Stanley Nelson’s documentary marking the 50th Anniversary of the riots at the Attica correctional facility in New York might be the most critical film at TIFF this year. What’s shocking to me is how it seemingly isn’t getting the publicity it deserves. Why? Could it be the complex subject matter or the role the media played in making matters far worse during the siege, which lasted from Sept. 9 – 13, 1971? For me, it seems as if it could be a combination of both. One thing which is evident after watching the film is that both sides of this incident saw this as a PR opportunity.
The prison system wanted to appear as if they were reaching out to their inmates despite their urges to go in and retake the prison by force. The inmates saw this as a chance to have their issues heard across the country (hence why they invited the press into the facility during the siege). The brilliance in Nelson’s work is in how unfiltered it was presented. There’s no danger of anything being “lost” in translation. We see here two things: what happens when humans are pushed to their limits and how hate can corrupt someone.
There was a riot at Attica due to the atrocious conditions the prisoners were subjected to. Living a life behind bars doesn’t entitle someone to be tortured as well. This was clearly occurring at night and corroborated by numerous inmate interviews. We also see how powerful hate truly is on someone’s soul. What occurred during the retaking of the prison was something out of a horror film. Nelson makes sure that we are all witnesses to what transpired. Heads of inmates being blown right off, guards who were held captive being gun down in friendly fire, and the “N” word being dropped left and right were just some of what we learned about what happened in the early morning on September 13th. Watching this documentary was a kick to the stomach. How can humans be this depraved? Further complicating matters, why was the media so complicit in telling one side of the story during the aftermath of the siege at Attica? If it hadn’t been for ABC News John Johnson being on location for the whole ordeal, we may never have learned what unfolded.