To those unfamiliar with or who know only the general outline of Stephen Bingham’s story, Catherine Masud’s documentary “A Double Life” does a solid job of laying out his tale. How did a former Peace Corps volunteer who was also the son of a former Connecticut governor become a fugitive wanted by the FBI? How did he manage to stay free for 13 years?
Part of the answer to the first question comes in the opening minutes. Radical lawyer Bingham was accused of complicity in a bloody 1971 San Quentin Prison incident that counted among its dead prominent prisoner dissident George Jackson. According to the prison authorities and other law enforcement personnel, Bingham allegedly used his lawyer access to smuggle in to Jackson the gun that sparked the incident.
To law enforcement officials and those who’ve deeply imbibed the law and order Kool-Aid, the fatal event was simply an escape attempt gone bad and bloody. Bingham was naturally responsible because he was allegedly the last person to see Jackson before the shootings and knifings began.
Masud clearly does not take the cops at their word. As she shows, there are too many suspicious details to justify accepting the official answer. Prior to the Soledad Brother’s demise, Bingham had talked of bringing a civil suit challenging San Quentin’s use of the Orwellian-named Adjustment Center to house prisoners such as Jackson. In this Center, prisoners were kept in their cells daily for 23 ½ hours and were only allowed a half-hour of release from confinement to get a little exercise. Jackson’s writings, collected in the book Soledad Brother, brought unwelcome public attention to the racism and abuse endemic to California’s prison system.
In addition, the prison site where the killings took place was never independently examined by someone who wasn’t a cop. Law enforcement’s account of what gun was used and how it was allegedly smuggled in continually changed to sometimes ludicrous levels. Mention of a fake wig as an alleged smuggling medium may prompt derisive chuckles from the theater audience. The official explanations wind up appearing in Masud’s film more like CYA behavior for a red ball incident.
The film’s director makes an intuitive case for showing that Bingham’s flight was based not on a sense of guilty culpability but on a well-founded fear that being made to walk into prison would end with his being carried out on a stretcher and with a sheet covering his dead face. Law enforcement types didn’t appreciate radical lawyers such as Bingham putting their legal skills and training at the disposal of the Movement. As far as FBI leader J. Edgar Hoover was concerned, radical attorneys such as those claiming National Lawyers Guild membership were a greater threat to America than the Movement itself. The ongoing COINTELPRO operation preferred America’s dissident movements to be crushed or neutralized. Bingham’s sleepover at a Black Panthers office certainly didn’t make him any friends among the local cops.
Masud’s film understandably needs to remain vague on the details of how Bingham was able to leave America and spend those 13 years in virtual exile. If laws weren’t outright broken to enable Bingham’s flight, they were at least badly stretched in ways not worth ruminating on.
Once abroad, Bingham’s life initially resembled that of other fugitives from the law. He didn’t spend more than 10 days in any one place. Not only did he have to close off his emotions, but he had to hide who he really was. Masud falls noticeably short here in conveying any sense of Bingham’s feelings about his situation, particularly any resentment at being falsely accused.
What changed Bingham’s life around was his attending the University of Vincennes. Thanks to France’s 1968 protests, the University welcomed equally both regular students and working people. Since the radical lawyer was now a house painter named Robert Boarts, the University proved a godsend. Guy Chappouille’s Front Paysan film collective gave Boarts an outlet for resuming working for social justice. It’s endearing to hear that Bingham’s habits from his fugitive life helped him when one film shoot drew the ire of a factory’s security people. Whether any of the films Bingham made with the collective still survive beyond the excerpts seen in “A Double Life” or whether these movies stand the test of time are left as open questions.
Most personally relevant to Bingham’s life, Chappouille’s program created the opportunity for the fugitive attorney to meet future wife Francoise Blusseau. His connection to Blusseau would play a major role in persuading him to return to America and prove his innocence.
The state’s case against Bingham struck this viewer as being a right-wing version of a criminal proceeding turned into a political trial. It attempted to tilt its ambiguous facts towards the accused’s guilt by trying to stoke jurors’ prejudices. Aside from attempting to paint the defendant as a bigger liar than the Orange Skull, the D.A. seemed to rely on the old hysterical stereotype of “leftists as fanatics dedicated to toppling all of society” to establish Bingham’s supposed guilt. (Note: Nothing in this paragraph should be interpreted as attempting to make light of the film’s subject’s freedom-threatening plight.)
