They were both 19 years old when their lives changed irrevocably. Patricia Hearst was heiress to an American publishing dynasty; Juliet Belmas was the daughter of a retired B.C. Hydro lineman. In 1974, a band of terrorists
called the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) kidnapped Hearst, stuffing her into the trunk of a car. Ten weeks later, brandishing an automatic rifle, she robbed a San Francisco bank with her captors. Arrested in 1976, she spent two years in jail before being released by a presidential commutation. Unlike Hearst, Belmas acted freely when she joined Direct Action, the group now known as the Squamish Five, which bombed Toronto’s Litton Systems Canada Ltd. plant in 1982. Captured in 1983, Belmas is now serving the sixth year of a 15year prison term. Both women have renounced their actions. And both have become the subjects of new docudramas: Patty Hearst, which is being released in Canadian theatres this month, and The Squamish Five, due to air on CBC TV on Nov. 6.
The two movies employ radically different styles. Director Paul Schrader’s Patty Hearst is a coolly distanced nightmare in which Hearst’s ordeal is conveyed with eerie lighting and macabre hallucinations. By contrast, director Paul Donovan and producer Bernard Zukerman, the Toronto-based team behind The Squamish Five, dramatize the facts in the tradition of Canadian documentary realism. But both movies express empathy for their main characters. Hearst and Belmas collaborated with the film-makers—and are sympathetically portrayed as innocent, impressionable girls who fall into the clutches of bungling, misguided terrorists. The two films are personal stories, divorced from their political context. They are about urban guerrillas whose ideals remain largely invisible. And while both Hearst and Belmas are seen as sincere in their desire to do the right thing, their motives for becoming revolutionary outlaws remain elusive.
The case of Hearst is the greater puzzle. With her kidnapping, her apparent conversion to the SLA, her arrest, her recantation and her trial, she became one of the biggest media stars of the 1970s—the subject of seven Newsweek cover stories. And Patty Hearst's première at last spring’s Cannes International Film Festival became yet another media event, as Hearst, now a glamorous socialite, appeared before throngs of reporters. But even after
the release of the movie—based on Hearst’s 1982 book about her experiences, Every Secret Thing—the mystery of her conversion to the SLA is still unresolved. “The film is very ambivalent about her,” director Schrader said last week in an interview. “It’s an ironic situation. A 19-year-old girl is plucked from her environment and made into a symbol for various groups, both right and left. If she had died, they would have had a heyday making myth out of her.”
Schrader, who has written scripts for such provocative films as Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ, did not write Patty Hearst. And he said that Nicholas Kazan’s screenplay posed a difficult challenge. “It had a passive protagonist,” explained Schrader. “It is the story of an empty vessel.” Indeed, much of Schrader’s movie is devoted to the 57-day period in which Hearst was kept locked in a closet, allowed out only with a blindfold. British actress Natasha Richardson—daughter of director Tony Richardson and actress Vanessa Redgrave—does a masterful job of playing a character who spends much of the movie in the dark, silently enduring verbal and physical abuse from her faceless captors. Hearst is forced to have sex with men she cannot see. She has visions of her own death, in which she looks up to see earth being shovelled into her grave.
When she is finally allowed to remove the blindfold, her kidnappers ask her to choose between going free and joining them. But after two months of sensory deprivation, the unknown is simply too terrifying: she imagines freedom as the thud of another shovelful of dirt landing on her coffin. With chilling detachment, Schrader glides over the issue of Hearst’s acquiescence. The audience can only guess at what she is thinking. And Richardson, who bears a remarkable resemblance to Hearst, sustains the intrigue with a Mona Lisa smile and the ironic apathy of a Californian accent.
By the time she joins the SLA, Hearst is a zombi—armed and dispassionate. Sitting in a motel room, she watches live television coverage of the 1974 shootout in which 9,000 rounds of ammunition were exchanged between police and six SLA members holed up in a Los Angeles hideout. The authorities assumed that Hearst was among them. As the hideout is engulfed in flames, killing everyone inside, she seems mesmerized by the spectacle of her own death. The documentary TV footage cuts into Schrader’s stylized drama with brutal effect—a reminder of historic events that seem as unreal as Hearst’s hallucinations.
But the characters who determine Hearst’s fate are portrayed as such inhuman robots that Schrader’s drama takes on a burlesque quality. The SLA’s Gen. Field Marshal Cinque (Ving Rhames) is a maniacal black man surrounded by guilt-ridden middle-class whites. Against a sound track of church-like music, he screams, “Death to the fascist insect.” Attacked by European critics for presenting a crude caricature of the extreme left, Schrader says that the SLA was more of an insane cult than a revolutionary organization. But too often in his film, bad acting serves as a weak form of parody.
