Apr 09 2012

Cinema week and The Weather Underground

After a chaotic weekend (31st-1st) that involved Saltlick at The Tyne bar, Flow on the quayside and also being woken up by a rat exploring my face at one point (a pet rat mind you – but none the less, a big rat, with a long tail, known as Nathan, after Chris Lilly’s endearing character) I decided that I would begin the week by doing something a bit more relaxing and visit the cinema. Obviously, here in Newcastle, we have great cinemas. On Monday, however, my plan to relax at the cinema failed completely when I agreed to go to The Tyneside and watch Alien, the director’s cut.

As a former film student and teacher the nuances of Alien are all too familiar. Regardless of the fact that, yes, it’s bloody scary at times, Alien is basically a sexual assault. In the words of Alien screenplay writer Dan O’Bannon: “One thing that people are all disturbed about is sex…That’s how I’m going to attack the audience; I’m going to attack them sexually. And I’m not going to go after the women in the audience; I’m going to attack the men. I am going to put in every image I can think of to make the men in the audience cross their legs.”

Cheers Dan… and magnify that onto a big screen, 9pm at night, in a packed Tyneside Cinema – yes, far from relaxing. But a wonderful experience to relive all of those iconic moments, in the comfort of the plush surroundings of The Tyneside Cinema among other Alien fans. Obviously this was particularly special not only as its one of the greatest horror movies of all time, but it’s directed by local boy Ridley Scott in the cinema that his great Uncle built. The Tyneside’s ‘Vote a film back’ is a great initiative, you can vote via the website.

Anyhow…that was Monday. The real cinematic highlight of the week, which had been pencilled in the diary (well Google Calendar) for a few weeks took place on Wednesday at Newcastle’s very own ‘dissident’ cinema, The Star and Shadow.  The Cinema, which opened its doors in 2006, is a not-for-profit organisation entirely run by volunteers. Situated on Stepney Bank at the top of the Ouseburn valley, the Star and Shadow is committed to showing radical and independent film, from around the world. It also has its own library, bar and social area. On Wednesday, it screened the Oscar nominated documentary, The Weather Underground, which takes an intimate look at the lives and activities of the radical left wing student protest group, who led the ‘violent’ end of the student anti Vietnam War movement in America, during the 60s and 70s.

The movie is particularly topical as one of the leaders of The Weather Underground, Bill Ayers, who now teaches Educational Theory at The University of Chicago, is a family friend of and donator to Barack Obama. Back in 1970, the ‘Weathermen’ (as they were often referred to) issued a “Declaration of a State of War” against the United States government. This was followed by a bombing campaign targeted at key government buildings including The Pentagon (1972) and The Capitol Building (1971). The group were originally members of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) but broke with the organisation on ideological grounds, believing peaceful protest wasn’t enough to challenge the blatant genocide taking place in Vietnam, in the name of freedom and democracy.

As one of the group (speaking in the present day) explained, Americans with full knowledge of the atrocities being caused in Vietnam (which was well documented at the time via the liberal press) that refused to stand up and fight against the injustice being done, were as bad as the politicians and soldiers leading the war effort. “We believed that a failure to attack violence was violent itself.” During the late 60s the group (which had around 20-30 members) chose to take on violence with violence and, for a while, successfully influenced large swathes of the anti-war movement including the Black Panthers.

Part of the ‘radicalisation’ of The Weather Underground, however, was firmly rooted in the experimental tendencies of the time. Acid trips and polygamous relationships were all part of the group’s ethos to break away from their middle class mind set, and become more in touch with the greater social ‘revolution’ engulfing the developed world at the time. As one member later lamented, however, in some respects it was just a crazy cult.

After a homemade bomb went off prematurely at a house in New York, killing three members of the Weather Underground, the group’s leadership vowed to ensure that no one would ever be harmed by their actions. Each of the following planned explosions was pre-empted by an evacuation message. Despite this ‘ethical’ approach to terrorism the group were still criticised by members of the left for having a ‘grand and violent vision for the cleansing of the world’ and in that respect they were no different to other fundamentalists.

With Nixon gone and the Vietnam War finally ending in 1975, the Weather Underground began to lose direction and members began to leave to begin new lives away from political extremism. By 1980 most of the leadership including Bill Ayers and his wife Bernardine Dohrn had handed themselves into the FBI but were not charged for their actions, as they were able to successfully prove underhand tactics used by the FBI to track down and arrest them over the previous decade, were illegal. In interviews conducted for the documentary, many of the key figures of The Weather Underground admitted some regrets about their involvement in extremism but ultimately clung onto to the belief that their attempt to throw America into widespread revolution was the right thing to do, during a period when US foreign policy was completely undemocratic and out of control.

“I think that part of the Weatherman phenomenon that was right was our understanding of what the position of the United States is in the world. It was this knowledge that we just couldn’t handle; it was too big. We didn’t know what to do. In a way I still don’t know what to do with this knowledge. I don’t know what needs to be done now, and it’s still eating away at me just as it did 30 years ago.” Mark Rudd, Former Leader of The Weather Underground.

You are guaranteed to see thought provoking films at The Star & Shadow and we are very lucky to have a resource like it here in the North East. The cinema hosts a series of events throughout the year, as well as movie screenings, and you can find out what’s going on by accessing the website A regular night at The Cinema is Reel News, where unseen footage of ‘under reported’ news from around is shown, followed by a discussion. The next session takes place on 11th April at 7:30m.

*Bill Ayers mug-shot sourced from

*Image of The Star and Shadow Cinema sourced from



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