Filmmaking | Interviews

Documentary and Dissent

1 Mar , 2001  

Written by Francine Latil | Posted by:

Fresh from Sundance, caught up with Bestor Cram to discuss his new film 'Unfinished Symphony.'

Citing the legacy of the Minutemen’s march against the British, the Vietnam Veterans Against the War marched over Memorial Day weekend in 1971 from Concord to Boston, seeking to draw suburban attention to veterans’ growing sense of the injustice of the Vietnam War. The veterans, marching Paul Revere’s ride in reverse under the title "Operation POW," expected to meet with some resistance, but didn’t foresee that sleeping overnight on Lexington Green would unleash a chain of events that would evoke another local icon — Henry David Thoreau and his idea of civil disobedience.

At the behest of local lawmakers determined to protect Lexington Green, more than 400 veterans and locals were arrested that night — still the largest arrest in the history of the state. The veterans awakened questions of political dissent and civil disobedience that had a profound effect on citizens, and these debates live on in local filmmakers Bester Cram and Mike Majoros’ documentary "Unfinished Symphony," featured at the Documentary Competition at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival.

Subtitled "Democracy and Dissent," the film is a meditation on the importance, even necessity, of dissent in a democratic system. The documentary assembles footage from the 1971 march, along with startling scenes of conditions during the Vietnam War, intercut with scrolling text that narrates atrocities committed. The directors use coverage of protests in Washington, D.C. to illustrate the history of the veterans’ antiwar efforts, and local historian Howard Zinn offers commentary on the nature of civil disobedience and dissent. The mournful tones of Henryk Gorecki’s "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs" powerfully impart the event’s significance, and the heartfelt expressions of the young, newly returned veterans.

Co-director, producer, and cinematographer Bestor Cram, himself a Vietnam veteran, participated in Operation POW in 1971. In the early 90’s, he was interviewed by the Lexington Oral History Project, a group of Lexington residents seeking to collect records of the protest that had so much transformed their town. When the local public library refused to let the Oral History Project put on an exhibit, these citizens turned to other methods to study the continuing effects of the march, and asked Cram to produce a film.

After they developed a script and received grants, the filmmakers gained access to footage filmed by Hart Perry during the march, but unfortunately the sound and video reels were separate. They transferred the film to video and worked hard to match up the sound and picture. During this lengthy process, "The raw authenticity of the footage transformed our approach to the film," says Cram. The filmmakers saw the film had scope far larger than the local issues. While revising their plans for the film, co-director Mike Majoros came up with the idea of using Gorecki’s symphony throughout the documentary, with each of three movements providing the backdrop to the narrative structure of the film’s three "acts."

By revisiting events in which he had been a participant, Cram says the film brought the intensity of these deeply etched memories to life. At the same time, he was fascinated by the sense that the Lexington march was so far in the past, "I was impressed at how thoughtful we all were, and how we expressed ourselves." The film reflects the seriousness of their project, but also the spontaneous creativity and the sudden community formation in their collective purpose. Cram notes, "It was a revelation to see the event as something that had a lot of meaning, in contrast with the way the era has been presented to young people today. It wasn’t all about bellbottoms. There were a lot of serious issues."

Though the film addresses changes and political events of a particular era, Cram hopes it will speak to people who are now the same age as the veterans had been during the protests, "It’s not just a Vietnam film about Vietnam, it’s an essay on dissent. In the film, Howard Zinn comments that democracy is the voice of the people, so dissent is the vital force of democracy." Dissent has been significant at every step of the nation’s history, and it continues to be relevant today, with the protests at the WTO in Seattle in 1999 and at the recent inauguration of George W. Bush. "This film portrays the essential nature of this kind of protest," says Cram, "and it suggests that thoughtful, authentic dissent must be respected."

Sundance was an exciting experience for Cram, who says the film had a phenomenal reception at each of the six showings. "Everyone understood that the film had a larger context. There was always a moment during the Q&A when someone made a personal statement that caught the spirit of the film, and the audience was surprised at how vulnerable people were willing to be publicly," he says. Since "Unfinished Symphony" was more politically charged than the other selected documentaries, Cram says, "It was curious to feel part of cinema as agitprop. Being at the festival made me feel like an important director for a week!"

As a director, producer, and cinematographer, Cram wears many hats — and he’s also the founder and creative director of Northern Light Productions. Since 1982, Northern Light has produced many award-winning films, including broadcast documentaries shown on HBO, PBS, and the Discovery Channel, social and natural history pieces for museums and visitors centers including the National Parks Service and the Smithsonian Museum, corporate profiles, instructional videos, and special interest, advocacy, and nonprofit pieces. His recent directorial/cinematographer credits include "Midnight Ramble" for PBS’s American Experience and "You Don’t Know Dick," currently running on the Sundance Channel.

Cram believes the state of documentary film looks quite healthy; yet he agrees there’s not enough money for a growing number of documentary films to share, "The genre has exploded. Now TV is filled with documentaries… but TV doesn’t offer a broad palate of documentary styles, and many documentary filmmakers have had to become commercial documentarians." Having multiple approaches to documentary projects seems to work for his production company, which usually runs about a dozen projects at once.

See Bestor Cram’s documentary ‘Unfinished Symphony,’ fresh from Sundance, screening at the MFA on March 30, as part of the New England Film Festival.

See Bestor Cram’s documentary 'Unfinished Symphony,' fresh from Sundance, screening at the MFA on March 30, as part of the New England Film Festival.