Revolution '67

PBS Premiere: July 10, 2007Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Interview

POV: How did you come to make this film? What drew you to the subject?

Marylou Tibaldo-Bongiorno: I'm a native daughter of Newark, New Jersey, and a lifelong resident of the city. For as long as I can remember, Newark has been stigmatized by the riots of 1967. So for my husband, Jerome, and I, who have been living there for so many years, there are questions that persisted about the riots: Why did they happen? Who's to blame? Why is the city in the condition that it's in? Why has the city not recovered? So it was to get the answers to these questions and to discover why Newark is in the condition that it's at that led us to make this film.

POV: How long did it take to make this film? Can you describe the process of making it?

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Tibaldo-Bongiorno: We started researching the riots in Newark about ten years ago, when I was making a thesis film at NYU. My thesis film was a narrative film that had the Newark riots as the backdrop. So we started to craft a narrative story, and put some elements of our research into the story; for example, snipers, which figured prominently in the research that we had done around the Newark riots, were a part of the story for the narrative film. Once we started screening this film, particularly in Newark, people said, "That's not right, there were no snipers. That's another urban legend." But we said, "The textbooks say differently, the newspapers say differently!" People believe those, and we believed it. That led to doing a more thorough investigation of the riots, and we started talking to eyewitnesses and historians who were reflecting on the period. So we made this documentary as research for another narrative film set in Newark that we have yet to shoot, and then the documentary took a life of its own. Right now both the narrative film and the documentary film coexist. We're finishing the screenplay for the narrative film as we're completing the documentary.

POV: Why did you choose to focus on just these few days in July of 1967?

Tibaldo-Bongiorno: The six days that encompassed the riots in Newark in 1967 became a very dramatic period because of the activity that was condensed into a short period of time. There were 26 people murdered, hundreds that were wounded, thousands arrested and over ten million dollars worth of property damage during that short period of time. Then you ask yourself, "What about the recovery?" Forty years later the recovery is still a huge question mark, because, in terms of poverty and unemployment, Newark stands much higher than national averages; the statistics are really staggering. So many people point to that small period of time in 1967 — less than a week — as being a huge factor in causing the city to be where it is today. That small period of time has become very symbolic.

The six days of rioting were emblematic of what happened in Newark over decades, so we used them as a point of focus to show what happened as a result of years of neglect, corruption, police brutality, poverty, unemployment and general hopelessness.

POV: Why is it important to focus on Newark?

Tibaldo-Bongiorno: Newark is a city that has enormous problems, like so many other cities in the United States and in the world. Newark becomes a microcosm of what's wrong with this country, the tensions happening in current events, and the situation in cities like New Orleans. Newark stands as a reminder of what happened and what can happen if problems are not addressed and corrected.

POV: You interviewed figures from all sides of the conflict, and they offer different perspectives on the events of July 1967. How conscious were you of trying to present one side or another? What was revealed to you from these different perspectives?

Tibaldo-Bongiorno: I've struggled with the question of what the truth was, because I wasn't there. I was a child at the time and certainly have no memory of what happened. So as we interviewed people from opposite sides of the issues, we noticed that sometimes we were looking for proof of a point or a fact, and sometimes we just wanted proof of the contrary. We don't know what the answers are, but with the overview of the historians who have studied this period, and in the context of people's interviews, we can start to feel out what we believe to have happened. That means that there are some surprises.

A National Guardsman states that he knew that none of the state police or the Newark police had automatic weapons, and that was how he knew that snipers were on the street. But then we found archival footage that clearly shows that the state police and the Newark police were armed, at one point, with automatic weapons. With historical hindsight, this indicates that most of the violence was being propagated by the National Guard, the state police and the Newark police: not having radio frequencies, these three forces couldn't communicate with one another, and so they were firing indiscriminately. Looking at the footage, you see all of these forces just firing their guns. Policemen told us in interviews that when you hear the sound of a gun, you're just going to react, you're just going to start firing. All these things started to lead to this very clear understanding and conclusion on our part that there were no snipers.

POV: Did making this film change you in any way?

Tibaldo-Bongiorno: I learned an incredible deal in making this film, not just as a filmmaker but as a person who's trying to understand history, understand what happened in my community and in America, and understand what's happening in places like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina or Paris after the recent riots, all the cities where there is unrest. I learned that there are no easy answers and that there are big problems, and that these problems have not been addressed in a broad way.

The problems in a place like Newark are unemployment and poor education. The stats concerning poverty in Newark are abysmal; they are high above the national average. The unemployment rate in the United is 4.6 percent, but in Newark, it's close to 10 percent. The poverty rate in the United States is about 12.4 percent, and in Newark, it's at 25 percent. In the educational system, the test scores are abysmal. When you come to a city and you find extreme poverty in a large swatch of the population, you also find a sense of pervasive hopelessness. You start to realize that people don't want to move there. You can't build up neighborhoods. You don't have a body of people that want to organize and complain, or if they do want to do that, they feel that it's ineffectual because of corruption in government, because of a variety of factors that have just made this city seem like there's no hope.

POV: You talked about working on your thesis film — which was a narrative film — and how that led you to making this documentary. Now the documentary is leading you back to work on a larger narrative film. Can you talk about how the different kinds of work you've done in documentary and narrative genres collide and influence one another?

Tibaldo-Bongiorno: There is a blurry line between the narrative and the documentary when you're studying the same subject, because you want your narrative to be as accurate as possible and yet you're fictionalizing the stories to make it more dramatic and entertaining and cohesive. We actually started "Revolution '67" as a short narrative film. That led us to questions of "What is truth?" and "How do we get the real story?" While we were doing our research for the short narrative, we decided to record the conversations we had with people. So the research for the short narrative led us to make a documentary that was supposed to be small in scale. But then it grew, and it kept growing, and now it's become Revolution '67, a feature documentary.

Now we look at that finished product — the documentary — and we say that we're going to use that as a basis for a larger narrative film. The lines are so blurred, because the characters from real life are obviously bleeding into the narrative film; having met some of the real-life people that inspired these characters causes us to write the fictional story in a particular way.

What happens is that you're funded to do research, which is called script research, and you think, why not capture that as its own film? That's usually what happens to us. Being recorded on camera also makes everyone very serious about telling their story, so that our research is not just a casual lunch, but it becomes an afternoon, or, as happened in Newark, we wind up recording Tom Hayden while we were taking him to the airport. Ordinarily, we may have just had a conversation on the phone with someone like that. But our dialogue with Tom just continued, and even though we had no intention of putting that footage in the car in the final film, it made its way there because he just kept talking.