American Anarchist (2016) at imdb
This documentary has stuck with me because of its ambiguity, both of the point of view of the director and of the view of the subject himself, William Powell. When I watched it first I thought the interviewer, Charlie Siskel, was being deliberately obtuse and trying to put words into Powell’s mouth. But on second watching I noticed more of the build-up of the story, which, except for a few sequences, showed perhaps a little more empathy.
William Powell wrote the Anarchist Cookbook in 1969. He was 19 years old and not doing very well after a troubled childhood. Through archive footage a zeitgeist of social unrest is sketched and Powell talks about bloody riots and anti-Vietnam war demonstrations. At the time Powell thought the apocalypse was coming, and he felt that since the government clearly was not for the people, he should provide the people with access to the same information on weapons and explosives as the government and terrorist groups had.
The book had some success but as an adult Powell chose to teach kids with learning challenges who didn’t fit into regular school systems. He and his wife (also an educator) traveled the world to teach and raise awareness for the issues these kids face, so that they don’t grow up with a sense of isolation and turn to violence, Powell explains. The documentary shows some footage of Powell with his students where it is clear to see his drive for getting their lives on track, probably because, he says, he recognises himself in them.
There seems to be a clear story at this point in the documentary: an angry adolescent does an ill-advised thing out of the convictions of his heart, it has terrible consequences, and as an adult he works tirelessly to make right in the world for as much as he can.
However, awkwardly, the documentary seems to struggle against this interpretation. Through a lot of puzzled looks, Powell is presented as being utterly unaware of the role of his book in history. There is a long edited sequence backed by a tense score, where the interviewer throws a list of highly publicised fatal attacks of all sorts at Powell (school shootings, political murders, terrorist plots), prodding him with remarks of ‘this guy read the book’ and ‘they found the book in that person’s bedroom’. Powell’s replies are mostly: ‘I wasn’t aware of that, I was on another continent.’ The last attack Siskel names is the 2012 cinema shooting by James Holmes. Siskel asks Powell if he didn’t wonder if there was a link with the book. Powell answers that he didn’t. Then the interviewer says: ‘You don’t wrestle as much as I thought you might with responsibility […] for the way that the book was used.’
I felt that this scene was hugely manipulative and I wondered if Siskel had a personal experience he would reveal, to explain some sort of motivation for deliberately not understanding Powell (he didn’t). It seemed to me that Powell had put his feelings of remorse and guilt into a sort of hard-shelled ball in the center of his life, where he took responsibility to do good outside of it, while never being able to go in and face it.
Because if he had had some sort of clarity in his mind about his role in this, Powell should’ve been able to defend himself much better. Of course he wouldn’t make the link between the book and the cinema shooting, there was no political aspect to that at all. The information was and had been available already – he took it out of army manuals at the library himself. In a lot of these cases there were mental health problems and social isolation or bullying involved. The book might at most have been a drop in an already full bucket, certainly it wasn’t the main cause. But Powell seems unable to allow himself distance from the consequences of his book, and only does so after Siskel gives him permission.
Luckily, Powell’s wife Ochen is able to turn the conversation around with some sharp defence work elegantly disguised as a misunderstanding. She does this so deftly that Siskel actually apologises to her about his treatment of Powell and there is a welcome moment of warmth. I felt like this wonderful lady had been waiting for her husband to crack open that hard-shelled ball so they can stop living around it, and here she sees her chance. Some progress is made and afterwards Powell is shown to be able to articulate his thoughts and feelings much better.
The fact that Siskel chose to have this break-point in the film made me think he changed his mind about Powell and his part in history. Unfortunately the documentary ends with another puzzled look from Powell, reverting back to the view that Powell actually never gave a second’s thought to his motivations and remained utterly unaware of anything until Siskel came along and spelled it out for him. I have to say I am inclined to think there was some tricky editing here.
So Powell is presented as being ignorant, but there is another possibility for why Powell seemed so hesitant to speak his mind. He may have held an ambiguous view on all this. Perhaps he still had the some of the same convictions he had as a 19 year old: that the people should have access to the same information as the government, and that there will be victims in any revolution. That is to say – he likely felt very bad about the school shootings and that’s what he worked his whole life for to try and prevent. But perhaps in the cases of the terrorist attacks he felt individually guilty about the victims, while rationally, on the scale of history, feeling it was the toll a revolution takes.
At the end credit sadly it is revealed that William Powell passed away at 66, one year after these conversations were recorded. I was left wondering what his last year must have been like. Either he finally started thinking about his share in all this, which must’ve been stressful to say the least, or he got worried about this film coming out in which he must’ve been sure his ambiguity wouldn’t be understood. Neither option would be one I would want for a life long dedicated educator and advocate for good treatment in school.