'American Anarchist': Venice Review

American Anarchist - Still 2 - H - 2016
Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival
Times have changed, but explosives are ever on demand.

William Powell, the author of the infamous 1970s manual for revolution 'The Anarchist Cookbook,' is grilled by documaker Charlie Siskel.

The 19-year-old radical who in the year 1970 researched, wrote and published information on how to construct homemade bombs and weapons with a view to overthrowing the American government was a white-haired gent of 65 when documaker Charlie Siskel interviewed him for American Anarchist, a disturbingly contentious film that seems unable to situate its subject in any historical context. For most viewers, the pic’s witch hunt against an aging schoolteacher who long ago changed his political ideas will probably have the opposite effect from what is intended, provoking more sympathy than repulsion.

On the other hand, Siskel is no stranger to controversy, having being associated with Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine as a field producer and Religulous, in which comedian Bill Maher attacks all religions, as an executive producer. Many objections were raised to Finding Vivian Maier, which he co-directed, over the propriety of resurrecting the negatives of a dead photographer who never printed them. But here the difficulty is not so much ideological — how many viewers would condone spreading recipes for explosives and detonators around? — as ethical, considering its badgering, bullying tone bent on confession and punishment.

The source of all the controversy is William Powell, author of the infamous manual The Anarchist Cookbook, which has inspired and very likely aided many heinous acts of violence from Columbine to terrorist attacks. This literally incendiary book, which contains chapters on how to make TNT and how to convert a shotgun into a grenade launcher, sold some two million copies before being pirated on the internet and, as the film points out, has been found on the premises of terrorists, revolutionaries, psychos and mass murderers around the world. It has been linked to a dismayingly long list of mayhem, and the story of how it came to be written and later disavowed by Powell is a fascinating one.

The son of a spokesman for the Secretary General of the U.N., Powell grew up in England and then in the U.S., feeling he belonged nowhere. Expelled from school, he got a job in a New York City bookstore at the height of the anti-war movement. As a disaffected activist who wanted to avoid being drafted and sent to Vietnam, he began researching open stacks in the New York Public Library and putting together his recipes for explosives and illegal drugs. The text of the book is a naïve but radical call for violence and bloodshed against the government.

Published and promoted by the unscrupulous Lyle Stuart, the book was immediately reviled as an irresponsible act of publishing, but protected under freedom of expression law. As young Powell progressed from press conferences interrupted by tear gas to outright death threats, he began to have his first qualms about what he had written. He was glad to wash his hands of the book by selling its copyright to Stuart for $10,000, but this later made it impossible for him to remove it from print when it became clear it was being used for acts of violence. By then he had become a father, a teacher of children with learning disabilities and a Christian. In 1979, he left the U.S. with his wife to teach in Africa and Asia, where he headed several schools.

But the book from his youth continued to haunt him and dog his footsteps. Whenever he applied for a new teaching post, anonymous letters informed the school board about it. Despite his public disavowals on Amazon.com and in The Guardian, the book almost ended his teaching career.

Interviewed in his home in Massat, France, just a year before his death, Powell seemed both profoundly sorry he had ever written The Anarchist Cookbook and, at the same time, self-protective and sometimes unable to make connections. Siskel keeps up the pressure with repetitive questions that finally stir the anger of the author and his wife, and when he bursts out with a pained “I am responsible!” it seems a bit ludicrous and anticlimactic.

Venue: Venice Film Festival
Production company: Patna Pictures
Director-screenwriter-producer: Charlie Siskel
Co-producer-editor: Chris McKinley
Executive producers: Matthew Perniciaro, Michael Sherman, Bow and Arrow Entertainment
Director of photography: Nina Bernfeld
Music: T. Griffin
World sales: United Talent Agency  

Not rated, 80 minutes