Even though this viewer already knew how Bingham’s trial turned out, Masud brought enough suspense to her recounting to earn this viewer’s cheer when the favorable verdict is read in court. Viewers who want to know what really happened on that bloody day in San Quentin will unfortunately still be left hungering for answers. In a way, such a question is beyond the film’s principal brief of re-telling Bingham’s story. But also, even decades down the line, nobody agrees on whether the incident was a failed escape attempt or yet another of the period’s covert assassinations of a dangerous dissident. Whatever the truth of what happened on that day, both a prominent inspiration to other prisoners and an effective leftist legal practitioner were neutralized from causing further sabotage of the American Establishment’s machinery of power.
Yet that immediate political victory never translated into long term gains. Jackson’s Soledad Brother and Blood In My Eye are still so feared by California prison authorities that it’s unofficially banned. Bingham still puts his legal knowledge and skills at the disposal of the less powerful in the area of landlord-tenant and housing law. The best tribute to both men would be to carry their proverbial torches forward.
Has Minato Mugino been verbally and physically abused by his teacher Mr. Hori? Is the school administration using Mr. Hori as a fall guy to preserve the institution’s reputation? And how does Minato’s friend Yori fit into this puzzle? “Who’s the monster” may be a question from a children’s game. But in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s engrossing new film “Monster,” the answers delivered in a “Rashomon”-like structure turn out to be connected to complicated social inequities.
Ali Asgari and Alireza Khatam’s ruefully satirical “Terrestrial Verses” captures the blend of cruelty, absurdity, and narrowness of thought that characterizes contemporary Iranian authoritarianism. Ironically, the authority figures heard in this film aren’t conservative mullahs but range from a hospital clerk to a prospective employer. Yet these offscreen low level voices of God uniformly display degrees of obdurate behavior. The hapless victims seen onscreen may struggle with these authority figures, but generally the outcome is sadly never in doubt.
Denise Zmekhol’s must-see semi-personal documentary “Skin Of Glass” is a startlingly effective blend of the personal, the aesthetic, and the sociopolitical. This is not some blend created via selecting from a cinematic poke bowl menu but comes organically out of the filmmaker’s own background and her title subject.
The film’s odd title happens to be the popular nickname for the building officially known as the Edificio Wilton Paes de Almeida. This 24-story Sao Paulo building designed in the 1960s resembled a sophisticated glass prism, which is not surprising. High quality glass was used in the building’s construction. The company that commissioned the Skin Of Glass happened to be a glass manufacturer.
Zmekhol’s film is partly a chronicle of the building’s history. What was originally intended to be a company headquarters had over the years fallen into a decrepitude so great that it eventually became used as a site for homeless squatters. The passing decades has seen the Skin of Glass go from a symbol of openness and transparency to become a place where secrets hung over its grounds like a noxious fug.
The personal part of “Skin of Glass” comes from the director’s own connection to the building. Her father, Roger, was the architect who designed the Edificio Wilton and many other Brazilian buildings. But what was once a loving relationship between father and daughter curdled badly thanks to a fierce argument that occurred when the director was 14. Roger Zmekhol’s sudden death shortly thereafter forestalled any hope of reconciliation.
Detractors may claim “Skin of Glass” is intended as the director’s exercise in cinematic therapy. Yet her personal drama doesn’t overwhelm the story of the building that once symbolized Brazilian optimism about the future.
As Zmekhol shows, Brazilians had good reasons to possess such uplifting feelings about their country in the 1950s. The highly praised futuristic-looking city of Brasilia was built from the ground up in only three years. The optimistic music known as bossa nova had gained popularity outside of Brazil. Brazilian architecture was seen as the great export that would put the country on the world cultural map.
What brought Brazil’s bright future crashing down was the military coup sponsored by the U.S. Its aim may have been the usual Cold War goal of stopping the spread of Communism. But the 21-year-long dictatorship it imposed on the country, which included its jailing (or worse) of such political opponents as artists, did much to undermine the cultural gains of the 1950s. Conscientious American viewers will be thankful Zmekhol doesn’t expand on America’s complicity in protecting Brazil’s divine right of capital at its people’s expense. Then again, the dog turd in the punchbowl effect of mentioning U.S. complicity in creating Brazil’s present state of misery speaks for itself.
