March 2000 Interview with Filmmaker Steve York

Q: Why did you choose these six stories when you had 20 or more to choose from? Why the sequence?

YORK : It has something to do with what’s available. There’s a really wonderful story dealing with nonviolent conflict that took place in El Salvador in 1944, but when we started doing initial research we discovered there was simply no audiovisual material or footage; I think I found a total of four still photographs. What happened in Russia in 1905 is the best example–there’s no one alive to talk to. We had two chores to discover simultaneously: the first was where the richest material going to be available. It was quite clear that we wanted to include one or another episode from the American civil rights struggle. The Nashville story is obvious. So, we were led to Nashville partly because all of the main people who were involved with this story, with the exception of one, were then in their late teens or early twenties. That means they’re my age today, and so I’ve got a very rich cast of characters. The one exception also happens to be around, Jim Lawson, who’s 70.

The other consideration was to try to present a cross-section that touches down over as wide a historical swath as possible, as early in the century and as late in the century as we could, and present some geographic spread so that it would be impossible for a skeptic to say that “the British were quite civilized people underneath it all” or that “Gandhi was facing a relatively civilized adversary.” Similarly, a skeptic might remark that “the civil rights movement in the United States fundamentally had the Constitution and the law on their side, so these tactics won’t work against Nazis or communists.” Well that says to me that I should include a story of resistance against the Third Reich, or a story against communist rule, as we did in Poland. After a while you being to create a catalog based on the nature of the adversary because you want to show that these ideas are effective against very different kinds of adversaries.

We showed AFMP at the London Human Rights Festival and someone said “Why don’t you include a story where there’s an obvious failure? There’s an awful lot to be learned by failure.” The first thing to say is that it’s difficult to call all of the stories that are in the series successes, in the sense that Gandhi did not succeed at the time that he said he was going to. It was 17 years later, and for reasons not entirely accredited to his movement, that the British left India. The civil rights movement of course went on for ages, and you could argue that discrimination is alive and well today in the United States, so that story is not over. The Solidarity movement was cracked down upon in 1981 under martial law and did not reemerge until 1989, and partially as a result of forces having nothing to do with Solidarity. If you’re going to try to show techniques and strategies and methods of nonviolent conflict, I just think you’re better off showing stories where it’s clear that there are some successes.

But success is a difficult thing to define–when have you “won” in these things? You can certainly see comparisons and contrasts and overlaps among the stories. Many, many audiences have come to me after the fact and said “Gee, it’s really interesting to see that in all three of these stories, the economic weapon is really key.” The Salt Tax and monopoly in India really did not represent a huge economic threat, because the British didn’t actually receive any significant revenue from the monopoly. In that sense, it was intentional that Gandhi picked salt because it was not a huge economic issue but it was enormously symbolic to poor people. Boycotts against British imported goods like cloth were really significant, as was the boycott in downtown Nashville and similarly in South Africa. Economic issues were key, if not the key. I think you can see that down the line, if you can squeeze people where it’s going to hurt them, and that tends to be in economic terms, it can make a huge difference.

That, of course, brings us to another really major thematic point, which is that it’s not enough to go out and prick people’s conscience.. Sympathy, although you may gain it by going out and getting a lot of people arrested, won’t on the average be enough to bring down a really ruthless or entrenched regime. You have to find a way to apply real pressure.

Q: Who was the most inspirational or interesting person?

YORK: It’s very tough to make a choice. I certainly did wish that I had been able to meet Gandhi when I was in India. But it wasn’t so much that there was any single person, as it was this sensation that I often had, when talking to people, that I was in the presence of somebody who was strongly motivated and powerfully convinced of what they were doing. You have to remember that Gandhi in India really didn’t know what kind of an effect he was going to have when he set out on the salt march. Certainly the resistance movement in places like Poland or Chile or Denmark had no way of knowing in advance how the story was going to end. There was no guarantee that they were going to succeed or even moderate what was going on -- and yet they did it. That takes something extraordinary, and I don’t know that just anybody and everybody is capable of that kind of passion and determination. They had to make it happen without advance knowledge of how the story was going to end. That quality that you find in individual people shows, it just does, and that was the most interesting and striking part of the experience of doing this, aside from the fact that you always hear dozens and dozens of stories that for various reasons you can’t include, and it’s very painful not to be able to include them.

