TIFF 2021 review: Attica (Stanley Nelson)

“Attica manages to do what seemed impossible: despite trying to have as many people as it can from different groups that were involved in the uprising present for the interviews, it avoids any ‘bothsidesism'”

There is a tough battle at the core of Stanley Nelson`s Attica, for it needs to find a way to both portray the largest prison uprising in US history, and while doing so, ask the audience whether they are capable of feeling empathy towards the film’s subjects. These are mostly former inmates that survived to tell their stories, now in their 70s and 80s, alongside reporters, members of negotiation committees and families of former correction officers. And thus comes the tricky part: despite not being revolutionary in its own structure – Attica is organized as a regular documentary with interviews and historical footage – Nelson’s film is divided into two larger pieces: first the focus is on the present-time interviews, and only in the second half do the newsreels and personal footage take center stage. This way the documentary provokes the audience from the very beginning; this is the history of a prison uprising, most of the interviewees were incarcerated; so, are we really listening to what they are saying? Does our concept of humanity include or exclude them?

Attica manages to do what seems impossible: despite trying to have as many people as it can from different groups that were involved in the uprising present for the interviews, it avoids any “bothsidesism”; first with the help of the aforementioned structure, and then by understanding the uprising not as a disease but as a fever, as a symptom of a sick society. To do so, Nelson capably alternates the interviews with the families of the officers with a brief history of the company town in which the prison is located, in a sense that the town exists because the prison exists. Both are part of a larger profit system, although neither the town nor its people were the ones who benefited the most; these were Richard Nixon with his law-and-order motto, as well as Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller and his presidential dreams. As the sociologist Patricia T. Clough argued in her article The Affective Turn: Political Economy, Biomedia, and Bodies, “racism plays a crucial part in contemporary socio-interactions, for it sustains society’s organization towards people’s capacities to provide a life for capital.” In other words, groups of people already segregated within different subgroups of race, gender, and sexual orientation, for example, are also reorganized into several value criteria determined by their relationship with their respective governments. Secondly, for Foucault, racism also provides a mythical enemy that must be hated and confronted at all costs. Clough then argues that “the biopolitics of racism … engages populations in terms of their vulnerable biologies … and anxieties concerning the level of threat.”

Then, when all is said and done, what is really being expressed in the film? Perhaps more than the history of this particular prison, Attica is about how things that made the uprising possible are still out there, the same forces and structures as mentioned before. Maybe under different names, but they are still there – Babenco’s Carandiru, although a fictionalized version, comes to mind. There are countless examples, whether or not films were made about them. Nelson understands that and thus, before showing the actual massacre, makes sure that during the interviews the ones who were prisoners back then talk about race. Because that is the key to understanding what happened. “There were only white guards,” or “I got more food only because I was white,” as a former prisoner says. All of which didn’t happen by chance but by design. Attica, New York, was a white town and therefore the racial tensions were far from those people’s daily lives, and that also was not an accident; for the history of the American suburbs is also a history of America’s segregation policies, Chicago’s redlining being a perfect example of that. So 50 years have passed, the survivors told their stories and the audience got to know more about Attica and this piece of modern US history; and how as they still deal with their traumas in their personal lives, the world still deals with militarism, police brutality, racial tensions, economic anxieties and so on.

In the end we are asked, once again, to check on our ability to feel empathy for the people we have been listening to for almost two hours. Before the film ends Nelson stops applying the brakes and shows us everything that didn’t make the final cut, including racially biased newsreels and newspapers from the time. It is an endless bloodbath, and the bodies are piled up. But when the audience thinks the horror is over, the prisoners who survived are tortured and humiliated. Naked men, mostly black and Puerto Rican, are lined up waiting to be forced to walk over broken glass, crawl over feces, be sexually abused, and be stripped of any dignity a human being might have. And as the footage freezes and the film ends, with those men resembling a painting of African men being forced into slavery across the Atlantic, a phone call, previously shown, between Rockefeller and Nixon lingers on a question by the latter: “Tell me, all the prisoners killed were blacks, or was there someone white among them?