How a movie changed my lifeby Mark Rudd
Last November, in a radio interview [WLUW 88.7, “Live From the Heartland] with Mike James of the Heartland Café in Rogers Park, Chicago, I mentioned that the Weather Underground documentary “changed my life.” Mike’s wife Paige, the editor of Heartland Journal, was watching critically, as spouses and editors do, and afterward asked me the logical follow-up question, “How?” I promised her I would write a reply for the Journal. For the last 30 years or so I’ve been reluctant to speak in public about the Weather Underground. The reason: it was such a total disaster that I felt I had no right to speak. Also, I didn’t know the right words. I couldn’t answer the key question in my mind about why I had made such terrible choices.
In the late 80’s, during the U.S. war against Central America, I had tried to write about my experiences in the Vietnam anti-war movement and the Weather Underground, but my effort foundered on the question of why I had chosen the stupid, losing strategy of “revolutionary” violence. The best answer I could come up with 15 years ago was to blame my macho desire to be a great revolutionary hero (and martyr), like Che Guevara. But that explanation wasn’t quite enough and I hid the 500-page manuscript I produced on a back shelf of my closet.
The Weather Underground documentary, released in 2003 [and nominated for an Oscar in 2004], resurrected that manuscript (some of it became narration in the film) and, even more important, gave me a deeper understanding of my true motivations. I saw shots of myself as a 21 year-old, grief written all over my face. That was what I had forgotten in the intervening 35 years: grief! The grief that came with the knowledge of what our country was doing in our name, a grief so overwhelming it produced the conviction that it was absolutely imperative to act against the outrages of empire. The easiest reaction to grief is anger and violence, both justified back then in the theories of armed revolution. Thanks to the rare opportunity to see myself as a very young man which the movie afforded me, I finally understood why I had acted.
The second revelation granted me by The Weather Underground film was that people, I was amazed to find, wanted to hear what I had to say. The filmmakers had chosen to feature me in the beginning, middle, and end of the movie, which gave the effect of my words serving as a kind of narrative thread. I found people referring to the movie as “your movie,” though my part had been only a six-hour interview and I was but one among several former Weather Underground members filmed, each of us with our own perspective, ones which were far from identical. Butmy doubts and self-reflection had jumped off the screen and audiences seemed to perceive me as a sympathetic, approachable kind of character, not one given to radical exhortations.
So I started doing media interviews and attending movie showings followed by question and answer sessions and A in dozens of venues around the country, from Massachusetts to Oregon. This became my anti-war work for the last year. Audiences often contain both young and old, and the ensuing discussions always evolve from questions about movement history to what to do now. Universally, people are desperate for public forums in which to discuss the current situation. They want to talk.
I often find myself in a strange argument with the audience. People will express that I am some kind of hero for having taken on the U.S. government. I say, “No, no, the Weather Underground was a huge fuck-up! We did the work of the FBI by destroying SDS. We accidentally killed three of our own people. We split and undermined the larger anti-war movement.” Often these arguments have become heated and people have screamed at me that I’m too hard on myself and on my former comrades. It’s an unexpected kind of turn-around. I try to use the discussions to advocate non-violent strategy and tactics because “violence doesn’t work.” In the end I leave it open to the audience, especially the young people, to decide for themselves about the significance of the Weather Underground.
Several times I’ve done joint Q and A’s with Sam Green, the director of the movie, and each time we reenacted what I call “The Sam and Mark Show,” wherein he tells audiences that the message of the movie is that there once were a group of young people so committed to stopping the Vietnam war and the system behind that war that they were willing to risk their lives. I respond by taking the opposite view, that the importance of the Weather Underground was that it was a terrible disaster. “Don’t try this at home,” I say. I also downplay the courage involved since courage, it seems to me, is spread out evenly across the political spectrum. I tell people it takes courage for American soldiers, no matter how misguided, to face resistance fighters in Iraq, for example., However, I’ve gradually been won over to seeing Sam’s point of view, without giving up my own. The whole Weather episode was quite remarkable, no matter how misguided. Possibly it’s inspiring to young people, I don’t know. The cumulative effect of watching the film many times and participating in these discussions has been to that of bringing back my voice, after all these years. For this I’m also thankful to Sam and to Bill Siegel, his co-director.