Also tellingly, the film’s director acknowledges the complicity of herself and her father regarding living under Brazil’s new dictatorship. While less fortunate Brazilians felt the bootheels of the state, the Zmekhol family led a privileged existence. Father and daughter were happy to listen to leftist protest songs in the privacy of their home. But they and the rest of their family were not about to rock the boat of their good life for a dangerous matter of principle.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, both the fates of the Skin of Glass and Zmekhol’s family took turns for the worst. The Paes de Almeida family lost their business (and ownership of the Skin of Glass) thanks to the junta. Roger left the Zmekhol family for a relationship with another woman. The director’s anger at her father’s betrayal eventually led to the argument that severed relations between them.
The Skin of Glass’ subsequent history, Zmekhol shows, feels marked by treatment that was the polar opposite of the optimistic spirit infusing the building’s original design. Instead of being treated as a warm and welcoming symbol of modernity, the Edificio Wilton got subjected to long periods of abandonment. Its first major user after the glass business left was the National Police, who used the edifice to imprison artists and journalists who stepped out of line. Then, after another long period of abandonment, it became housing for homeless families.
This later use would normally have had social value given Sao Paulo’s significant affordable housing problem and the Brazilian constitution declaring housing a fundamental human right. A lot of big abandoned buildings in Sao Paulo could be used to provide housing for some of the hundreds of thousands of families that couldn’t afford regular housing. And Brazilian government officials have openly claimed it would take a century for them to secure the resources needed to deal with the country’s housing problem.
However, Zmekhol points out the sketchiness of this particular squatter occupation. Legitimate homeless cooperative leaders had already examined the possibilities of using the Skin of Glass for housing and found the building wanting. The people who finally led the conversion of the building were newcomers to the conversion of abandoned and decrepit highrises into housing. Finally, Zmekhol was continually stonewalled by Ananias Santos and his fellow self-styled occupation leaders from filming inside the converted Skin of Glass. What eventually happens would wind up publicly discrediting the homeless movement as a whole. While the film’s director never calls Santos and the other Skin of Glass occupation leaders greedhead scam artists, a reasonable viewer would be entitled to draw that conclusion given what the film eventually reveals of their loathsome behavior.
There are two people who have wound up honoring the Edificio Wilton’s spirit in relatively recent times. One is architect Pablo Georgieff, who worked with Roger Zmekhol on the Skin of Glass. He had plans to convert the then-abandoned building into an artist’s haven, and even had financial backing lined up. However, the occurrence of 2008’s worldwide economic meltdown caused Georgieff’s backers to abandon the project. The other is pixacao artist Rafael Augustaitiz. His unauthorized Opus 666 graffiti on the Edificio Wilton’s exterior might seem to be a defacing of the Skin of Glass’ once beautiful surface. In fact, the director herself is ambivalent about Augustaitiz’ art. Yet learning the skill taken by the graffiti artist and his crew to make the artwork, the viewer can’t help but feel a grudging admiration for him.
Zmekhol’s aim of reconciling with her father by connecting to those who interacted with her father’s architecture ultimately pays off with her conversations with the Skin of Glass’ squatters. These former residents admired the building’s beauty and are thrilled to meet the daughter of the man who designed the building. In a touching moment, the viewer learns how the double-helix-like staircases the architect designed for the building were still sturdy enough to be literally life-saving in an emergency. When the director memorably notes in her voiceover that she “found a Brazil she was taught to ignore,” a viewer can sense the small symbolic step being taken to shorten the gulf between Brazil’s haves and have nots.
The director ends her film on a note of optimism even for this country that elected the Orange Skull of the South. The dreaming and optimism embodied by the Skin of Glass still exists. It just needs the right circumstances for its rebirth.
(“A Double Life” screens online from October 16 to 22, 2023. The 11:30 AM screening on October 15, 2023 at the Smith Rafael Film Center 1 (1118 4th Street, San Rafael) is now At Rush. “Monster” screens at 4:00 PM on October 12, 2023 at the Smith Rafael Film Center 2. Tickets are now At Rush. The film has also been picked up for distribution by Well-Go USA. “Terrestrial Verses” screens at 5:30 PM on October 10, 2023 at the Smith Rafael Film Center 2. “Skin Of Glass” screens at 5:15 PM on October 14, 2023 at the Cinearts Sequoia I (25 Throckmorton Avenue, Mill Valley). This screening is At Rush. The film also screens at 1:15 PM on October 15, 2023 at the BAMPFA (2155 Center Street, Berkeley) as well as online from October 16 to 22, 2023. For advance tickets and further details about these films, go to https://www.mvff.com/browse-program/ .)Filed under: Arts & Entertainment