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Rebels With a Cause
Rebels With a Cause
Actors: Todd Gitlin, Tom Hayden, Juan Gonzalez
Director: Helen Garvy
Genres: Drama, Educational, Documentary
NR     2003     1hr 49min

Deftly charting the sweeping socio-political changes of the Sixties that began with the Civil Rights movement and culminated with angry protests against the U.S. war in Vietnam, REBELS WITH A CAUSE is told through the eyes...  more »


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Movie Details

Actors: Todd Gitlin, Tom Hayden, Juan Gonzalez
Director: Helen Garvy
Genres: Drama, Educational, Documentary
Sub-Genres: Drama, Educational, Biography, History, Civil War
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
Format: DVD - Color
DVD Release Date: 04/15/2003
Original Release Date: 11/10/2000
Theatrical Release Date: 11/10/2000
Release Year: 2003
Run Time: 1hr 49min
Screens: Color
Number of Discs: 1
SwapaDVD Credits: 1
Total Copies: 0
Members Wishing: 3
MPAA Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Languages: English

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Movie Reviews

Glimpses of Radical Politics Past
Jay Kinney | San Francisco, CA USA | 09/02/2003
(4 out of 5 stars)

"I'm surprised that no one has reviewed this DVD yet. It deserves to be seen by anyone hoping to comprehend, at this late date, the important role of SDS in the political turmoil of the '60s. Helen Garvy, a long-time SDS member and staffer, has produced an utterly sincere documentary about SDS's history, as seen through the eyes of those who participated in it. Given that upfront slant, it is reasonably objective and thoughtful. It is also crisply produced, well-photographed, and nicely packaged. I'm not quite sure, however, what today's generation of college students and anti-war activists are likely to make of it. As someone who was immersed in the youth culture of the '60sand 70's, I found it slightly unnerving to watch 90 minutes of greying radicals -- most of them old enough to be grandparents -- reminisce about civil rights, the anti-war movement, and the hopes and dreams of that earlier era. Not that they don't have plenty of worthy things to say -- they do -- but the juxtaposition of interview clips with b&w photos of the same members as young radicals definitely had me contemplating my own mortality.Contrast this, if you will, with the energizing effect of another recent documentary, "The Weather Underground," which has similar juxtapositions, but somehow manages (through a wider array of film clips) to actual throw the viewer back into the emotional intensity of the time. "Rebels With a Cause," by contrast, feels more like sitting down with one's parents and leafing through an old photo-album. Still, I don't mean to damn Garvy's effort with faint praise. This is valuable oral history, perfect for stimulating discussion in a study group or class. SDS was a remarkable phenomenon, the classic New Left organization that went from left-liberal to radical to revolutionary over the course of 10 short years, until it finally blew apart from sectarian in-fighting. The film is especially good in covering the early years when civil rights and community organizing were the primary focus; (the anti-war focus didn't really kick in until the escalation of the war in '64-65.) This is a part of the '60s that often gets short shrift, with Martin Luther King made to serve as shorthand for what really was a more complex and far-reaching movement.I've always been fascinated by SDS, perhaps because I was never a member. By the time I got to college (1968), SDS was already beginning to sink into Marxist-Leninist rhetorical excess and I watched the feeding frenzy from afar, diligently reading my best friend's New Left Notes each week until my eyes glazed over. By the next fall, SDS was kaput, for all intents and purposes. It is to Helen Garvy's credit that she succeeds in putting it all together, salvaging the admirable from the deplorable."
SDS, then and now
Jeffrey Leach | Omaha, NE USA | 05/03/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)

"I wish I could have gotten my hands on a copy of "Rebels With a Cause" three years ago when I wrote a short historiographical piece on Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Alas, I didn't own a DVD player then. Too, my professor probably wouldn't have let me cite it as a source. But watching Helen Garvy's account of the rise and fall of the largest New Left organization in the 1960s doubtless would have made my journey through the written sources less painful. I waded through Kirkpatrick Sale's massive 700 plus page tome, Todd Gitlin's equally weighty book on the 1960s, an intellectual history of SDS, and a couple of other heavy reads that left my mind reeling with information. Yep, Garvy's documentary would have cut through all the minutiae found in those books and given me a few touchstones to wrap my analyses around. At the same time "Rebels With a Cause," due to its running time, necessarily moves through dense information quite quickly. A viewer wishing to know a lot more about SDS will need to consult other sources of information. Too, Garvy has a tendency to whitewash some of the group's unsuccessful activities.