Schrader has made a perversely uncommercial movie that is hard to watch and unsatisfying in its resolution. But he has at least avoided the usual Hollywood formula, by which Hearst would end up as just another romantic heroine overcoming impossible odds. And the power of Richardson’s enigmatic presence makes the whole exercise worthwhile.
The Squamish Five is a more conventional film. But again, it has a strong lead performance. Toronto-based actress Robyn Stevan plays Julie Belmas as a sweet, vulnerable girl who is seduced by the thrill of revolutionary action. A punk-rock fan, she meets Direct Action’s founders, Brent Taylor (Michael McManus) and Ann Hansen (Nicky Guadagni), at a concert. Belmas joins the group with her boyfriend, a shiftless punk musician named Gerry Hannah (David McLeod). Unlike the SLA, Direct Action tried to confine its attacks to corporate property, attempting to draw attention to such issues as pollution, nuclear arms and pornography. They singled out Litton because the company manufactured guidance systems for the American cruise missile. Ten people were injured when 550 lb. of dynamite planted by the group exploded prematurely in October, 1982.
At first, Julie revels in the spray-paint vandalism and petty shoplifting of the group’s early outings. But as the actions escalate to what Hansen calls “heavy-duty illegality,” Belmas becomes increasingly nervous. In a typical example of the film’s heavy-handed dialogue, she says, “I feel over my head, like I’m being sucked into something beyond my control.”
The first half of The Squamish Five is slow and weakly scripted. The portrayal of Taylor as the group’s power-mad leader is too wooden to be credible. And the political discussions, punctuated with such comments as “Your analysis sucks,” seem contrived. With the Litton incident, the story picks up momentum. And the scene in which Belmas and her comrades are arrested on a highway near Squamish, B.C., is superbly executed by director Donovan. During the last half-hour, the story finally coalesces into gripping drama.
To document the group’s demise, the filmmakers mined a wealth of documentary material. Toronto screenwriters Ken Gass and Terence McKenna based much of the script on 12,000 pages of transcripts from wiretapped conversations. The RCMP had the group’s Vancouver house under electronic surveillance day and night for seven weeks before their arrest. Producer Zukerman explained that all the film’s dialogue was based on information from the wiretaps or interviews with Belmas—the other members refused to collaborate. Agreeing that some scenes could have used some enhancement, the producer said, “We didn’t want to fictionalize anything— and we paid a bit of a price for that.” Although Zukerman maintains that his film is accurate, some have charged that it paints a distorted picture of the Squamish Five and ignores their goals. The film attracted protesters when it was screened at film festivals recently in Toronto and Vancouver. But Zukerman recalls that he did not find enough evidence of the group’s ideals in the wiretaps to include them in the script. He said, “We could have been a lot harder on the Five.”
Stevan, however, shared some of the protesters’ concerns. The actress, who was 19 when she played Belmas, recalled that she felt “really intrusive” reading the wiretap transcripts. “We stick to the facts,” she said, “but we’re taking a selective number of facts. The public will automatically equate the actors with the real people. But you only see part of it, and that’s frightening for me as an actor.” Added Stevan: “I wish we could have delved more into the group’s motivations and what they believed in.”
Meanwhile, the real Julie Belmas, interviewed by telephone from British Columbia’s Twin Maples minimum security prison, 30 km from Vancouver, said that she likes the film, but she had a few reservations. Some of the Squamish Five were “shown too linearly,” she said, explaining that Taylor was actually subordinate to Hansen in the leadership. “But the portrayal of me was very accurate. I’m not an overly intelligent person. I’m kind of flighty, a little mixed up, and I just went for it.” Added Belmas: “I was in a very black-and-white headspace. I still have those extremes in my personality, but I’m an artist now.” While waiting for her parole hearing, due before Christmas, Belmas leaves the prison on day passes to study art at Emily Carr School of Art. She is also undergoing therapy to deal with an eating disorder—and with the trauma of spending four years in maximum security. Her year in Kingston’s Prison for Women, which houses the country’s most dangerous female offenders, was a nightmare that she is still afraid to discuss. Renouncing her revolutionary past made her an unpopular inmate, she said. “I never fit in.”
The Belmas story begins with a bid for freedom and ends in a jail cell. The Hearst story unravels in the opposite order. It begins with incarceration in a closet. From then on, Hearst is engaged in a struggle to regain control of her destiny. First dependent on the wealth of the Hearst publishing dynasty, then on the mercy of both the SLA and the courts, she finally carves out her own identity. Hearst and Belmas both got lost in political storms beyond their comprehension. And two films have dramatized their ordeals with empathy. But, in trying to come to terms with the forces behind the facts, the film-makers seem as much in the dark as their subjects.
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