Mkhuseli. Jack in South Africa is in his mid-40 years now I think, and I asked him over and over when we were getting to know each other, “How did you at the age of 27 get the intelligence, the patience, and the wisdom to play this game the way you did?” because I tend to associate youth with impatience and impetuousness. These guys really were very sophisticated in understanding how to attack this adversary, with an eye on the longer term and the understanding that once in a while we’ll have to back off a bit and maintain a sense of compassion, actually, for the enemy. It’s not so much we want to destroy these people as it is we want to win them over. Those are not insights that I associate with very young people.

Q: How did you come up with the title “A Force More Powerful”?

YORK: Initially, we took a cue from Peter Ackerman’s 1995 book, whose main title is “Strategic Nonviolent Conflict,” but the subtitle on it is “The Dynamics of People Power in the Twentieth Century.” “People power” is a phrase that came into common usage, you may know, at the time of the 1986 ouster of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. “People power” was the big rallying cry there. So initially, the series was called “People Power.” It has a nice sort of alliterative ring to it, but I have always from the start treated it as a working title, perhaps mostly because for me, given my age and the kinds of formative experiences that I lived through, it had a kind of Sixties or “flower power” ring to it that dated it. I felt we should find something better, and so did some of the other folks who were commenting on the materials that we were turning out a year or more ago.

The spark that set off the final title choice was Bernard Lafayette, who was one of the students in Nashville in 1960. During the interview that we filmed with him, he said “We had a philosophy that was nonviolent, and we believed that it was a power more forceful than their dogs, their billy clubs, or their jails.” My wife and partner, Miriam Zimmerman, suggested that we take what he said and just switch it around to “A Force More Powerful.” And then we discovered in reading Gandhi that he actually used the phrase “a force more powerful” in describing nonviolent conflict resistance which sort of cemented the deal.

Q: What was your greatest challenge in making this film? How did you overcome it?

YORK: The real problem was that essence of strategic nonviolence consists of activities that have rarely been photographed. It’s people sitting around a kitchen table late at night in a remote township in South Africa, or in an attic room in Warsaw, or in a church basement in Nashville. It’s a few people having ideas and exercising what is not very dramatic, i.e., discipline, clear thinking, and all the mundane nuts and bolts of making phone calls, printing flyers, going door-to-door, etc. It’s not dramatic, mainly because people need maintain some sense of secrecy and confidentiality, or people just not wanting cameras around. So the biggest problem with any historical documentary project is finding footage of things that are important.

The most important moments from nonviolent struggles, from my perspective, were never photographed. What you find instead is a deluge of footage of people marching in the streets, demonstrating, scuffling with cops, or whatever. Even though some of that’s quite dramatic, anything, if you see too much of it, just becomes monotonous and boring. You can’t make a film out of that. So really, that was the challenge: to get inside the heads of people who were thinking these things up, who were planning and plotting and strategizing and organizing without having any footage of it actually happening. In the Nashville story, we actually did have some footage. It’s not a lot, but it’s spectacular, such the workshops in the church basement where Lawson was training these kids.

Q: What did you learn about the connections among various nonviolent movements?

The fact that Lawson spent time and India and studied Gandhi I think helped us, and we tried to point out here and there, without being too didactic about it, that these movements do tend to know about each other and learn about each other. I was knocked out when I was in Chile working on that story, and many people told me “You know, just as our democratic opposition movement was emerging publicly, a movie started showing in the theaters here in Chile. And the movie was about Gandhi. All of us in the opposition went to see that movie over and over again, and we drew enormous inspiration from it.” Similarly, in Chile, people will tell you one of the reasons they took the risk of attempting to defeat Pinochet in this 1988 plebiscite–which was a very risky thing to do–is that they knew about and were able to point to the example of what had happened in the Philippines just a year and a half earlier. Marcos was rejected in an election run by his own rules, and if that can happen in the Philippines, then maybe it can happen here. Poles in the Solidarity movement referred to Gandhi as well as Martin Luther King and the American civil rights movement. There’s a lot to be said for the free flow of information as a major weapon, i.e., knowing what has gone on before. Gandhi, in 1905, was then living in South Africa, reading the daily newspapers in Johannesburg. We actually got hold of a copy of the Rand Daily Mail on microfilm. At that time, he’s reading about the strikes in Russia, drawing inspiration from it and writing articles in his own weekly newspaper published in South Africa for the Indian community, pointing out the Russian example and how this is something that the Indians can do to achieve their own freedom. Those things are priceless. Today you cannot squash people’s ability to communicate ideas to each other, in a way that you could have 50 years ago.