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Expect More Than a Passive Chronicle of Nonviolence

Television * 'A Force More Powerful's' stark footage and personal stories add drama to the history of a 20th century movement.

September 16, 2000|ELIZABETH JENSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — The producers of the documentary "A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict," initially had a hard time convincing programmers at public television of the merits of their idea, partly because the concept, on paper, didn't promise enough drama. It sounded too, well, passive.

Eventually PBS came around, however. And in an irony not lost on those associated with the program, the two-part, three-hour show, which airs Monday and Sept. 25, will carry a "V" rating, for violence, because of its stark footage of such events as Gandhi-led protesters being beaten in India, or a woman being dragged through the streets in South Africa.

The program started as Peter Ackerman's doctoral thesis for Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. As he quips, "every graduate student overestimates the impact his doctoral thesis is likely to have." Still, 15 years after it was written, Ackerman, who had gone into finance, expanded the academic work into a book, "Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: The Dynamics of People Power in the Twentieth Century" (co-authored with Christopher Kruegler.)

When filmmaker Steve York and executive producer Jack DuVall approached him about turning the material into a documentary, Ackerman, who is managing director at Crown Capital Group, says he had only one condition: that they tell the various stories in such a way that viewers could see the similarities that tied them together despite their distance in years and geography. "My concern was not that they would put on film things that would horrify me, but that they would omit some of the things I worked so hard to show," Ackerman says, what he calls the "connective tissue" of the individual movements.

The Albert Einstein Institution has published a list of 198 different methods of nonviolent action, from wearing of symbols to withholding rent. But what comes through in the program are, true to Ackerman's wish, similar patterns, and the links among the six disparate movements profiled. The Rev. James Lawson, for example, talks about how Gandhi helped inform his own work organizing lunch-counter sit-ins in Nashville in the civil rights fight of the 1960s.

The program makes seemingly familiar stories new in some cases by telling them through less well-known voices. The anti-apartheid fight in South Africa focuses not on icon Nelson Mandela but on Mkhuseli Jack, an activist who organized an economic boycott in Port Elizabeth.

Some of the power of that story comes from the footage York and his team were able to unearth, despite the fact that foreign journalists at the time faced severe restrictions on what they were allowed to film. York also found underground tape taken by South Africans, much of it previously unaired, shot by "somebody who knew that these things simply had to be documented and just went out and did what needs to be done," he says.

Some Compelling NBC Footage From '60s

One of York's biggest challenges in the film was finding footage, because, as he notes, "the real action in nonviolent conflict is not out in the streets, but it's in the middle of the night, when activists are sitting around the kitchen table, drawing up plans. We knew we'd have a deluge of stuff from out in the streets." In the case of the U.S. civil rights story, the team found compelling NBC News footage, largely unseen since the 1960s, of protesters being trained to take abuse; missing scenes from other struggles, such as Denmark's harboring of almost its entire Jewish population during the German occupation of the country in World War II, are constructed from interviews with participants.

Still other stories, however, including the overthrow of El Salvadoran dictator Gen. Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez in 1944, didn't make the cut simply because there were no photographs or film footage available.

For such a serious subject, the producers were even able to work in humor, from shipyard leader Lech Walesa signing his historic agreement with Polish authorities using a comically oversized pen to Chilean television ads featuring dancing youths and rainbows, meant to convince citizens to vote "no" against dictator Augusto Pinochet.

York says he understands the initial reluctance producers faced getting the program accepted. "There are no body counts here, no big battles in this story," he says. "Until you actually have a look at it, on the screen, it's hard for a lot of people. Going into a meeting with not much more than a page or two on paper, it's a little difficult to get people to buy into the excitement and significance of these stories."

Adds DuVall: "There was skepticism that this would make compelling television until we began to demonstrate that these were compelling personal stories."

York and DuVall weren't able to sell PBS on the planned fourth hour, however, which is being produced anyway and will be packaged with the initial three for educational distribution and overseas sales.

Indeed, the show's post-television life could prove unusual. Ackerman, who says he believes, as a student of strategy and conflict, that nonviolent protest "must be brought into the mainstream of strategic studies," says he has heard of interest in the program and its accompanying book from Burmese dissidents and has been asked for a Farsi translation, among other requests.

* Part 1 of "A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict" can be seen Monday at 9 p.m. on KCET-TV and KVCR-TV. The network has rated it TV-PG-V (may be unsuitable for young children with special advisories for violence). Part 2 airs Sept. 25.

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