Recently I had a Twitter exchange with Dorian Cope on the topic of documentaries on YouTube.
She recommended some really good ones (listed below), including The Leonard Peltier Story, which I knew as Incident At Oglala.
By Michael Apted (he of The World Is Not Enough Bond fame, as well as the Up series of documentaries), Incident At Oglala is a righteous retelling of the story of the American Indian Movement (AIM), the fight for indigenous people’s rights in the United States, the siege at Pine Ridge and the case of Leonard Peltier – still banged up in Federal chokey today. Apted subsequently made a thinly-veiled fictional version of the attempts by the FBI and others to quash AIM, Thunderheart, which was in part based on an earlier standoff at Wounded Knee.
I first came across the story of AIM and Pine Ridge through the writings of Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall – Agents Of Repression, and The COINTELPRO Papers. Together the two books utilise the then-relatively novel application of Freedom of Information Act rights, and cover in depth the FBI’s decades-long (though the Bureau clings to the orthodoxy that COINTELPROs only existed from 1956-1971) ‘counter intelligence programs’ directed at civil society, involving agents provocateurs, informers, fabricated documents, planted evidence, smears and even what could be considered assassination. AIM was just one of a long list of targeted groups and individuals, the vast majority from the left of the political spectrum – others included the Black Panthers, Martin Luther King, Students for a Democratic Society, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Socialist Workers’ Party USA.
The formal COINTELPRO project was brought to an abrupt end in 1971, when a small group of activists, the Citizens’ Committee to Investigate the FBI, broke into a Bureau field office in Pennsylvania and stole reams of documents which exposed the existence of a massive, nationwide conspiracy to defame, disrupt and destroy political campaigners. However, empirical evidence supports the assertion that COINTELPRO in spirit if not in name continued for many years to come. Certainly there were COINTELPRO fingerprints all over the bombing of Earth First! activists Judy Bari and Darryl Cherney in 1990 (see, for example, ‘The Judi Bari Bombing: How the FBI targeted Earth First!’ by Ward Churchill in Open Eye #3, 1995).
The more recent use of agents provocateurs, informants and undercover officers in cases including but not limited to the supposed Nimbus Dam sabotage plot (with FBI plant Zoe Elizabeth Voss, AKA ‘Anna’ – see here, here and here), Brandon Darby’s entrapment of protesters at the 2008 RNC (see here, here and here), and the various stings by Saeed Torres AKA ‘Shariff’ on behalf of the FBI (see here, here and here) suggest that the principles of COINTELPRO linger long in the Bureau’s institutional memory.
Anyhow, here’s some of my free-to-view documentary selections – and I have put Dorian Cope’s at the bottom.
80 Blocks From Tiffany’s
Superb stuff from 1979, with Gary Weis interviewing members of two gangs – the Savage Skulls and the Savage Nomads – in the South Bronx.
NY77: The Coolest Year In Hell
A nearly bankrupted city, disco, punk rock, hip hop, brown outs and black outs, arson and riots, music and love.
Planet Rock The Story Of Hip Hop And The Crack Generation
Exploring the interconnectedness of two eighties phenomena.
Classic hip hop ‘five elements’ documentary, whose influence via its focus on grafitti and breakdancing was global – inspiring the likes of Goldie and 3D in Britain.
The UK Style Wars…
Proper Bristol Hip Hop (part one)
Superb cultural artefact from Matt ‘Mr Monk’ Orren, with many of the original Bristol hip hop heads simply telling how it all started for them, how it developed, and how it got to here.
The Way Of The Crowd
Looking back on Northern Soul at the Wigan Casino, with stacks of people who were there, including Paul Sadot (Tuff in Shane Meadows’ Dead Man’s Shoes).
The Jeffrey Johns Story
If you’ve ever been to a gig in Bristol, you’ve been stood behind Big Jeff. HERE IS HIS STORY!
Story of the activists who exposed COINTELPRO by burgling the FBI’s Media, PA office.
Reclaim The Streets – The Film (1999) (as broadcast on Channel 4, January 2000)
A from-the-movement documentary on RTS by Agustín de Quijano, from the beginning through to J18 – lots of great footage.
Reclaim The Streets – Reloaded (2012 re-edit)
As above, expanded to include references to Andrew James Boyling, the undercover Special Branch officer who posed as RTS activist ‘Jim Sutton’ for half a decade.
Franny Armstrong’s on-a-shoestring classic about Helen Steel and Dave Morris, the two London Greenpeace anarchists who refused to be bullied by a corporation, defended themselves in court, and to all intents and purposes defeated McDonald’s after it accused them of making untrue statements in a campaign leaflet (which, lest we forget, was co-authored by a long-term police infiltrator).
Big Rattle In Seattle /Capital’s Ill / Crowd Bites Wolf (all three by Si Mitchell)
Not just three of the best but also the funniest summit-hopping gonzo activist-journalist documentaries of the dawn of the 21st century, capturing not just the excitement and action on the streets, but also breaking down the issues into easily understandable chunks – which with dull stuff like the IMF is not easy.
The Coconut Revolution
Behind the lines with the low-tech independence fighters of Bougainville Island, who face the might of the Papua New Guinea army, backed by multinational corporations like RTZ, in a fight to protect their homeland and its resources. First saw this at a screening in Bristol’s fine microplex the Cube.
If A Tree Falls: A Story Of The Earth Liberation Front
A very human telling of how the ELF came to become America’s Public Enemy No.1 (until Al Qaeda came to be a little more prominent), with the focus on ELF activist Daniel McGowan, one of a number who went to prison after the FBI’s major Operation Backfire dragnet.
The Panama Deception
I first saw this Oscar-winning doc by Barbara Trent about the post-Cold War, what-the-hell-do-we-do-now? US invasion of Panama at – no honestly – a Revolutionary Communist Party conference. It was the most interesting thing there.
BBS: The Documentary (in 8 parts)
Touching The Void
Thoroughly absorbing, detailed look at the early communities which grew up around the original bulletin board systems, and how they developed as the forums themselves developed. Made in 2005, it is interesting to consider how we got from there to here, with #anonymous and /pol/ and GamerGate and manosphere idiots and whatnot.
Best fell-off-a-mountain documentary ever; best use of Boney M in hallucination scene ever.
Dissection of the meaning – hidden or otherwise – of Stanley Kubrick’s fast-and-loose adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. Beautiful (though unfortunately picture and sound quality here are deliberately degraded, presumably to get round copyright detection tools) and thought provoking.
Staircases To Nowhere: Making Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining
Folk history of how The Shining got made, by the crew who made it.
Hilarious early 1970s BBC documentary following the hapless London chapter of the global outlaw motorcycle club as they mooch about doing very little. The decision to go on holiday is one of history’s most fateful. Played absolutely straight in both script and voiceover.
American Movie (trailer only)
One of the loveliest docs in the world, I can’t find it free online anywhere, but this trailer gives a flavour of it.
Dorian Cope’s documentary selection: