Q&A: Charlie Siskel, Director Of American Anarchist


BY DILLON ALEXANDER The Anarchist Cookbook is that forbidden book your older brother and his friends ordered off the internet and used to make napalm in your old, crazy neighbor’s driveway that wound through the woods. Or maybe it’s the book that your posh friends prominently displayed on top of their coffee table for shock value. Maybe you heard about it on the news, when it was found at the apartment of some alienated, mentally unstable man who was convinced that he was the Joker from The Dark Knight. Maybe you have no clue what it is, but chances are that hearing it mentioned, it piques some curiosity. Documentary filmmaker Charlie Siskel (Finding Vivian Maier, Bowling For Columbine, Religulous) [pictured, below], nephew of famed film critic Gene Siskel, found his interest piqued by this Charlie Siskelincendiary book. For his new documentary, Siskel tracked down its author, William Powell, and forced him to confront the moral implications of his dangerous brainchild. The result is American Anarchist.

PHAWKER:    For the benefit of readers who may not be familiar with it, could you explain what The Anarchist Cookbook is and some of the moral quandaries that it represents?

CHARLIE SISKEL:  Sure. The Anarchist Cookbook was written in 1970 by Bill Powell [pictured, below right], who was then 19. It was kind of a political manifesto combined with a how-to guide or cookbook for how to make explosive devices, bombs, and how to do other illicit things like make drugs. It also taught certain techniques in guerrilla fighting. That sort of thing. The book was a product of its time in that, during the late 60’s, early 70’s, the counterculture and protest over Vietnam and police violence against American citizens pushed a lot of people on the left to look for more extreme answers to the kind of violence that was happening at the hands of the state.

A number of people, the Weather Underground, the Black Panthers, and Bill Powell as an individual in the sea of that resistance, started to advocate violence in response to the violence that he was seeing. The book is a product of its time in that way, but what’s unusual is that the book went on to have a life beyond the late 60’s early 70’s context in which it was written. It was picked up as a cult icon throughout the 70’s and 80’s, and then into the 90’s and 2000’s. Even today, the book’s taken on a life of its own as a badge of rebellion, or sometimes as a curiosity that people would have on their shelf or on their coffee table,  similar to Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book.

But unfortunately, as I talk about in the film and as has been written about by some, the book has been associated with some violent episodes between the 1970’s and today, showing up in the hands of a really diverse group of people who have unfortunately resorted to violence. The book is in some ways a kind of a Rorschach test. People see in it what they want to see, and so it is susceptible to many interpretations. What the people who have had the book and went on to conduct violence have in common is that they believe that they are doing the right thing and that there’s some kind of justification for violence.  Clearly, they see in the book either the message to carry out violence or some sort of anti-establishment justification for it. All of these things are present in the book and even today when there’s information that’s available online, the book continues to have this resonance.  So, what I was interested in exploring in the film is what it’s like to be the person who wrote that book and has to live with the aftermath.

PHAWKER:    Can you talk about your interest in Powell as a subject and what it was like confronting his past with him throughout your interviews?

CHARLIE SISKEL:  I was interested in Bill as a subject because I think while his circumstances in particular  are unique, I think there’s something universal about his story.  I think we all have regrets about things that we’ve done in our past, and some people have those play out in a smaller way, in a way that’s personal to them and their families or their friends or their colleagues. Others like Bill have it play out in a much more public way, and that’s what I was interested in; understanding how he made sense of this the book and it’s role in his life. How it shaped his image of himself as a person, as a young person. How his view of the book changed from the time he wrote it to the time I interviewed him about it, when he was a 64 year-old man.

I was interested in him and his process of introspectively evaluating his choices and his past. I recognized that this would be a difficult thing to do, especially on camera. But he was willing. He understood that was  what I was interested in talking with him about and that seemed to be what he was interested in talking about, as well. You know, he agreed to do the project. He agreed to be filmed, but from the very start it was clear that he was also uncomfortable with the process, and resisted it. From the very first question, he denied that the book advocates violence in any way. This is what Joseph Conrad calls artful dodges of self knowledge. The things we do to ourselves to keep from confronting our demons or keep from confronting our truths from our past. I think they’re all on display in the film, and it’s fascinating

PHAWKER:    Earlier in your career, you worked on Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine. film-americananarchistColumbine is one of the many examples of mass shootings and terrorist attacks in which The Anarchist Cookbook was found among the belongings of the perpetrators. Was that when you first learned about The Anarchist Cookbook?

