Late last year, my friend Kevin Morrison, a Bay Area filmmaker, sent me a DVD of a feature film he directed and produced: The Accidental Activist, the story of one woman's "astonishing inability to save the world." Actress Kathryn Blume performs a one-woman stage show interweaving her experiences co-founding and organizing the Lysistrata Project--readings of the Greek anti-war comedy Lysistrata in early 2003, in opposition to the impending U.S. invasion of Iraq--and her frustrations at being an out-of-work actress despite long dedication to her craft and career.
The Lysistrata Project was a hit, with over 1000 readings worldwide and coverage in the global press--but then it was over. The U.S. went to war, and Blume was still out of work. What did it all mean?
Kathryn Blume's performance is compelling, inspiring, and--thankfully!--very funny. But I also wondered how my friend Kevin, who I know as a mild-mannered California filmmaker, became a political filmmaker. How did career, creativity, and politics intertwine in his life? And how did he he think it would change the world?
Kevin and I conducted this interview via e-mail and phone in December and January.
(Read on for the interview...)
E: How did you get involved with The Accidental Activist?
K: In February and March of 2003, I was among the many who worked in support of The Lysistrata Project. The notion that we were going to invade Iraq was so ridiculous -- I didn't believe it would happen, but I wanted to help ensure that it wouldn't.
I taped the Lysistrata performances at the Berkeley Repertory Theater -- among the largest performances in the Project world -- and just a few weeks later was appalled when the invasion came to be. The ridiculous had happened -- I realized that the things I thought impossible -- beyond consideration -- ill-considered and unreasonable -- had taken place on my watch and in my name.
I realized that things that were obvious to me were not so obvious to others. (For instance, it was obvious to me that no one in their right mind would vote for Arnold Schwarzenegger to become governor of California. I am clearly out of touch with many Californians.)
Months later -- August, 2003 -- Kathryn Blume, the co-founder of The Lysistrata Project -- came back to Berkeley to perform her show "The Accidental Activist," which was based on her experience as an anti-war activist in general and in particular on her experience putting together the Project. I taped those shows for her -- wanted her to have some good publicity materials -- and as I watched the shows, I realized she was speaking my mind. How could this have happened? What can we do? We have to do something! By then, the death toll of American soldiers was in the hundreds and the toll among Iraqi soldiers and civilians was uncounted thousands. The terrible immorality of the war -- the killing -- the entire misguided enterprise -- was abundantly clear.
I wanted Kathryn's message to find a wider audience. Sure, the show was great. But if it could become more widely available as a movie...I talked to Kathryn about it. I pulled together people and resources. We agreed to a late September taping date.
E: What motivated you to do the project?
K: Shock. Outrage. Disbelief. I was thrown off the gymbals of my reasonable world. Couldn't people see how stupid this was? This invasion, this war?
It was the galvanizing moment. I've made films in past for others that expresssed their point of view. It was the moment where I had to act, and act in a bigger way than I had before.
E: Is this the first time you've done something like this, art for social change?
K: It is absolutely the first time for me. But it all became clear to me instantly what I could do -- make the movie, then find a way to make the movie available. I have this faith that people who are touched by Kathryn's words, her performance, will be renewed and reinvigorated by their eloquence and passion.
E: So, it's a way to bolster the spirits of the converted.
K: The story won't reach people who are four-square behind the war, behind Bush, but it will reach people who are on the fence, and certainly it gives the anti-war and anti-insanity folks -- me, for instance -- a boost.
But when I talk about this, I also talk about how important it is to engage people who disagree. Not to convince them, but to show that it's okay to have a debate. I don't want to dishonor the people who think about Bush and his policies, and then say "I agree." As long as they're thinking, that's okay.
E: How does art enhance the political debate?
Today, we're talking on the day of the inauguration. Thousands of people along the parade route turned their backs on George Bush--it's the largest piece of performance art ever. It's a statement and a gesture.
The Accidental Activist is a statement and a gesture. A statement and a gesture can be as simple as turning your back or as complex as a film.
I'm looking forward to an ongoing discussion about the role of artists and art in political and social debate. There's a lot to be said for artists getting more involved in politics and what's going on in our society. That feels very necessary to me now.
E: Do you think there was a time when that wasn't true?
