. But it was an ambivalent thing,” said filmmaker Coleman Romalis, who made “Emma Goldman: The Anarchist Guest.” “She was very hostile to capitalism and the State and religion. Many of the things that defined the U.S. set her teeth on edge.”
The native Russian went back to Russia during the revolution, believing Bolshevism was the great progressive social plan for the future. Immediately disillusioned by the state of Lenin’s communist party, she left Russia to bounce around Europe, eventually settling in, of all places, Canada.
“You can imagine Toronto in 1926,” said Romalis. “It was very much a stuffy, Anglo-Canadian British atmosphere. It was part of the British Empire with Victorian values in many ways. Not a place to find the revolutionary instincts of Emma Goldman.”
It was her Toronto address that hooked Romalis. A professor of sociology at nearby York University, he admitted that he knew of Goldman but had never read her works or studied her life until he discovered that Goldman had died in a house a few blocks from his own. His proximity to the hero of social disobedience intrigued him.
His research led him to the Emma Goldman Papers Project, a Berkeley organization created to collect, catalog and maintain Goldman’s writings. There, he discovered, in reams of raw, prodigious letters, her political passions and emotional outpourings.
“Emma used letters the way we use e-mail now. She might write eight or 10 letters a day,” said Romalis. “Sometimes they were formal letters to her political colleagues, and she hewed to some political lines in that. Others were very emotionally forthcoming when she wrote to lovers and people who were her intimate friends. That’s when her heart would be revealed, and her anguish at trying to live her life, especially her life in exile.”
In his film Romalis used actors to give voice to some of Goldman’s letters; there is very little film footage or sound recordings of the anarchist herself. There are photographs and a short newsreel from the 1930s shot in a New York hotel room wherein we see Goldman being interviewed by a panel of American journalists.
She had just been admitted back into the United States on a 90-day conditional visa, having agreed to not speak about political issues. The journalists surrounding her, naturally, asked her opinions about political issues.
Her answers were short, careful, and pithy:
“Question: What do you think of Hitler?”
“Goldman: I’ve never met him, and don’t want to.”
“She had a lot of experience with journalists and press conferences,” said Romalis. “I think you sense when you look at her the tension in her right then. With the camera, the reporters with their notebooks, she was measuring every word.”
The image we see of Goldman in the film is a staunch, serious, and unsmiling woman. This is the person famous for saying, “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution.” But the joie de vivre she evidenced in her life and her many arduous lovers does not translate to photographs.
“I was confused about that for a long time,” said Romalis. “I asked people who knew her if I was missing something in the pictures. Some said she had the most beautiful eyes behind her thick lenses, a beautiful shade of blue. She had beautiful hair, and a lovely manner about her. It would change when she was in public.”
Romalis, who now spends half his time at his house in Berkeley and half at his residence in Toronto, will be present at the Fine Arts Cinema on Friday, Saturday and Sunday to answer questions from the audience. He will be joined by the makers of the other two films on the bill, Gunnar and Peter Maddsen (“Svetlana Village: The Camphill Experience in Russia”) and Polly Bennell and Andrea Sarris (“Helen Nearing: Conscious Living/Conscious Dying”).
Svetlana village is a farming community about 90 miles east of St. Petersburgh, where the farmhands are retarded and developmentally challenged, many with Downs’ Syndrome. It’s neither a retreat nor therapy (although it works out that way) but a lifestyle that incorporates everyone’s talents and energy to maintain a working farm.
It’s based on the Camphill community model, which mixes village staff with developmentally disabled villagers in all the communal work, allowing everyone to learn from everyone else.
Peter Maddsen, who had been busking around Russia playing guitar in plazas and train stations for money and not doing a very good job of it, stumbled onto Svetlana village and found a new way to live.
Five years later his brother, Gunnar, a Berkeley musician and founder of the a cappella group The Bobs, came to Russia with video equipment to document his brother’s potato farm. He immediately got a crash course in the Camphill experience.
“Half these people are disabled, but aside from a few Down Syndrome people, you couldn’t tell who is or who isn’t. The lines are not that clearly drawn,” Gunnar said before the film’s premiere last May. “Then it starts to sink in: of course the lines are not clearly drawn. We’re all people, and we all have our disabilities. And this happened after 10 minutes of being there.”
Svetlana has adopted innovative ways to farm. Using mud and straw under their feet to make bricks and the designs of environmental architect Rolf Yakobsen, Peter and the villagers built an effectively insulated community house and potato storage cellar designed to be naturally temperate and aerated.
In America, one of the popular champions of rural subsistence living has been Helen Nearing, the subject of the third documentary at the Fine Arts Cinema by Polly Bennell and Andrea Sarris. Nearing and her husband Scott became simple-living gurus with the publication of the their book “Living The Good Life” in 1954. Their successive farms in Vermont, and later in Maine, became Mecca for people seeking an alternative, passive lifestyle.
In “Helen Nearing: Conscious Living/Conscious Dying,” the aging Nearing says she is a “visitor of life.” The woman, who had spent most of her life working the land and helping to instruct generations of young people to living simply, said in the film she is “more interested in the meaning and the background of life than I am in Harborside, Maine” (the location of her farm).
After establishing a philosophical model and hands-on techniques for a self-sustained lifestyle, Helen Nearing is shown preparing to die in the same peaceful, ideological way she lived.