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American Anarchist - Film Review (American Essentials Film Festival 2017)

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by Kitty Goodall (subscribe)
I love the arts and creativity. My early career was in teaching, writing, producing and directing for film, theatre, comedy and improv shows. Now I'm a professional creative content producer, mostly on digital platforms.
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Anarchist Cookbook Doco is Food for Thought
anarchist, cookbook, american, documentary, william, powell
Cover of The Anarchist Cookbook by William Powell. It's illegal to own a copy of this book in Australia.

When does freedom of speech become truly problematic for society at large? At what stage does an artist's work cease to be responsible for the actions it may inspire? Is it better for everyone if certain books are banned?

These are the questions posed by the documentary film American Anarchist. The movie is essentially a long interview with the author of The Anarchist Cookbook interspersed with archival footage.

What does the film have going for it?

It's a fascinating subject. American Anarchist will really make you think and question what's right and wrong. Many of the themes are still very relevant today. It's shocking just how many of the issues the author and his contemporaries were fighting for in the late sixties and early seventies are still hot topics: equal rights for women, gay and lesbian people and all races and religions; corporate greed; governments that are out of control and don't have the best interests of the population at heart; power and money over people and humanitarianism.

You'll also be gobsmacked at the laundry list of atrocities committed by people using The Anarchist Cookbook. A litany of mass shootings in schools, bombings and terrorist acts can be traced back to the book.

How could the film have been improved?

It's probably about twice as long as it really needs to run. In this reviewers' opinion, there are a lot of times when the interviewer is repetitive and clearly pushing his own agenda. Around the half-way mark you really have a complete sense of the film's message and you may start to ask yourself whether there's an end in sight.

There are a lot of unnecessary stock footage shots of mountains and scenery, as the music swells. Perhaps you're supposed to use those times in contemplation, but it kind of feels like a bit of padding.

anarchist, cookbook, william, powell, unibomber, bomb, homemade
The Anarchist Cookbook Included Recipes for Bomb Making.

What do you learn from the movie?

Clearly the author William Powell had left his anarchist days behind him at the time the film was made. He ceased to stand by what he wrote and publicly denounced it on more than one occasion. It's kind of unsurprising since he wrote his book when he was nineteen and was in his late sixties at the time of the interview (he's since passed away). How many people stand by everything they said and believed when they were teenagers?

So why did he write it at all?

Powell says in the film, "I thought the government was out of control."

It really was; police brutality, especially toward young people, was commonplace. The American government had no qualms about using weapons against its own citizens if they dared to protest the state of things. Powell felt the citizens should have access to the weapons and information the government was using against them to defend themselves and fight back.

Yet the publication of the book met with harsh mainstream criticism. It was called the 'most irresponsible publishing event of the century'. Despite the media furore over the book, Powell says, "I thought that the book was just going to die its own death."

The Anarchist Cookbook has refused to die. In part, because the publisher Lyle Stuart bought out the rights to the book and continued to make it available, despite Powell stating he wanted it to go out of print.

Naturally, even though he never directly pulled a trigger or made a bomb, the author felt regret and responsibility for some of the terrible acts inspired by his book. Recalling how he felt when he found out the Columbine shooters had used the book as inspiration, he said, "You feel terrible. You feel sick to your stomach."

Perhaps that's why he practically became a hermit. He admitted he didn't really want to know and purposely remained ignorant of many of the attacks that have been inspired by the book.

"Yes I do feel responsible for the ways in which the book has been used," Powell said, "But I didn't do it."

"What responsibility do gun makers have if a weapon is misused? At some point, individual responsibility has to kick in."

American Anarchist was a fascinating documentary and worth viewing if you have N interest in American sociology and politics. It's screening during the American Essentials Film Festival in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra and Adelaide in May.

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Why? It's Revolutionary
When: 9-28 May in Selected Cities
Where: Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra, Adelaide
Cost: $10-$19.50 plus booking fees
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