Director: Alexander Johnston
Writers: Alexander Johnston
Running time: 30 mins
The Attica Prison rebellion took place in September 1971, in a correctional facility in New York. Based upon prisoners’ demands for better living conditions and political rights, the uprising was one of the most well-known and significant uprisings of the Prisoners’ Rights Movement. The action took place two weeks after the killing of George Jackson – an African-American revolutionary who co-founded the Maoist-Marxist Black Guerrilla Family – at San Quentin State Prison. 1,281 of the Attica prison’s approximately 2,200 inmates subsequently rioted and took control of the prison, taking 42 staff hostage.
Over the course of the four days of negotiations that followed, authorities agreed to 28 of the prisoners’ demands, but would not agree to demands for complete amnesty from criminal prosecution for the prison takeover. While most of these promises have predictably been reneged upon by the State of New York, the protest still captures the imagination of people fighting against racism and state violence, having done the unthinkable of appropriating the institutions of government oppression to make a political point in favour of justice and dignity for all.
On this last point, it is therefore entirely appropriate that the footage which Evidence of the Evidence is built upon was originally filmed by a state trooper, who was ordered to document the unfolding events at Attica. During the uprising, the trooper recorded a variety of moments, whilst narrating what he was witnessing. At no point does he come across as a reasonable custodian of justice, and at every opportunity he sneers contemptibly – at one point through the scope of a rifle – at the “ugly negroes” in the courtyard below.
Alexander Johnston’s film seizes on this unique viewpoint, seemingly in full knowledge of the unique insight this gives us into the psyche of the police with regards to race and class. The footage might have been abridged and ordered, but broadly it is unaltered. There is little in the way of correction or sound design here, and at times both sound and picture in this near-50-year-old footage are lacking some clarity. From the perspective of a non-English viewer, it might have been a good idea to accompany the goings on with more comprehensive subtitling than the occasional short phrases which appear on the screen. At the same time, taking into consideration today’s audience is spoilt by digital processing; there is a danger of seeing them detach from such an unpolished episode, especially if they cannot follow the narrative.
Regardless of these points, however, I found that to be the only disruptive aspect of watching Evidence of the Evidence. In fact, although they are too sporadic, the subtitles do attribute a certain personal aesthetic to proceedings without damaging their authenticity, highlighting some important statements in the film, as well as emphasising some gems from brief interactions with prisoners such as “turn off the camera, pig!” The font used matches the general touch and feel of the film as well, parroting an official report which would normally have large segments redacted for fear of problematic secrets being released.
While for my viewing comfort, the subtitles could have appeared consistently to improve the film’s accessibility, it should also be said that in this format they do compliment the trooper’s narration, contributing to a complete film, emerging from the chaos of what has unfolded. Additionally, some explanatory text fills in the gaps that narration may leave, while the clear structure helps the viewer understand what they are watching.
At the same time, the audience is never babied into feeling like this fits into an easy narrative of continued progress in US society, either. Commendably, there are no cut-away interviews or talking heads of comfortable academics discussing the impact of Attica on America since. There are also no accounts from witnesses in the modern day. Johnston seems to be distancing himself on purpose by not opting for a more personal approach, instead taking a raw, unedited film from the archive to showcase how one incident in a penal institution reflected the society’s difficulty in coping with the integration of African-Americans in social norms – and by avoiding tying it all up in a neat bow, he also leaves the audience feeling uncomfortable, wondering if things now are actually materially different for society, people of colour, or the state’s approach to policing them.
This means that, although it is largely an unknown incident to many Europeans, when the screening was over, the first thing I did was Google “Attica Prison Riot.” I found myself wanting to dive deeper into the even, wanting to understand what it meant for the US politics and society, then and now. As the raw footage was made from one side of American society, it comes with a racist commentary – which initially surprised me. But the research it prompted meant that later found out that the prison’s staff was openly racist.
For a documentarian, Johnston’s film should be considered a solid victory. Ideally, a good documentary must not be feeding the audience information which is too easy to digest, which they can walk away from after without needing to know or do more. On the contrary, it should stir interest and lead to research, plant the seed to the viewer’s mind; “this has happened at some point in the past. Do I want to know more? Where should I look for more testimonies?”
This amateur footage, initially created out of the needs of a bigoted and abusive state, has since been curated by a professional filmmaker, and turned into an aesthetically and intellectually accomplished film, appropriating the voice of oppression to make a point against it. I heartily recommend watching Evidence of the Evidence. History has the bad habit of repeating itself and while we often feel we live in more enlightened times, truth be told, the events depicted in the film are often mirrored by content on our Facebook feeds.
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