No. 2
March 2005
Firefly Journal
Because the End Times Never End and Everything is Still Possible
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Children of the Revolution

interview with filmmaker Bernadine Mellis

by Andrea Lawlor

Bernadine Mellis just finished her documentary The Forest for the Trees: Judi Bari v. the FBI, which tells the story of the bombing and subsequent arrest on terrorism charges of Earth First! activist Judi Bari, and the history-making civil case Judi brought against the FBI and the Oakland police.

The film, poignant and funny and hopeful, shows the subtle perspective of someone who knows from activists, someone who’s lived with them. Her mother, Mona Mellis, was a Weatherman. Her father, Dennis Cunningham, is a civil rights lawyer who fought for Fred Hampton and the Attica Brothers. He also represented Judi Bari.

Q: A lot of people our age romanticize the revolutionary movements of the Sixties and Seventies. You grew up with political people in San Francisco in the Seventies. What was that like?

Bernadine: Beautiful and terrible. Beautiful to be raised by people who cared so much about the whole world and me as a part of that. Kind of terrible to be so small and vulnerable and constantly made aware of human suffering on a massive, beyond-human scale.

I loved that there was a community. My siblings and I had a “childcare team,” made up of different members of my mother's crew (Prairie Fire, Women Against Imperialism, etc). Different people would cook for us every night, or drive my sister and me to gymnastics. I truly adored some of those people, and it was really good for me to have so many different adults around, raising me.

Q: What wasn’t cool?

Bernadine: My mom worked so hard, and wasn't as available or consistent as I wanted her to be. Also, I went to normal public schools and felt really alienated there—those kids weren't going home to collective households with fliers in the windows that said “Assata Shakur is welcome here" and "U.S. out of El Salvador.” I felt like a weirdo.

Also people really came and went, there was very little stability. There was a lot of chaos in fact. Things in our house weren't engineered towards children's healthy, enriched, protected growing up. I think some kids have that, I don't know. We just kind of lived in the midst of everything, were fed and cared for, and were definitely loved, but in a way we raised ourselves—everyone was so busy planning the revolution.

Then in the '80's, when a lot of people either stopped being political or went underground, it was really hard for me. Suddenly Reagan was president, and the childcare team was no more. Unluckily for me, my mother also developed MS around that time and her health started to deteriorate pretty rapidly, just as our support system was evaporating. That was horrible.

Q: What sort of political work did your parents do? How did they come to this work?

Bernadine: My parents became politicized by the civil rights movement. They were really inspired by and believed in different Black Power, anti-racist and anti-war movements, and my mom was a feminist. My father was and is a civil rights lawyer. My mother was a Weatherman for some years; she never went underground. Before she got sick—she died in 1996—after the Weathermen went underground, she continued to be an activist—the kind that goes to marches, and hands out fliers, and spends a lot of time in meetings, and gets really pissed off when she listens to the news, and never stops thinking about justice, and peace, and freedom.

Q: How did your parents deal with their political differences?

Bernadine: They fought a lot, but that was more about divorce-related things. I don't really know what their specific differences were. They worked in different modes but basically believed in the same things.

I think my mom thought my dad was a bit highfalutin, and she used to joke about how where he went to college, everyone read the “100 Great Books.” She came from a less educated family than he. And I think my dad thought my mom was kind of a revolutionary diva, which she was.

Q: What did you make of activists when you were a kid?

Bernadine: I remember considering whether my mom's front-lines activism was effective at all. I would think, “At least Dad is maybe helping someone get out of jail.” Or whatever it was. Making it harder for the police to get away with racism or brutality. I wanted to believe that what my mom was doing was going to work. She worked so hard, was so passionate. I wanted results.

My parents both worked so hard—and made sacrifices on my behalf really, since they were pretty unavailable and also we were very poor, because of their choices—I used to think about how hard they worked, and how the problems they were fighting were so huge, and I would feel this tremendous despair that it was all for nothing. Because from what I could see on TV and in the normal school world I went to, their work wasn't really affecting how people were talking about things, let alone changing the world.

But I loved that they cared so much. I respected that, even though it was tough to see that they were sort of always failing. I say failing because even when my dad worked on a really important case or even won, it was always after something irreversible and devastating had already happened. (Fred Hampton, Attica). And then my mom would drag me to these demonstrations, and I couldn't really figure out if we were having an impact at all. Also I was hoping no one from school would see me.

But in a way that I couldn't have named then, I respected their work, and I believed in it on some level—more emotionally than rationally.

I don't know if you remember this from your childhood, or if you know any kids, maybe girls especially, in those really keen years before puberty—there can be a real insistence on logic. And I was always seeing the holes. I definitely saw little logic in my parents' choices, but there was a more instinctual sense that they were doing something good, and worthwhile. Something honorable, something that mattered.

It's only now that I’m an adult that I can fully grasp the weight of that, how rare and important it is to be involved in work that means something.

Q: You've talked about how you're not an activist, how you've separated yourself from that world in some ways. Yet you spent the last two and a half years working on a documentary about Judi Bari. How did you come to make this film?

Bernadine: When Bush got elected the first time, and then one by one these things started happening that made the world feel more and more like we were all having the same nightmare—the planes at the World Trade Center and then the threat of war, and then the first new war starting—I was finishing my last film, which is a children's story, “The Golden Pheasant.”

I felt crushed because I had worked so hard on this film for the previous year and a half, and then I was done, poised to be so happy and accomplished-feeling—and the US was bombing Afghanistan.

I remember thinking, “I don't know what it's going to be but I want to be a part of something that is not this.”

And then I was visiting California, and my dad was preparing for Judi's trial, and I started asking him about her, and I knew pretty fast that I wanted to make a movie about her.

Q: What role do you think artists have to play in changing the world?

Bernadine: You aren't really asking me this, are you?

Q: Actually I am.

Bernadine: I agree with all the people who say that artists make their little part of the world the way the world could be if it was really good. This doesn't necessarily change everything, but it makes for places or times or possibilities that are "good for children and other living things," unlike war for example, which is not.

I don't think it's possible to use language to convey what art does for people. The conversation could instead be about how to make art happen more of the time for and by more people—how to give more money for art and artists and more public space to it and make it a prominently, extravagantly, profusely valued aspect of civic life, a means and an end.

Q: It seems to me that the life of an artist in our culture has some similarities to the life of an activist. What do you think? Can life be separate from work for either?

Bernadine: Life and work are not separate for me at the moment. I don't know if that is true for all artists or activists. My mother's life and work were very integrated. I am wildly grateful that I love my work so much that I don't need to circumscribe it in order to survive, as was the case at any point in my life when I had a job.

However, I think it is good to have some separation. I don't know how to do that right now, but I am working on it. I think that for activists, life and work should be more separate, and work should be more moderate, but it can't be, because not enough people participate. So everything falls on the shoulders of relatively few people who are overwhelmed and isolated and trying to do so much. It's not good.

Q: Can you talk about the ways that your background influenced your decision to become a filmmaker?

Bernadine: I wanted to have a public voice. The people who raised me were trying to impact the terms of public discourse, to have a say in what was going to happen in their names. I want that too, and film seemed like a way to create a forum for myself to participate in public debate.

Q: Do you think of yourself as primarily a filmmaker or as an artist more generally? What other creative work do you do?

Bernadine: When I think of myself as anything I think of myself as a filmmaker or a storyteller. I do ceramics, I always loved acting, writing. I am working on a young adult novel right now.

Q: What would you do if you weren't a filmmaker?

Bernadine: The only thing that comes to mind is that I would have more time for hanging out with my friends, and lying on the floor when the sun hits it through my window. Maybe I would stretch out more.