CHARLIE SISKEL:  That was certainly one of the times that I was thinking about the book. I was familiar with the book back in the late 70’s early 80’s. I had an older cousin who had the book and was, as I was describing earlier, one of those people who  had the book because of its cult status. It was a shocking thing to have on your shelf. Maybe it made your parents angry and scared your friends or something like that. So, I was aware of the book then, but I really started to focus on the book because I was interested in the period of the late 60’s early 70’s when the Students for Democratic Society and other groups on the new left began to fracture. Some parts of the left began to advocate violence, and that’s the period that has really interested me.

The notion that we were on the brink of a revolution. That people, as Bill says in the film, believed that they were going to change society. That they were going to upset the balance of power and put power back in the hands of ordinary people. That period fascinates me, and the idea that there was people like Bill that were upper middle class educated who were dropping out of college and putting off plans for careers to essentially join a political revolution that ended up deteriorating. That is the period that has fascinated me, and Bill was a really interesting case.

PHAWKER: So the film talks a lot about these negative blips where there have been violent attacks: terrorist attacks, school shootings, bombings. Innocent people are killed, and The Anarchist Cookbook is linked to the assailant. But I’m curious about any sort of positive implications that the book may have had. Has it been used for good, or do you see it only in its association to terrorist attacks and school shootings?

CHARLIE SISKEL:  I think that unfortunately the book has been associated with these acts of violence, and it’s very hard to find any good in that, or any other evidence that the book has been an influence for good or positive change. I also don’t want to overstate the negative effects that the book has had. I’m not setting out to prove, and I don’t think anyone has been able to prove, that the book has a causal relationship to these events.

It’s not the, as lawyers would say, “The but/for cause” of the violence at Columbine or other places. But/for The Anarchist Cookbook, the Columbine Massacre would never have happened. I don’t think we can say that. I think that attack and others would likely have happened using some other means. Certainly, today this information is available in many forms, on the internet, and even back then the information was publicly available in military manuals. That’s where Powell got it from. So the point is never to show that the book is directly responsible for these acts of violence, or that Bill Powell is directly responsible for the acts of violence. But we can’t ignore that the book was part of the soup of influences of the attackers who had it in their possession. Was it more or less influential than other writings or other information on how to hurt other people? We don’t know that.

The Tsarnaev brothers in the Boston Marathon attack used pressure cooker bombs. Well, there are no pressure cooker diagrams in the original Anarchist Cookbook. So in that case, we know a direct cause, right?  I mean, they didn’t use the book as a play book for that attack, but did they read it for other reasons? Did they read it for the kind of anti-government rhetoric inside or the pro-revolutionary spill-yourself-for-violence kind of talk? Possibly. I think both things are there in the book and that’s part of what Bill grappled with in reading the book again. Did the rhetoric book carry influence on these attackers?

And to the book’s positivity, the rhetoric and the recipes have not contributed anything of value to society, and I don’t think Bill would argue that it has. I mean, on one hand he wants to defend parts of the book in the film. He says he still sort of believes when the government is out of control, you have to fight back. Of course, who would argue with that? I think we see that today. We see that in many forms 30powell-obit-1-master675-v2where a government is out of control, and the people have to resist. When the government is breaking it’s own laws, the people have to stand up…. But the method of resistance is the question, and I think that people who have advocated peaceful resistance have historically had the better argument over people who resort to violence in the face of violence.

PHAWKER:     You spoke to a way that lawyers look at causation, and I’ve read that you were a lawyer before you were a filmmaker. Is that true?


PHAWKER:    Can you speak briefly as to how your experience as a lawyer has informed your documentaries and your role as a filmmaker?

CHARLIE SISKEL:  Well, storytelling in documentaries is a little bit like presenting a narrative in a court case. Lawyers try to present a compelling story. They take all of the facts, the way a journalist would, and put together those facts in a narrative form. In the form of a story that makes sense, that follows a pattern, has a beginning, a middle and an end. They identify what the heart of the story is. What are the issues? What’s the drama that’s tucked away in the story that you’re telling? This is true of any court case. It’s true of any piece of journalism on any subject, and I think it’s certainly true of documentary film.

It’s definitely true for the ones I’ve worked on. In Finding Vivian Maier, it was the story of an undiscovered artist, a woman who worked for years as a nanny and was known just as the help but who secretly was a brilliant artist who somehow managed to labor for years without any appreciation from the public. Now, her work has been discovered and shared with the world, which raises many questions and mysteries. Why did she not share her work and would she have objected to having her work shown now?

You have to interview people who knew her. Well, all the people who knew her, knew her as a nanny. She was the help and she didn’t share her secret passion with her employers, so they presented stories, saying, “Oh, she didn’t want her work to be seen.” Or “Why would she not have shown this? Here I was her friend. How could she have not shown it to me?” So this narrative emerged that Vivian Maier was a secret artist who didn’t want her work to be seen.

