The story of the SLA gripped the nation. Now a film captures the craziness of the times.
Robert Stone was editing his documentary about the Symbionese Liberation Army, the 1970s revolutionary group, when, only blocks away, a far more dangerous organization unleashed the most devastating attack ever on U.S. soil.
“I was right there,” Stone recalls of working in Lower Manhattan’s Tribeca district on Sept. 11, 2001. As one of the first people to get out of the neighborhood, the filmmaker himself was surrounded, at one point, by dozens of news cameras. “Not only was I in the middle of a terrorist attack —
I was also in the middle of a media circus.”
Looking back at the attack, Stone speaks of al Qaeda’s “absolute stroke of genius” in committing a horrific act that, in the news capital of the world, would be captured immediately by so many cameras.
“If anything,” he says, “it just reinforced my ideas about terrorism, that the real importance of terrorism is the spectacle of it.”
It’s a point that wasn’t lost on Stone as he went back to work on his film about the SLA. “It made me want to emphasize that aspect of it all the more,” says the 46-year-old director, who was a Princeton, N.J., high school student when the SLA first made the news. “Because I saw in this story a way of understanding where we are now.”
Stone’s film, “Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst,” doesn’t focus solely on the infamous Feb. 4, 1974, kidnapping of the newspaper heiress by the SLA. The first feature-length documentary about the story, the movie, which opens Friday in San Francisco and Berkeley, examines the historical context in which the SLA was founded and how the group managed, in surreal fashion, to capture so much of the nation’s attention — despite being a small ragtag band of self-styled revolutionaries who may have defended their actions with high ideals but were deeply misguided.
Tim Findley, a former Chronicle reporter who co-wrote “The Life and Death of the SLA” and is interviewed in Stone’s documentary, says of the film: “It does make obvious how totally absurd the whole thing was. And sadly absurd.
“The outrage, in my mind, then and still,” Findley adds, “should be over the fact that they killed Marcus Foster (Oakland’s first African American school superintendent). … What they really did wrong was that.”
Robert Blackburn agrees. He is the former deputy school superintendent who was wounded in the Nov. 6, 1973, shooting.
“His loss was the real loss,” he says of Foster. “That was such a pathetic miscalculation on the part of the SLA.”
Over the phone, Blackburn, who now mentors young administrators at UC Berkeley and Cal State Hayward, speaks about the story without a trace of rancor in his voice.
“I’m capable of seeing what happened in a larger philosophical framework, ” he says. “And I go about my business …”
As for Hearst, he adds, “Patty is a wealthy matron (living in suburban Connecticut). … And Marcus Foster lies cold in the ground in Evergreen Cemetery here in Oakland.”
In addition to the murder of Foster (over the SLA’s opposition to a student ID policy), Myrna Opsahl, a bystander, was shot to death when members of the SLA robbed a Carmichael bank on April 21, 1975. It’s for this crime that five former SLA members are now serving prison sentences.
With the passage of time, Stone says, the story of the SLA has come to be viewed as “almost a footnote — and mistakenly.” Some argue that the media paid too much attention to the group, but, he adds, “the fact that the media made them what they were, that’s interesting.”
For instance, “Guerrilla” includes a lot of footage of what was then a new phenomenon but has since become routine for so many news stories, from O.J. Simpson to Gary Condit to Laci Peterson: Hordes of reporters camped outside a house, waiting breathlessly for news to break. In this case, the pack formed at the mansion of Randolph Hearst, Patty’s father and, at the time, the editor of the San Francisco Examiner. (The Chronicle has been owned by the Hearst Corp. since 2000.)
The media, it seems, couldn’t get enough of the Patty Hearst story, and anyone old enough at the time remembers how TV news shows counted the days she had been held captive.
Meanwhile, the image of Hearst toting a rifle (as the reborn, rebellious “Tania”) became an iconic image of the bizarre and unsettling times.
In their earnest and official-sounding communiques, the SLA used such militaristic lingo as “captured SLA soldiers” and “Anti-Aircraft Forces of the SLA” — this from a group that got into a shootout when trying to shoplift a pair of socks at a sporting goods store.
To show just how well-meaning and laughably naive members of the cult were, Stone spoofs them in his lively documentary by including clips of Errol Flynn from “The Adventures of Robin Hood.”
“It’s so over-the-top, it’s so absolutely unbelievable,” Stone, an amused man, says of the sequence of events shown in “Guerrilla.” “One scene after the next is just jaw-droppingly weird.”
Stone, who directed the Academy Award-nominated documentary “Radio Bikini” (1987), says he wasn’t interested in Hearst’s story per se — he didn’t try to interview her — and wanted instead to make a movie about the SLA. Much of the film’s commentary comes from two former SLA members: Russell Little, in his first on-camera interview (shot in Hawaii, where he lives) and Michael Bortin (before he was sent to prison in 2003).
“(Hearst’s) story has already been told,” Stone says over dinner in Berkeley, not far from where she was kidnapped from her student apartment. “She’s not a good witness to her own drama. For everything that she’s been through, she’s a remarkably well-balanced and together person and has a very happy and stable family life.”
This has dismayed many journalists and writers, Stone says: “She’s not the kind of person who’s going to go on ‘Oprah Winfrey’ and burst into tears. She’s a very forward-looking, effervescent person. … I think there was this feeling that she let everybody down. She wasn’t this great, fiery Joan of Arc that we made her out to be.”
Hearst, who is now 50, rarely speaks to the media. The mother of two children, she is married to Bernard Shaw, her former bodyguard. After serving time in prison for her notorious role in the April 15, 1974, robbery of the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco (her sentence was commuted by President Carter and she was later pardoned by President Clinton), she wrote a memoir, “Every Secret Thing,” published in 1982. Of late, she has had several small acting roles in films directed by her close friend John Waters.
When Stone found out that Hearst would be at the Sundance Film Festival this past January to promote a Waters movie, he decided, he says, to do the honorable thing: He contacted her since he, too, would be at the festival, showing his film. Hearst, her husband and Waters attended a private screening in New York.
“She told me she thinks it’s the fairest thing that’s ever been done on the story,” Stone says. “And Russ Little has also told me the same thing. I don’t think they agree on anything else.
“But I felt I struck the right note,” he adds. “Nobody comes off as a saint, but nobody comes off as a complete sinner.”