“American Anarchist” wrestles with a conflicted legacy

The documentary about the author of “The Anarchist Cookbook” screens at the 2017 Wisconsin Film Festival.

The documentary about the author of “The Anarchist Cookbook” screens at the 2017 Wisconsin Film Festival.


William Powell.

William Powell.

This review is part of our preview coverage of the 2017 Wisconsin Film Festival.

I remember the first time I saw a copy of The Anarchist Cookbook. I spotted it on the shelf at a friend’s house when I was a freshman in college, wedged between books by Howard Zinn and Tom Robbins, completing some sort of liberal arts undergrad trilogy of wokeness. I had heard that purchasing the cookbook would immediately put you on some government watch list or other, which gave the book an ominous weight that was impossible to ignore. Inside it were instructions on how to make everything from bombs and booby traps to LSD, along with crudely illustrated drawings. I never thought once about who the author was, assuming it had been crowdsourced in some fashion or other. In truth, the book was written by a kid not even out of his teens and whose story is explored at length in the documentary American Anarchist, which screens twice at the Wisconsin Film Festival this coming week.

Directed by Charlie Siskel, American Anarchist is a fascinating and challenging profile of the book’s author, William Powell, highlighting the deeply conflicted emotions Powell feels over the dubious legacy of his creation. As the director of 2013’s Finding Vivian Maier, which shed new light, quite literally, on a reclusive photographer who would not have wanted the attention of a feature film had she been alive, Siskel is no stranger to deftly handling complicated character studies. With American Anarchist his approach is much more direct, but still threads the needle of its knotty subject matter, allowing for shading, nuance, and compassion. Constructed from long interview sessions with Powell at his home, this is a more or less no-frills affair, and it’s much better for its simplicity.

Powell, who was in his mid-60s when he was interviewed for the film, is measured and thoughtful with his answers to Siskel’s sometimes leading lines of inquiry. Powell bristles a few times, pointedly accusing Siskel of being “deliberately provocative” when Siskel pushes him too hard in a particular direction, but there’s never so much as a hint that Powell has any intention of walking away from the interview. Given the fact that Powell passed away not long after allowing Siskel to film him, it’s easy to see his frankness and candor as Powell embracing a final opportunity to set the record straight in an attempt to make amends for whatever contribution he had towards the world becoming a scarier place.

It’s easy to vilify Powell for having written the book, and he admits that he feels deep remorse (but not regret, he hastens to clarify) over the ways the book has been mis/used, but let’s put it in a little more context using an event that happened perhaps right around the corner from the theater where the film will be screening.

Many Madisonians will remember the bombing of Sterling Hall, which housed the Army Mathematics Research Center, perpetrated one early August morning in 1970 as an act of protest against the Vietnam War by four men calling themselves the “New Year’s Gang.” The explosion injured four people and killed a post-graduate physics student, Robert Fassnacht. In the weeks and months after the explosion there were solidarity efforts championing the actions of the bombers. “Free Karl” posters, showing support for one of the bombers, could be seen around the UW-Madison campus for years afterward. “The days of putting flowers into the rifles was rapidly coming to an end,” Powell says of this moment in time when literal domestic terrorists were able to curry support right here in Madison from at least a subset of grassroots activists.

Confronting mistakes you have made is tough. Over time we can build up callouses of denial, insulating ourselves from responsibility by pointing fingers or redirecting blame. Watching as Powell wrestles with the ways that his most notorious contribution to society has ended up hurting others is riveting and, in a world where so few people in power seem capable of taking responsibility for their actions, necessary.

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