`Flame' opens festival

Premiere: At the opening of a weekend celebrating film, a documentary reunites many involved with the case of the Catonsville Nine.

May 04, 2001|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

How often is the scene outside a theater as compelling as the film that's about to be screened? Last night at the historic Senator, organizers kicked off the third annual Maryland Film Festival with just such a scene.

Baltimore's well-to-do, done up in their multicolored spring finest, chattered, chuckled and gabbed as organizers-charging $50 a seat-inaugurated the festival that will last through the weekend. But the gaiety masked an underlying tension.

Among the crowd were men and women who took part in one of the seminal protests of the Vietnam War era 32 years ago. And while memories of May 17, 1968 might have faded with the years, passions on both sides remain heated.

The film was "Investigation of a Flame," a documentary that Catonsville's Lynne Sachs finished editing just in time to headline the festival. "Investigation" centers on a group of Roman Catholic war protestors who carried out a historic act of civil disobedience. Against the backdrop of an escalating war in Southeast Asia, they seized government records from the Catonsville draft office and lugged them into a field. There, using napalm made from a recipe laid out in a Green Beret handbook, they set the files ablaze.

It was an eerily peaceful act of destruction. The men wore coats and ties. The women looked dressed for a day at the office. The group recited the Lord's Prayer and watched the embers burn.

Last night, it wasn't smoldering embers but the glare of footlights that shone on the participants. "Investigation" drew the perpetrator and foe together for the first time since late 1960s.

And while each side professed admiration for the other, there was little interaction between the one-time enemy camps. "It doesn't matter how sincerely you feel about an issue," said Steve Sachs, the lawyer who prosecuted the case. "You can't just burn what you don't like. That isn't how democracy works."

Sachs was profoundly anti-war at the time, but that didn't change his interpretation of the legal issues. It was self-evident that the Catonsville Nine had destroyed government property, he says. He doesn't regret helping to win convictions against all nine, who served between nine months and two years in prison.

"I have no doubt that Sirhan Sirhan was passionate in his view that Robert Kennedy should die," he said. "Whoever shot Martin Luther King [Jr.] was passionate and had strong opinions. But that goes to the core of the law. Where do you draw the line? We're a nation of laws."

For others, the issue wasn't so cut-and-dried. Jean Walsh, a Catonsville resident then and now who appears in the film, says all her friends were pro-war at the time; the United States, after all, was stopping the spread of communism in Indochina. "I believed in my government," she says.

Over the years, though, she has changed her views. The Catonsville Nine had something to do with that, but so did having children enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, an anti-war hotbed. "Whenever they came home, we'd discussed it around the dinner table," she says. "I started to see their point of view. The demonstrations helped. That's a war we should never have engaged in."

Alva Grubb, who as one of the jury members appears extensively on screen, has plenty to say. "This one other woman and I argued emotionally," she says. "I have so much admiration for what those people did. They knew this action would change their lives forever, and they did it anyway. What courage! But the immediate question was, were they guilty? And of course they were. We finally gave in."

Mary Murphy, clerk at the Selective Service that day, is now in her 90s and using a walker. She has equally fiery views. Even though the Nine attempted to make their protest non-violent, they shoved her aside to get at the files they wanted. "That's assault right there," says lawyer Sachs.

Murphy still sees herself as a patriot. "I was for my country then, and I'm for my country now," she says, eyes flashing. "I'm not against protesting. The American people have the right to protest. It's the way they did it. They were violent and that shouldn't be allowed."

Filmmaker Sachs seemed awed by the peculiar gathering her film attracted. "Making that film totally changed my perspective," she says.

"I used to think people were either antiwar or into the Civil Rights movement, but not both. I found out that there was a community here in Baltimore concerned with both. And they weren't necessarily hippies, either. They were serious adults in their 30s, 40s, 50s. They took the war seriously."

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