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The 1971 Attica prison rebellion remains a little-known part of American history, and for the wrong reasons, says veteran documentary maker Stanley Nelson.
Most accounts of the United States’ biggest-ever prison uprising portray armed police and guards brutally retaking a correctional facility in New York State from Black and Latino rioters as they held prison guards and civilians hostage.
But Nelson, who is seeing his latest film, Showtime’s Attica, premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, has uncovered rare footage and the recollections of prisoners present at that famous rebellion to put that Black American experience at the center of the national narrative about Attica the prison and the events of Sept. 9 to 13, 1971.
And Nelson is keen that his fuller account of the bloody events of Attica reveals rioting prisoners as human beings with good reasons for their rebellion. “These are human beings. You have to think about the prison system and what it’s doing,” Nelson told a filmmaking panel at TIFF on Sunday afternoon.
Nelson, who has made a career out of spotlighting Black American stories with documentaries like The Murder of Emmett Till, Freedom Riders, Freedom Summer and The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, points to one scene in the documentary where footage reveals one prisoner telling another that it was the first time in 22 years that he had come outside at night.
“Think about, there’s 2 million people in jail today in the United States and they won’t see the stars tonight. They won’t wake up outside. They’ll wake up and go to bed in jail tomorrow,” Nelson insisted.
Arguing that the role of prison is to put people away so society doesn’t have to think about them, Nelson said Attica and much of his documentary work aims at revealing submerged or under-explored African American stories that are part of American history.
“We don’t think about people in prison. Over and over again, the guys involved in Attica talk about how they just want to be viewed as human beings,” the veteran filmmaker added about his interviews with former prisoners. Nelson argued Americans have failed to acknowledge the full extent of their history through storytelling, but he added there’s a realization that was now needed.
“We now can’t deny it. There’s so many different thoughts and craziness around events. We look at them on television, January 6, for example, and we hear two different truths,” he argued. Nelson added the first step to a fuller picture of American history was at hand.
“In some ways, we’re on our way. Because we’ve realized that to some extent we’re in a ten-step recovery program and the first step is to realize that there’s a problem,” he told the TIFF panel.
And to reveal in Attica the stories of prisoners, observers and family members of hostages and other people tied to the prison, Nelson discussed the treasure trove of footage from the prison rebellion and retaking that he and his filmmaking team uncovered.
He recalled coming upon extensive surveillance footage shot by the New York State Police as they controlled the ramparts around the occupied Attica prison yard. “The New York State Police were up on a tower, shooting with a porta-pak, the first portable way people could shoot with video. They had a tape recorder attached to a camera. And they shot all the time, from the very beginning of the rebellion to the end. When they go to retake the prison, they’re filming it,” Nelson revealed.
Even the microphones were left on by prison officers documenting the brutal retaking of the Attica prison. In addition, the prisoner rioters early on allowed the media to come into the prison, as if to chronicle the rebellion from their perspective would offer them protection.
Nelson argued all of the found footage he used to tell the Attica prison rebellion story was key to being able to chronicle an under-reported part of American history. “There’s a great story, but there’s also footage, incredible footage of the whole rebellion that took days to resolve,” he insisted.
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