Well, I think the film makes the case that those people have it wrong. They never learned who Vivian was because they were hiring her to clean their floors and feed their kids. Vivian was an artist who was interested in making her work for other artists, or for the public at large. She wanted to be recognized in that way and wasn’t interested in showing her work to the families that thought of her as the nanny. There are many reasons why she didn’t share her work. She lacked the means to do it, living job to job, carrying all of her stuff with her, preserving it endlessly. If she really didn’t want her work seen she could have destroyed it as some artists have, but she didn’t. Like Kafka and like Emily Dickinson, she saved it and preserved it, and I’m thankful she did.

And in American Anarchist, there’s a whole other set of facts. Powell has gone on, after writing the book, to become a teacher who travels the world, working with kids with special needs. He has been, by all accounts, a compassionate teacher and good father. He’s really tried to redeem himself and yet he, for many years, didn’t speak out publicly against the book. He only did it after the advent of the internet and the resurgence of the book. He claims he thought the book would just kind of go away, but meanwhile he continued to make money from it.

There are all these contradictions, as there are contradictions in anyone’s life.  I see my role as a filmmaker to try to tell a story truthfully. When the story has a level of complexity to it that doesn’t oversimplify things and makes you feel something. Getting that effect is why I’m making the film in the first place. I connect with subjects who make me feel something. In Bill’s case, while it did take some lawyering to get him to open up and talk about difficult subjects, it was all in service of trying to understand a deeper universal puzzle, which is how do we sleep at night? How do we make sense of our choices? How do we tell others the stories of our pasts, editing out the details that are painful or Rage-Flower-Thrower-by-Banksyinconvenient, or things that we’re not proud of in order to present an image of ourselves that we can accept? I didn’t see myself as a confessioner, as a priest, or a therapist. Those were not my roles, but I think Bill certainly was interested in talking it through because he wanted to wrestle with these questions of his past.

He told me when we first met that he was working on a memoir. He gave me a copy, and I read it before we sat down. There was a lot there that I was able to use in talking with him, but there was a lot that wasn’t there. A lot of questions that he didn’t really ask himself in that memoir. So, I think by having someone push him, he was able to confront some of the more difficult questions about his choices, about his past.

PHAWKER:  Shifting gears a little, Gene Siskel is your uncle, I was wondering if maybe you could tell me something I might be surprised to learn about him?

CHARLIE SISKEL:  Gene was one of the smartest and funniest  people I’ve ever met. He had an insatiable appetite for culture, for movies, art, cinema, for books, and for people. He was a great interviewer himself, and that’s what I would emphasize. He was a brilliant interviewer. He always managed to find the surprising question. He did his homework and was never predictable in the questions that he would ask. He had an incredible ability to get things out of people that others couldn’t.

I think about him all the time when I’m working on projects and do whatever I can to capture just the littlest bit of his talent, which I don’t think I’ll ever quite approach, but I try to get a little closer every time.

PHAWKER:    So my understanding is Powell passed away before he had a chance to see the documentary, is that correct?

CHARLIE SISKEL:  Yes, he did.

PHAWKER:  What do  you think his response would have been to seeing the film in its entirety?

CHARLIE SISKEL:  Well, Bill passed away just before the film came out. A little more than a year after we did the interviews. Unfortunately, we’ll never know what he would think of the film. I imagine that he would find parts of it very difficult, as he found it difficult in the first place to get through the interviews. The moments that were uncomfortable in the film were obviously uncomfortable for him, and that chimes for me in real life. So, I can’t imagine it would be any better to watch it again.

But I’d like to think that he would think it’s a very compassionate portrait. I feel a great deal of connection and empathy with Bill. I think that he lived his life as anyone would want to in an honorable way, in an honest way. He was obviously a loving and compassionate teacher, husband, father and friend. I hope that the film captures that spirit. In the midst of all the destruction and the negative things that we say that the book has been connected to, I hope that his story is a positive one because it shows that we can all come to terms with our own path and even redeem ourselves in some way.

He was a 19-year-old kid when he wrote that book, and the mistakes that we make as 19 year-olds shouldn’t haunt us for the rest of our lives. There is a book by Jon Ronson that I love called So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed that’s about public shaming in the age of the internet. There are many stories of people who write a stupid comment online, or post a Tweet that is an off color joke and they’re not a professional comedian, so they get harassed for it and shamed for it. It can ruin people, cost them jobs, create them incredible anxiety and depression. There are a number of stories that Jon Ronson relates in the book and I think Bill’s story is like a pre-Internet example of that kind of public humiliation.

And I think that’s just how Bill felt after writing the book and seeing the book connected with acts of violence. So, I hope it’s a story that people can, even if they don’t have a personal connection to, see that it resonates with stories of people that they know who make a mistake and have to live with it and move beyond it.