On September 9, 1971, inmates at Attica Prison in upstate New York, driven past their breaking points by their obscene living conditions, seized control of part of the building, taking hostages to bargain for improvements. Outside observers were called in for negotiations with the state, which for a time seemed to be going well. But then on September 13, state troopers retook the prison by force, killing more than 30 prisoners — and nine of the hostages (it was initially claimed that the prisoners had killed them, but that coverup did not last long).
The Attica uprising was a crucial turning point in the dark history of US prison reform, and numerous works have been made about it. Last fall, close to the 50th anniversary of the event, Showtime released the documentary Attica, which incorporates dozens of interviews with surviving prisoners and observers. The film has now been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. In the wake of the announcement of that honor, Hyperallergic spoke to directors Stanley Nelson and Traci Curry over Zoom about the challenges of making it, particularly during the pandemic. This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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Hyperallergic: How did you find some of the former prisoners whom you interviewed?
Traci Curry: It was a daunting prospect at the beginning. We had two great advisors in the film: Heather Thompson, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize winner Blood in the Water, and Julie Clark, a prison activist who gave us a sense of where to start. Something that greatly helped us were the decades of lawsuits and litigation that led to the prisoners getting a settlement from the state. The judge who oversaw the disbursement of the money took this extraordinary step where he allowed every single one of the surviving former prisoners from Attica to speak about their experiences on the 13th. There’s a record of that, and that was a really great resource. I read through those hundreds of pages, and from there narrowed it down. My background is in journalism, and after that it was just doing that work of looking through public records and searching for people and getting them on the phone. In some cases, people did not want to have this conversation, and we had to respect that, but fortunately there were enough folks who were willing to talk about what happened.
My goal was to find everybody we could who was there. We were really lucky that there were so many folks who were still around and had such clear and compelling memories. Like Clarence Jones, who obviously is one of the stars of this film, or Herman Schwartz. Though there were certainly people we really wanted to talk to who we couldn’t. A former prisoner passed away while we were in the course of setting up a pre-interview with him. Former state senator John Dunne was very ill while we were filming him, and he actually passed away a couple of months after that. It certainly was always in the back of our minds that these people are older, and also we were doing this in a pandemic. Pretty much everyone in this film is in an age range that makes them particularly vulnerable to COVID. And we were shooting in 2020, pre-vaccines.
H: How did you set up protocols for safety and hygiene?
Stanley Nelson: We were set to shoot in April 2020, and then COVID hit. We had to go on a hiatus at first, and just wait and see. Then other crews slowly started shooting, and we could take some of the protocols they established and fashioned those to our shoots.
TC: We followed the public health guidance out there at the time. I think we were all learning in real time how to be safe. Certainly the safety of the people we were filming and our crew was paramount. On the production side, we were all masked at all points, of course. But it was also important for us that the viewer not feel like they could date when it happened. We tried a plexiglass shield and a couple things, but that was weird. In interviews, you want to feel connected and present with the subject. We sanitized everything a million times. We used big spaces so everyone could distance. Where normally we might do three or even four shoots in one location, here we kept it to one — two at max — spacing out all the people.
Then there were the people who were at a distance, and it was untenable to fly at that time. That’s when we explored remote shoots. For about a third of the interviews in the film, I was actually talking to them from my own sofa. We hired local crews to go in and set things up over Zoom. One of the things I’m happiest about is that I think it feels seamless, that you really can’t tell.
H: I wouldn’t have guessed. What guided the structure of the film? It begins by going straight into the inception of the uprising. Then it goes back and forth in the timeline to fill in context.
SN: Backstory is always hard in historical films. If you start with the backstory here, it’s like, “Well wait a minute. I thought this film was about the Attica rebellion, not the town of Attica!” We had a cut where that’s how we started. We worked hard on that section, which we eventually called “the flashback,” in which we look at the town and then the conditions of the prison. We had another cut where we put that sequence after the first day. One thing that helped was an old interview with L.D. Barkley where he talks about “The reasons why we’re here.” There’s also the clip of the guy who says, “There are factory towns, there’s college towns, and after that comes the prison town.” That helped introduce Attica. But it was really a matter of trying different things. It felt most natural to get the audience into the rebellion quickly. Then the flashback became organic.
H: You already mentioned Blood in the Water and the court documents. Besides that, what other major sources did you work with? What about sources for footage?
SN: Certainly there were other films done before. There was a documentary in 1973, and a fiction film in the ’90s, among others. But of course we looked at everything. A couple people from the observer committee had written books. It’s how we work on every film: Look at what’s already been made, see their sources. That’s a good way to start.
There’s hours of footage. Hours just that New York state workers took. They dumped a whole bunch of that on us. We had to comb through all of that to figure out what worked. One of the things that really added to the film was listening to the audio from that footage, because they left the mics open. They were talking throughout. I’ve never seen that stuff used before in anything about Attica.
TC: Those harrowing photos you see about the aftermath of what happened, those also came from the material involved with the lawsuits. It was evidence found by this attorney, Liz Fink, who led this team of lawyers for 25-30 years on the prisoners’ cases. I can’t even tell you how many terabytes this information were on her drive.
H: Attica has become a major political touchstone, but you keep the focus almost entirely on the prisoners.
SN: One decision we made very quickly was that the story would end at the massacre. We were contracted to do a two-hour film. If we had the money to do a miniseries, we could have gone on and on. It was about the time we had, the time the story is contained in. I don’t look at it as the prisoners’ story; it’s the story of the rebellion.
H: How did you figure out what to show versus what to only describe when it came to the horrible violence inflicted on the prisoners?
TC: It was never far from our minds that this was a profound trauma in the lives of all of the people who were touched by this. Thinking about the images, what to show and what not to, and where that line is, I feel an audience should not be able to walk away from a story in which more than three-dozen people were massacred by the American state and not feel disturbed. A lot of the screenings that we’ve done, people say, ‘It just haunted me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.’ I think that is as it should be.
We asked a lot of people to revisit their trauma for the sake of telling a story. The very least that we as filmmakers could do, and that we could ask of an audience, is to sit with those images as well. Those people don’t get to walk away from it, even after 50 years. In some ways I feel it’s the cost of admission. You should have to sit with this, and you should feel disturbed.
SN: There’s no hard and fast rule. You want to have the power of what happened in the film, but you don’t want the audience to turn against you. It’s a delicate balance, especially with a film like this, where there are such incredibly disturbing images. You push to the edge and then say, ‘Oh wait,’ and pull back. We took out some color images of the aftermath of the massacre because they were a little bit too much. But nobody come up to us and said, ‘This was too much.’ We didn’t want to go too far, but we needed it to be haunting.
Attica is available to stream via Showtime.
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