After 14 years in jail, Laura Whitehorn is the star of a movie. And she’s not happy about it.
“I tried talking them out of it,” said Whitehorn of Berkeley-based filmmakers Rhonda Collins and Sonja de Vries. Whitehorn, a lifelong activist-turned-violent agitator, is at the center of the filmmaking duo’s new work, “Out: The Making of a Revolutionary.”
De Vries, whose documentary “Gay Cuba” won accolades at film festivals in 1995, and Collins, whose “we don’t live under NORMAL CONDITIONS” packed the Fine Arts Cinema last year, are premiering “Out” at San Francisco’s Castro Theater tonight as a benefit for a handful of prisoner support organizations.
Whitehorn was incarcerated for planting a bomb in a U.S. Capitol building in 1983. The film uses her as an anchor in describing the revolutionary underground of America since the Civil Right’s Movement. A history which, for many, inevitably, includes prison.
Whitehorn admitted on the telephone from New York that the film gave her a tempting platform to talk as much as she wanted about her political passions. But after dedicating her life to mobilizing people and aligning herself with activist collectives, to be portrayed as an individual revolutionary feels awkward.
The problem is more than vanity versus martyrdom. The problem is representation, and it touches the essence of documentary filmmaking: how to present a subject to an audience, while staying true to the material? Activism is a collective effort, not a maverick one.
But every story needs a main character, and if you can’t get Che Guevara, Whitehorn’s story is nonetheless engaging. Collins said she and de Vries faced a crucial decision early in the project.
“We as filmmakers had an objective to tell the story of this one person so we could have an identification with the audience,” Collins said.
“We hope this provokes thinking for people. Particularly for people who may have never been introduced to this history, and if they are, never really understood why certain people made the decision that they made.”
Collins is referring to the decision to move from mass, (so-called) peaceful demonstrations to violently aggressive acts. In the film Whitehorn says the gesture of bombing a federal building was an act of “armed propaganda,” in response to the U.S. involvement in Granada and Lebanon. It came after a lifetime of petitioning, marching, and organizing.
Hers was an act not dissimilar to that which we will be celebrating this upcoming fourth of July. For Whitehorn, the course of human events was nigh.
Her act, also, did not come forth from a vacuum. “Out” offers a few highlights of America’s late-20th century activism. Fred Hampton, the charismatic chairman of the Chicago branch of the Black Panthers, who was assassinated, is featured prominently in archival films speaking urgent inspiration. We see image montages of police confrontations scored with protest songs. Contemporary footage of demonstrations to free Mumia Abu-Jamal, on death row in Pennsylvania, bring the film up to date.
Whitehorn is careful not to get lost in extolling these personalities and newsreel-ready events of civil rights activism. She said she was inspired by “the courage of people who were not politicians or speakers, but people who were going about living their lives and then had to take on the water cannons and bullwhips.”
The film has a few compelling images of Southern justice to the Civil Rights Movement’s uprising, circa 1965, but the quieter, calmer pictures reveal the sacrifices made. A lawyer, reading from documents and newspaper clippings, said Whitehorn’s sentence was the result of a plea bargain to lessen the jail time of an incarcerated comrade sick with cancer.
Whitehorn agreed to participate in the film as a way to speak about political activism happening behind bars. Along with her fellow activists she created an HIV/AIDS educational program for inmates which was eventually shut down by prison officials. Having AIDS support groups in prison is next to impossible because it involves admitting to one of two highly illegal activities in prison: having sex and taking drugs.
Collins and de Vries were at the Dublin facility with their cameras when Whitehorn was released, but the newly freed prisoner had turbulently mixed feelings and refused to talk. Her grief over her personal and political intimates still inside conflicted with her elation.
Her emotions have calmed somewhat since then.
“I have enormous amount of joy everyday at being free,” Whitehorn said on the phone last week, “but there’s a real pain that never leaves my heart."