In my home community, this movie has been a kind of coming out for me: I wasn’t hiding my past, but neither did I make a big deal about it. Most people in Albuquerque, New Mexico, had never heard of “Mark Rudd.” I’ve made a point of showing the movie to my co-workers and students at the community college where I teach. They’ve reacted with engagement, interest, and questions. Nothing has changed in my relations with people, but I feel like I’m a more honest member of the community now.
There’s yet another level of personal transformation: the Weather Underground film has written an ending to the Weather Underground episode in my family. My brother David, who’s eight years older, had never been comfortable with anything about the Weatherman. At the time I treated him contemptuously because he wasn’t “revolutionary,” and on top of that he had to live with the misery which my parents endured for the seven years I was a fugitive. Over the years our way of dealing with the issue was to not talk about it. But last year, after he saw the movie, David became so smitten with The Weather Underground that he set up two showings, one in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where he lives part-time, and the other at a Jewish film festival in suburban Essex County, New Jersey, where our family is from. Both shows were sold out. After thirty-five years the problem of the Weather Underground in our family’s history could finally be aired in public and resolved in a thoughtful way. Between us we now have closure, thanks to the film.
About four hundred people attended the showing at the Jewish Community Center in West Orange. My mother, Bertha Rudd, who’s 92 years old, was in the second row. After the movie I was answering questions from the audience when my mother waved her hand, interrupting. “I have a question! I have a question!” she shouted. “What’s your question, Mom?” I asked.
Her timing was perfect. She paused just long enough for the audience to begin to wonder what she was going to say. “I’ve waited thirty years to ask you: How could you do this to me?” The audience cracked up.
My mother isn’t the only one who’s been holding in her questions for thirty years. At the deepest level, the movie has given me back my past, a significant part of which had been lost. I often think that if the Weather Underground film hadn’t been made, the history of the Weather Underground would have become totally lost. Does history exist if no one knows about it?
Mark Rudd was the last National Secretary of Students for a Democratic Society, elected at the infamous Chicago SDS convention of June, 1969. In 1968, he was chairman of the Columbia University chapter of SDS, and was one of the leaders of the student occupation of the campus and subsequent strike, both aimed at the University’s racism and involvement with the war in Vietnam. He was one of the founders of the Weatherman faction of SDS, which morphed, in early 1970, into the Weather Underground. He left the organization by the end of that year but remained a federal fugitive until 1977. He has taught remedial math at the community college in Albuquerque, NM. since 1980, and has been involved in the anti-nuclear, native American solidarity, environmental, peace, and union movements in New Mexico. Mark can be reached via his website, www.markrudd.com
Editor’s note [by Paige James]: When I first read the question Mark asks at the end, I wrote him my own reaction, and he encouraged me to run it as a postscript here:
My response to this question is: does history have to be public to exist? Certainly it has continued to be alive, even if buried alive in some cases, in the minds, bodies, and souls of each of the WU members and a wider community of families, friends, and foes, including those not featured in the film. And as it turns out, I think the history of the WU as depicted in the film is multi-faceted and does leave room for moral disagreement about the history, because it contains a wide variety of intellectual and emotional experiences and memories and explanations, some defiant, some remorseful, etc. I do think it’s interesting that [directors] Sam & Bill chose your particular personal experience and view to provide some sort of narrative frame, if Sam doesn’t agree with your evaluation (wrong means and bad results).
And then there’s the fact of things like Neil Gordon’s book (The Company You Keep, see HJ 48 review), Bill Ayers’s memoir (Fugitive Days, also reviewed in HJ 48), etc. The stories were going to bubble up. What’s good is that the film resurrected, at what serendipitously turned out to be a perfect historical moment (terrorism, war) a new awareness and perhaps understanding of WU from the perspective of 30 years’ hindsight, by providing the historical context and getting a few of you to talk about and reflect on it. It became a good opportunity to have these public discussions that people who believe in real democracy so long for and need.