A Documentary Review of PBS: America’s War on Poverty

Paul Fischer
Felicia Kornbluh


A Documentary Review of PBS: America’s War on Poverty


               The Public Broadcasting Service takes on the War Against Poverty, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s brainchild in a television series. The series shows how poverty touches the entire American political and economic system. As racial divides are thickly drawn with a black marker, a massive redistribution of wealth is found to be necessary. This is in contrast to the prosperity victory in World War II brought to the United States.
               The director uses political footage, interviews from authors, citizens, and politicians alike to show the dramatic widespread effect of poverty, as well as the machinations that made change possible and the vehicles for effecting that change in operation. Combining black and white footage, with modern colour film drives home that this film is part of American history, as much as it is the present. Sadly, the American history of poverty, and Native American struggles are ignored. Racial divides are not absent, but are set aside to the second half of the film, as the film has a dialectic focus on the Equal Employment Opportunity Act and the Civil Rights Act. However, this is appropriate because the War Against Poverty is a specific time-place referring to the 1960’s, though those unacquainted with this, will be confused by the title and content.
             “The very things that made America great its inventions… were causing some Americans to be left behind.” The joint continuous miner brought the story of John Henry, in which a man labours to death against a machine, to reality on a societal level. Coal miners found steady work and good wages evaporating to the hypnotizing diligence of the mechanical workers. By 1960 nearly half of residents in some counties in coal-mining Virginia relied on government aid. In the words of John F. Kennedy, “automation did it.” An exodus of former coal miners seeking work and african-americans fleeing racism arrived in the North and changed the country. In the capital as well, a march on Washington signalled a substantive movement towards change in the country. Poverty was geographical, and with the help of unions and politicians like Kennedy, racial lines became shattered.
             Violence broke out. Homes and bridges were bombed. A decade before the race riots became bloody, and years before the Vietnam war, destitution was driving Americans to fight for their right to live, or death by starvation. Before the political promises of Kennedy could be carried out, he was assassinated. Carrying out his promises was a medical necessity. In states such as Mississippi, poverty and lack of healthcare caused parasites, lethargy, and severe anemia in children. Nowhere was poverty greater.
But all was not lost. There was no initial confidence in Lyndon B. Johnson, but using a variety of political and legislative means, he was able to “continue” both domestically and abroad, the goals of the administration and American people. The African-American movement was growing in the public conscious, but the backlash against it would have killed what chances there were had it not been for Head Start and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. By ensuring the poor could vote, and that race did not factor into this, the end of segregation was in sight. More importantly, this minority, which had a lower population growth than the Jewish population in Germany due to economic impoverishment, was given opportunity to become full partners in the make-up of this nation.
            Surviving the depression, Johnson made significant inroads to Americans, enacting the first anti-poverty legislation since the Great Depression giving needed alleviation to Americans, to “replace their despair with opportunity.” He created a task force, and began a movement to change the country. In some states, it was a matter of saving lives. The idea that black Mississippians could control anything was considered to be ludicrous, and this was seen in their oppression, and reversed by their first true liberation, with economic and political equality. Before they could lose their job, their welfare when they voted.
Sargent Shriver was appointed head of the War Against Poverty, and with what some would call blind optimism, energetically took on the job. He had expertise setting up the Peace Corp, and was able to use this domestically with efficiency. Unable to levy higher taxes, and without a comprehensive job program the questions existing are problematic. Investigating voting problems made enemies, but it was a political sacrifice that had to be made. As workers protested discrimination and were incarcerated, the CDGP made allocations of federal money to post bail for these workers under the auspices of work salary advances.
The mixing of the Civil Rights movement with the War Against Poverty created humiliation for Shriver, and was seized upon. Yet these were two movements intertwined, and impossible to separate. As the opposition insisted “don’t you ever give up that gun, that is all you’ve got to protect that little baby in that crib” the documentary shows the backlash was not one which could be stood up against without great courage. Klansmen were marching unhooded and unafraid of retribution, despite their violent message, and African-American protestors needed the same protection, though without the threat of violence.
As planes began to fly in the South Asian peninsula, Johnson signed the Equal Employment Opportunity Bill into law. Suddenly the education programs and hand-up (not hand out) the federal government had offered America’s poor looked smart; the country was going to send a conscript army into war. Racial equality would also figure in importantly towards preventing this war from tearing the nation apart at the seams. This would seem to be an appropriate direction for the documentary, but for better or for worse the film begins discussion in the last section of reorganization and scandal in anti-poverty movements.

The Act of Killing review and Q and A with producer

Paul Andreas Fischer

As someone who has virtually no experience with the mass killings in Indonesia, seeing The Act of Killing was incredibly shocking. The fabulous lives of members of the former dictatorship who had become wealthy by indiscriminately killing over 2.6 million people was shown, and then the psychologies of these murderers at the time and today was explored. Less obvious but still tangentially present was the role of the government, many of whose officials were still in power and able to purchase their elections. I was struck by just how similar to A Clockwork Orange these executioners seemed in their time, and the interviews with them now almost seemed a thought experiment into an alternative sequel to that film. They killed and played, intertwining the two into a gruesome myriad of images that to some, still alive today, is still vivid in their mind and haunts them, others managed to move on. Political interrogation under this system became synonymous with torture and perjury committed by these monsters. The act of incarceration simply fell to being pushed in a car. A guilty verdict only had to be suggested. And finally, in the execution capital punishment was carried out in a stealthy but still open matter, efficiently in a silent admission to the inherent evil of these deeds, fueled by hard drug use as well as drinking and marijuana use, in futile attempts to cope with the guilt and pain of committing these atrocities. Sometimes behind closed doors at night, other times simply running down the street and stabbing anyone with a chinese demeanor or appearance, sometimes just driving through the night with a body in the back seat waiting to be hurled out into the abyss in a weak and vague impersonation of the out of this world gangster personas of Hollywood.