I'm quite impressed with the documentary. I've seen a few of these counterculture/New Left video presentations over the last couple of years, and Garvy succeeds in bringing us faces we've heard about in other places but haven't seen on camera. Folks like Bernardine Dohrn, Billy Ayers, Tom Hayden, and Todd Gitlin appear to offer insights, of course, but we also hear from Carl Oglesby, Sue Klonsky, Al Haber, Carl Davidson, Jeff Shero, Mike Spiegel, Bob Ross, and Casey Hayden. Wow! Most programs on SDS focus on the early, idealistic days when the group was just another left-leaning group on the University of Michigan campus, but "Rebels With a Cause" brings us leaders and personalities from the darker, later eras of the group when membership soared to over 100,000 as a result of the draft and the communist cadres started ripping the organization to shreds. I'm amazed Garvy located Alan Haber for an interview; I haven't seen him on other SDS/Weather Underground documentaries, which is curious since he essentially founded the organization in 1959. In short, it's great to see so many people I had only read about before.

As for the flow of the documentary itself, we get an enormous amount of material. We start with the beginnings of SDS when a small group of disenfranchised college kids took part in the civil rights movement in the South. "Rebels With a Cause" discusses Tom Hayden's "Port Huron Statement" and its theme of participatory democracy in some detail before moving on to the various rallies culminating in the first anti-war demonstration in 1965, a demonstration that placed SDS firmly in the minds of young people across the country. The period stretching from the Olympian heights of this anti-war protest to the embarrassing rise of the Marxist-Leninist sects that destroyed the group in 1969 also receives serious attention. Here the documentary pulls no punches as the former leaders look back on the turn to violent revolution with what amounts to a slap on the forehead. They almost to a man (and woman) acknowledge the stupidity of embracing violence and wish things could have been different. I could go on and on describing what "Rebels With a Cause" covers: the role of women in the New Left, the Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP) that led to the group's first real schism, the early association with SNCC, and much more.

I mentioned earlier that Garvy's flaw is the tendency to whitewash certain aspects of the group's history. I'm not talking about the Weather Underground foolishness since the documentary does a good job critiquing that ridiculous series of events. What I'm talking about is some of the subtler, less well known incidents that caused the group problems. Let's take ERAP, for instance. The whole idea behind this project was for members to get out into the community--the poverty stricken communities, by the way--in order to make a difference in people's lives. It was an attempt to actualize participatory democracy instead of standing around talking about it, and it failed spectacularly. Poor people, it turns out, are quite conservative on many issues and don't take kindly to a bunch of scruffy college kids with a lot of talk telling them how to live. Even worse, the ERAP communities often lived in a single residence, men and women both, and residents of the neighborhood expressed horror that unmarried kids would live under a single roof. "Rebels With a Cause" provides little information on the ultimate failure of this SDS initiative, which is surprising because ERAP is the first instance of the problem that would ultimately bring down the organization: the tension between those who wanted to take action versus the armchair theoreticians content to sit at the typewriter churning out pamphlets and treatises.

When you're done checking out the documentary with all of its interesting footage and interviews, make sure and flip through the extras. Garvy throws in excerpts from Hayden's "Port Huron Statement," Paul Potter's speech at the 1965 anti-war demonstration, a few text pages on SDS history, and information about her own role in the group. Despite a few niggling problems with the presentation, "Rebels With a Cause" covers an enormous amount of ground and will doubtless inspire many viewers to find out more about this little slice of 1960s radicalism. I recommend following up Garvy's film with "The Weather Underground," a 2003 documentary focusing on what came after the breakup of SDS.

Well done, balanced
Timothy P. Scanlon | Hyattsville, MDUSA | 02/21/2008
(4 out of 5 stars)

"Truth be told, I have some mixed feelings about what is known as "the 60s." First, it's true that some of the best remembered activists were at some of the finest, most elite institutions in the country. What's more, much of what happened was of the "youth movement," i.e., by people who didn't have car payments, mortgages, etc. to worry about. So they could say and do a lot without much consequence.

But many of them DID care. And that's what I like about that era.

