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Interview: ‘The War at Home’ is as relevant today as it was upon release

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The 1979 documentary “The War at Home,” which earned the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, covers the events at the University of Wisconsin that lead to the death of a student via a bomb meant for an army research facility. The film is being re-released in theaters, so writer Hannah Blum sat down with director Glenn Silber for an interview.

 

The Stanford Daily (TSD): What drew you into making “The War at Home,” and why the events at UW in particular?

Glenn Silber (GS): Well, when I was a young person like you, 18 years old, I became a freshman at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I was from a suburb in New Jersey and knew nothing about the war even though it was 1968 and we already had 580,000 people over there fighting. I came from a sheltered suburb; I was gonna be a freshman at this big college campus, and I was focused on having a great year and being away from home for the first time, really, and it was just the typical freshman experience.

The day after my parents dropped me off and said, “Go get educated,” someone slipped a leaflet under my door from the Wisconsin Draft Resistance Union. I was organized from day one to find out about the war and find out about the draft that very definitely threatened my well-being. When you had that war over there that wanted more and more GIs to go be part of the meat grinder that was happening – that focuses your mind. It wasn’t an inconsequential thought, that I need to find out about this. It’s almost like, “What side are you on?” so you better get educated and quick, and that’s what happened because it was the issue of the day. That was me as a freshman, and fairly quickly there was a lot of action happening on campus around protesting the war, protesting the draft, protesting the university’s complicity with all that and I got swept up in it like most of the people in my dorm.

Between the fall of ‘68 and the spring of 1970 when we had the murders of the four unarmed students at Kent State by the National Guard, the whole school just exploded. Not just Madison but everywhere, including Stanford. It was like a riot for a week, people protesting the idea that that could ever happen here in America. National Guardsmen, unprovoked, firing at unarmed students. That was sort of the final straw for me because I decided that after that spring I was gonna drop out for a semester, think it over. And then, of course, in that time when I was dropping out, that summer, came the biggest event in Madison history in the war, which is when the activists blew up the army math research center. I was already planning to drop out, but if I hadn’t I would have then. That’s history now, I mean these things happened and when you’re so close to it it’s hard to really get a perspective on where it’s going. I think we knew why it happened, not Kent State so much but in the case of the Army math research center, that was the physical incarnation, the militarization of our college.

After I graduated, I had already moved from wanting to be in photography to going into film which is kind of hard because it’s not like you have a clear cut path like a lawyer or a doctor. So I started out making films as an undergraduate, and I really wanted to be a documentary filmmaker and wanted to make my mark on the world. I used to joke when people would ask, “What are you doing?” I’d say, “Well I’m going to make epic documentaries that change the world.” There were no real film programs to speak of. I decided it was really more of my growth as a young man interested in the well-being of our country, and I really embraced the idea of being a radical filmmaker. To me, if you look up radical, the first definition isn’t some kind of left-wing or right-wing extremist, it’s getting to the root of the problem – radical. And I was very comfortable with that; I didn’t want to go rush off to New York or LA to try and get a job in the film industry. I wanted to make my own mark, and I knew that the story of what happened in Madison over a 10-year period was so profound and had certainly changed me as a human being in terms of my concerns about the world and in terms of my willingness to stand up. So I decided that the story of what happened in this one American town – “The War at Home” – would be the first documentary about the anti-war movement, and you could almost say it’s the only one. “The War at Home” is a film about the 1960s and looks at the impact of the war in Vietnam in one American town and on the 1960s-1970s movement against that war, seen through the microcosm and experiences of Madison, Wisconsin.

TSD: Why did you want to make the film?

GS: After staying in Madison a few years after my college years ended and then eventually after the war ended in 1975, I felt as though we’d all had such a profound experience over a multi-year period that I wanted to make sure that we were able to tell our story. Some people said, “Oh it’s too soon to tell this,” just a few years after these events took place, and I said, “Well I know that, and that’s not a bad thing to me because I want to tell our story and I’m not going wait 10 or 15 years for someone else to tell it.” The idea was already in my mind, that this documentary could really contribute to the historical memory of that war. There are not many places you can go to to get that information as an interested student today. The film, I think, is probably the best place you can go. It’s not just the print history; it’s the actual pictures and hearing from the people at the time, and the emotions – they all play together to make the film what it is today, why people consider it an authentic expression of the Vietnam era at home. “The War at Home” leads you from event to event and shows how consciousness was being raised about how the world works and how we as middle-class students fit into that equation.

TSD: Did you have any difficulties while filming?

GS: It took us four and a half years to make the film, partly because we had no money and it was very hard, but along the way I got very lucky. At first it was very frustrating because we had the State Historical Society right there on campus, and I don’t know what I was expecting, I at least expected tons and tons of photographs, but they had really nothing and in that sense it really was too early. They hadn’t collected it yet. So I was going there every week for a couple months for something I wasn’t finding, and then finally one day the head of the film and photo wing came to me and said, “Okay, Silber, you’re a nuisance. Get over here, today’s your lucky day.” I was really feeling like I needed a lucky day and he said that he had just received from one of the local TV stations all of the film footage that they’ve shot from 1959 to 1972. We picked it up, and it is a total mess. The guy said, “This could be a gold mine for you, but for us it’s a massive headache because it’s not catalogued, it’s all on little rolls for storage, we don’t know what’s in it and it’s gotta be cleaned and fixed. If you do that, you can have full access for free.” We put in the work, and discovered some really amazing material, as well as two other stations in town saying that they wanted to get in on it as well. Now all of a sudden, within the span of a year I had every frame of film that was shot in Madison, Wisconsin throughout the entire decade. So once we went through a painstaking investigation through the student newspaper, we wrote down every important event, including the people who were there, and then looked at the history of the war and the overarching context of what people were protesting against. My partner, who eventually became the co-director of the film, Barry Alexander Brown, and I eventually put together a 100-page book outline that was our roadmap, and after a year we started filming the interviews, already knowing where we were going.

TSD: Why bring “The War at Home” back today?

GS: When you look at the anti-war movement, we boil it down using the microcosm approach, but at its essence it is a sustained, eight-year political resistance movement that was built against the war. I think you can look at that period and at ‘68 in particular because everything happened that year: Johnson couldn’t run again, 585,000 troops in Vietnam, campuses were seething about the draft and King had just come out against the war. All the polarization that happened there, all the political culture we set up there, in protesting and learning how to protest, I think planted the seeds for the resistance movement today. And not only because of the different forms of protest, a lot of which the anti-war movement learned from the civil right movement. These are still issues that we’re dealing with fifty years later that are unresolved.

TSD: How is “The War at Home” still relevant to my generation?

GS: I think for students today and even other generations, you really have to go back to that time to understand where we are now – it’s even more polarized today than it was then, but all of it started back then. The seeds of resistance and the forms of protest were new – I don’t think we would have had, for example, women’s marches all over the country like we do today without it. Sure, women would have protested, but no one would’ve even thought of having hundreds of thousands of people all over the country. You could say the same thing of the kids from Parkland, Florida. Of course social media helps, but just the idea of having a national march in Washington echoes what we did in the ‘60s concerning Vietnam. The torch was passed to your generation (to use a Kennedy line) to band together with your moral conscience and your bodies and your direct action and you could raise your voice. That’s really part of our democracy, that we always have to…reassert. And that’s where we’re at right now.

Contact Hannah Blum at hannahbl ‘at’ stanford.edu.