After the film was finished I asked about the producer’s struggle to dance the line between presenting factual historical accuracy and representing the often conflicting memories of surviving executioners. She responded that the film was not a historical film by any means, and that she herself was not a historian, but had a stronger focus on the psychology of the executioners. She explained that the film was meant as a sort of view into this unique situation that had panned out in Indonesia. Other questions in the Q and A ranged from what levels of censorship had existed, whether hidden cameras had been used as many admissions were shocking to say the least, and what power still remained in Indonesian paramilitary organizations such as the ones headed by the anti-communist former executioners. While it is not in my place to take sides or to comment on issues outside of the scope of this film, I am completely aware of the dangers of communist purges and the ten thousand executed in China even today every year, the hundreds of millions of girls killed only because of their gender, I cannot emphasize how shocked I was as to the scope of the killings, how the executioners saw it as a lifestyle and way of life, and how the society they lived in, while it was not yet a democracy, found no way to communicate for outside help or intervention. One can only assume that the vital nature of Indonesia to international shipping, and its oil reserves and refineries had a significant amount to do with this.
Another comparison to A Clockwork Orange is the pathological nature of the killers. They would do it again. I would have liked to see survivors, and to hear their accounts. but according to them there are none, and if there were they would be killed. Some justify it by claiming that the time was one of war. Others that they had no job, no real other options. No one was brought to them unless they were going to kill them. Evidence or the reality of a nuanced political situation made positively no difference. These men acted as institutionalized and even celebrated serial killers, harboring similar perversions and drug abuse as the sort in A Clockwork Orange who raped, drugged, and ultimately killed at their leisure without apparent backlash, although a key difference is that ultimately the dystopian society portrayed in that film does take punitive action at some point. I have included a typed version of the Q and A, which I took notes on to better shed light on the motives and themes of the producer.

Question and Answer:
Q: At points of violence or struggle in the filming, how was this done?
A: In the massacre scene women and children went through an extensive casting process, and the rest were former executioners bringing their old deeds back to life. The children were surrounded by family, and the film was shot in very short segments, after crying and wailing, the children were frequently given the chance to be reassured by their mothers. As for the actors, the only actual survivor from the village burning was an accident when the cameraman was shooting on a day when the producer and director were not there. The cameraman did not speak Indonesian, so he did not have the opportunity to differentiate, and after the survivor’s death two years later before the release of the film, his family contacted the film makers and gave them posthumous permissions.
Q: Is there an actual film? Or only the documentary as we saw it?
A: There was never the intention to make an actual film, the process of helping the former executioners imagine their own representation of events was merely a psychological tool to help them recount events accurately.
Q: Were there any hidden cameras used? At one point it seems as though they really think they are off tape, or just preparing?
A: At no point were hidden cameras used, and the former executioners were always aware of when the film was rolling.
Q: What was the reception in Indonesia, especially from the complicit government?
A: We started the work with survivors, showing the film to art house critics and stuff from Jakarta. We later expanded to 500 screenings across the country and now offer free downloads of the film.
Q: How did crew stand by while these gangsters took money from street sellers and were these merchants reimbursed?
A: The crew informed the merchants beforehand and had to stand by, but it was agreed the entire time that the merchants knew they were being reimbursed.
Q: Coming from Rwanda, I am curious how the government allowed this to be filmed, as in my country such an endeavour would be futile and even a fictional film such as Hotel Rwanda was nearly impossible to pull off, did the government allow this, were there special permissions needed?
A: The regime used to be a dictatorship, but is now currently a democracy. These war criminals were unpunished and even welcomed by top politicians as seen in the film. Workers unionzed against globalization are still beaten, and intimidation of family members for union membership still occurs, so the effort had to come from outside. There is a strong fear of speaking in public.
Q: What is with the list of anonymous names?
A: Indonesian crew members took part in a film with sensitive matter and we found it best to keep their identities anonymous.
Q: The number 2.6 million killed sort of splashes out, bringing a whole new level of seriousness to the film from serial murderers psychology to the psychology of a genocide was it difficult to dance the line between historical accuracy and factual information and the fantasies and personal anecdotes of the killers?
A: The film was never intended as a historical film, I am not a historian. What we sought was a stronger investigation into the psychologies of the killers and to show how they cope and live with their crimes, and success, today.
Q: What did the subjects [executioners] think of the film?
A: Most in process [missing word?], Anwar did not want to see the film originally, but decided to at some point… looking to a fishing platform. Anwar is loyal to the film, and has backed us up, keeping his word as he felt it was an important endeavour. Hermann has a sort of ‘axis’ loyalty to the film, and glorifies what it does. The paramilitary organizations did not especially approve and saw the filmmaking process as “Anwar vs. us”.
Q: What is the power of the paramilitary organizations today in Indonesia?
A: Still very powerful. If you are not portraying them well they will shut you down, but still the film does show that the country is moving forward.

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