The story starts with a bunch of white students concerned about the way black citizens were being treated in the American South. They went down there, a place most of them had never visited, and found communities with no electricity, no paved roads, and a white population nearby that might kill them for siding with the poor blacks.

That provided a platform for the development of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

Then the Vietnam War grew bigger and bigger. One of the activists who made up the film's "panel," I think it was Bill Ayers, was working for a military contractor. That company had been conducting a study on raindrops to find how to most effectively use defoliants in Vietnam and he was aghast. Americans wouldn't do that!

Anyway, all those the filmmaker--also an SDS activist--talked with reminisced what was going on then, despite some of their "self-importance" to which Bernadine Dohrn referred.

And that's why I say it was balanced; they didn't lose track of the fact that they WERE "youth culture," and had traits one would expect of a younger activist.

What helped open my eyes was that several of those interviewed said that whatever paranioa they may have suffered didn't hold a candle to what was really happening. Some of them had reviewed FBI documents related to their roles in the "movement." There had been active campaigns by Cointelpro, part of the FBI, to infiltrate their organizations, even possibly to kill some of their leaders. (In fact, that's one reason I gave the film only 4 stars. I wish they had covered a little on the Fred Hampton murder for which Cointelpro was responsible.)

So all we hear and proclaim about our political freedom turned out to be myth: the US Secret Police really did undermine anyone dissenting against even the most ruthless war crimes for which the country was responsible.

How much that infiltration had to do with it I don't know but eventually the SDS battle became internal. The Weathermen Underground undermined the SDS. When, as the DVD shows, a few Weatherman activists blew themselves up, SDS effectively died.

(I recommend too the Weatherman Underground DVD that covers more of that issue. Even amoung the Weathermen there was dissent. The bomb was to be used to kill some people for essentially symbolic reasons, not what may have been determined as an "effective target." To that, some Weathermen objected, but it's moot point since the would-be bombers blew themselves up first).

I thought the point of the story was a good one, that the SDS and related movements really DID institute a lot of change. People who discount the decade and its "movements" forget that the world is a far better place because of the patterns set by groups such as the SDS. What's more, those they interviewed are not all insurance company executives, as some would have us believe. They're educators, activists, and still believe in what they did. Their values are still "activist" and they HAVE changed the world.

The only other reason I give it 4 stars, though, is that the Special Features, including the moving Port Huron Statement, are all script. And I can't stand reading from a DVD.

Overall, though, I recommend this film. There's quite a lot to learn from it, and it may encourage some optimism for our future.

Alfred Johnson | boston, ma | 07/03/2007
(4 out of 5 stars)

"In previous reviews in this space this writer has alluded several times to the 1960's movements for social change -the defense of the Cuban Revolution, the fight for nuclear disarmament, the centrally important black civil rights fight, the struggle against the Vietnam War and the emerging struggles for women's and gay rights. And ultimately, for a few (too few) of us, the necessary struggle to change the social organization of American society-the fight for socialism. In short, all the signposts for that part of a political generation, my generation, which in shorthand I will call the Generation of '68. Let us be clear, nostalgia and the ravages of time on the memory on the part of this writer aside, this was a short but intense period that he believes requires serious study.

Militant leftists today face many, if not all, of the social problems that confronted the generation of '68. Thus, a careful viewing of this film is warranted by those who want to understand what went right and what went wrong with student movement centered on the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) of the 1960's that held out much promise but in the end left the field to the ugly predator capitalists and their agents. Many of the points discussed in this documentary parallel those made in Professor Todd Gitlin's seminal book: THE SIXTIES: YEARS OF HOPE, DAYS OF RAGE. I have fully reviewd that important book elsewhere. One can profit from using both sources, although Professor Gitlin is now as then a political opponent of mine.

I would add two additional comments concerning the `talking heads' that are used to tell the story of the student struggles. I found that not one of interviewees mentioned the word socialism as an animating force behind their very deeply held convictions at the time. Now that is neither here nor there except that in the end the fight for socialism was dictated by the struggles not only for its positive social value but as the only way to effective fight in the `belly of the beast'. That tells part of the tale. The other is that these people have `made it' in capitalist society, as the final credits make clear, since that time. However, we have a little problem that the `monster' is still with us. I would be the last to begrudge anyone from that time their memories of a time `when to be young was very heaven'. But I prefer the slogan - Don't Reminisce-Organize!