K: It's only now that most artists I know feel even more out of sync with politics and the direction of our society, more than we ever have. It's not like it was during Clinton. Or even Reagan--for all the awful things he did, he wasn't about dismantling so many of the things that we as artists tend to hold more dear than others, like living in a country we can be proud of, for one.
Art is about reaching out to connect with people everywhere. Artists are out in the world more than a lot of other people. We're accountable about our president and our national policies.
If we're going to be accountable, we have to do more at home to fix the things we don't want to be accountable for.
At this point it's got to be about engagement, and fixing things from right here. It's a huge protest to move abroad, but it's more important to stay and fight.
The Accidental Activist itself is such an eloquent statement. If it could go around the world, be translated into many other languages, it would help. There are people out there who believe that there are Americans who don't believe in the country's current policies, but if they had proof of that, it would help.
E: What are your hopes for the documentary?
K: To reach the audience that needs it. To expand the message that peace is a better option than war. To encourage people who might think they are alone, or that their small efforts will not help stem the war- and hate-mongering idealogues in our government.
E: Do you consider this a form of activism?
K: Absolutely. I've spent my entire professional career making movies of one sort or another, but never have I felt that a particular story could help in a tangible way -- be valuable on a moral level -- a practical level. This one can.
E: Sometimes, people feel too small or at a loss to "do activism." You and Kathryn have found ways to use your art and creativity, the things you love the most, to express your political ideas.
K: The Accidental Activist, just by its title, is about people who accidentally fall into conversations, and doing things, without actually thinking, "Hey, I'm going to go out and become an activist."
E: How do you think the documentary will create change?
K: It can inspire people to do something. To work. To write. To change themselves and their world -- to transform a people and a country -- us and the US -- from agents of unnecessary destruction and death into angels of hope and healing.
I wish this didn't have such an apostolic air -- such a ring of high-falutin' oratory -- but that's the way I feel. Perhaps if I were talking about smaller things -- a luxury tax on iPods, for instance -- I could use smaller language.
E: How are you distributing the DVD? Do you have a conscious strategy for using networks--online networks, peace activist networks--to get it out? 2004 was the year activist DVD really came into its own, with Fahrenheit 9/11 and Outfoxed mailed out and screened at houseparties all over the country. The ease of distribution is amazing.
K: So far, we're doing four things: one, making it available online at CustomFlix.
Two, spreading the word via our own private e-mail lists.
Three, submitting it to film festivals. So far, it's a slow process. The film was finished and available in November. I've submitted it to festivals at the rate of about one per week. It's a kind of expensive proposition -- festival entry fees range from $45-65 typically, plus the cost of materials and shipping. Festivals usually accept submissions 2-6 months in advance of their dates, and at this point we've received only one response, a rejection from San Jose's Cinequest.
The notion of hooking into online networks, activist lists, etc. -- good idea. Which brings me to four -- talking about it. Talking about it with whomever wants to talk about it. I am hoping that there will be opportunities to talk in wider forums -- like, say, WorldChanging.com -- and in venues like radio shows. The era of artist as activist is here again -- filmmakers are out there making important statements -- I'm proud to be one of them!
Art is part of society's dialogue and debate. Art is not just about art. It can have a viewpoint. It can have an impact. It can be provocative in a good way.
Thanks for posting this. Collectively, it is the tiny efforts that will get us over the hump, individual efforts are the cornerstone to the process of unification and collaborative achievements for the People. And it is so hard to remain optimistic, but I am convinced the only way forward is to embrace the urge to step up and speak out - in art and projects- as well as something as small as this - a post that merely says thank you for connecting all of us here...in spirit.
In short, keep charging!
Rock on. Speaking of personal and collective work, I was remiss in not mentioning at least some of the folks who donated time and resources to making the film happen. For instance, the executive producers, Tamsin Orion and Kent Crowley. Tamsin also shot part of it and was a tremendously helpful presence throughout the editing, sound design, and blahdy-blah. There was a lot of blahdy-blah. Thanks, Tamsin and Kent!
And then there was Randall Stuart, founder/director of Upon These Boards, who was the guiding light of Lysistrata in Berkeley and who thus put me in touch with Kathryn in the first place. Thanks, Randall!