Igniting A Movement

Lynne Sachs' new documentary on the Catonsville Nine shows us an era of protest beginning with soul-searching and civility

May 03, 2001|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

The Catonsville Nine have become legendary in the three decades since the group's May 1968 "action" against the war in Vietnam, perhaps the most famous protest during an epoch of dissent and discord in the United States.

Filmmaker Lynne Sachs takes a fresh look at the seven men and two women who made up the Catonsville Nine, their friends and their detractors in her impressionistic documentary, "Investigation of a Flame," which opens the Baltimore Film Festival tonight.

Sachs, who has been making films since 1989, moved to Catonsville about three years ago when her husband, Mark, also a filmmaker, took a teaching post at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

She began hearing Catonsville Nine stories. She heard people once arrived at UMBC believing Catonsville was a hotbed of radicalism because of the Nine. She started reading about their protest, and she was hooked. She began looking up the people caught up in the action, and her project began taking shape.

Howard Zinn, the historian who wrote "A People's History of the United States," told her that the Catonsville Nine "became a kind of model for all the others. There was the Milwaukee Fourteen and the Camden 28 and the Boston Five."

All the "Number People," as they were then called, mostly disparagingly, and all the others who protested against the war, went to jail and helped bring about peace.

As a reminder for people for whom the war in Vietnam seems as remote as the Peloponnesian War, the Nine entered a Catonsville draft board, took records and burned them in a trash container in the parking lot.

The Catonsville Nine may have been models for the dissent that followed, but their protest was the most civil of disobedience.

"The myth of the '60s is that anybody who cared had long hair and was on psychedelic drugs," says Sachs, 39. "They were living an alternative lifestyle, so they had these alternative ideas."

But in archival footage she unearthed, mostly unseen for three decades, the action unfolds almost as a religious rite, purification by fire, perhaps. The Nine clasp hands and recite the Lord's Prayer. They apologize for jostling a couple of clerks. They finally file quietly into a paddy wagon as a cop counts them off, "... seven, eight, nine."

The whole action takes perhaps 10 minutes.

"I was kind of intrigued by it as a kind of performance piece," Sachs says.

She's not a political documentarian. Her style is impressionistic, her images lyrical, as Jed Dietz, the director of the Baltimore Film Festival suggests, even poetic. She found her closest rapport with Daniel Berrigan, for example, when they talked about his poetry.

"To me it was like they were in their costumes, their clerical collars and the women in their skirts," she says, of the action. "I think it was very well thought out. It was saying that they were people from Middle America, citizens of the United States who were passionately against the war."

"And they were older, too," Sachs adds.

Daniel Berrigan was the oldest at 47, Philip was next at 44, all the rest except Tom Lewis, 28, and David Darst, 26, were in their 30s. They were not counterculture hippies, rebelling against their parents.

Darst died in an automobile crash in October 1969. Mary Moylan, who was in her late 30s in May 1968, went underground for nearly 10 years after the trial. She died alone and infirm in April 1995.

The tone in the archival footage is quiet, almost somber. The Nine seem a bit uneasy. They were uneasy, even Daniel Berrigan.

He recalls for Sachs that his brother was awaiting sentencing in the 1967 Baltimore Four protest, where he helped pour blood over draft files at the Custom House. Daniel was a professor at Cornell University when Philip came up in the spring of 1968.

"He said some of us are going to do it again, and you're invited," Daniel Berrigan says. "Whereupon I started quaking in my boots."

Berrigan's face in close-up in Sachs' film is a glowing landscape of the furrows and planes earned in a lifetime of activism and poetry. He will be 80 next Wednesday.

"It had never really occurred to me that I would ever take part in something that serious as far as consequences went," he says. "The idea of putting myself in the furnace of the king ... was pretty shocking and new.

"So I told Philip give me a few days to think this over and pray over it, and I'll let you know. So I did. I went through some pretty serious soul-searching and talked to my family. I couldn't see any reason not to do it. I didn't want to do it. But I couldn't not do it."

Sachs has been making documentaries since 1989, when she completed her thesis film for a masters of fine arts degree from the San Francisco Art Institute. (She received her undergraduate degree in history at Brown University.)

She'd grown up in Memphis, Tenn., and her first film was "Sermons and Sacred Pictures: The Life and Work of Rev. L. O. Taylor." He was a fiery African-American minister from Memphis who made his own films of black life in the south in the 1930s and 1940s.

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