All I really knew about Attica was the scene in Dog Day Afternoon, a movie I’ve seen way too many times. I had some vague idea of the riot, but that was it.
This documentary collects interviews from the prisoners, the “Observer’s Committee” and the families of some of the guards to re-tell the story of what happened over that weekend. We watched it on the 50th anniversary of the riot, which must have been intentional on the part of TIFF.
The film does a good job of taking a 21st century audience back to a pivotal moment in America in the ’70s, where reform and Law and Order clashed and Law and Order won. The film plunges you into the riot and sets up context later. This could be a problem if the subject weren’t a prison riot, but it is a prison riot.
Though it’s a talking heads film, it’s well-paced and there is plenty of archival footage – a shocking amount – which is interlaced with the interviews. Music is used sparingly and you’re mostly just confronted with the interviews and the archival footage, except for at the pivotal moment when a really good but simple sound design decision is made. (You’ll know it when it happens.) And I just want to reiterate the point about archival footage: I cannot believe how much there is. They let the media in the prison.
I have two main criticisms:
The first is a lack of interviews from the other side. This is a minor criticism for two reasons: one is that we should absolutely tell the story from the perspective of the victims, as the film mostly tries two. And the other is that we suspect there was an NDA preventing anyone from the state to participate in something like this, so it was likely out of their hands.
The more serious criticism is about the lack of detail regarding the decisions of the state in particular. Because this is basically an oral history it’s a little light on the details on what happened with, say, the decision making process about when to end negotiations and go in and why.
But it’s a pretty great documentary despite these issues, and it is a powerful reminder that things were once much worse for prisoners in the US many ways. It’s an incident that is important to remember and this film does a good job of showing why.