Judith Ehrlich

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At the Movies Interview and Video with Judith Ehrlich

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Filmmaker Magazine Interview with the Directors

Why Daniel Ellsberg may still be the ‘most dangerous man in America’ by Judith Ehrlich

I met Daniel Ellsberg when he acted as an advisor on an earlier film I made for Independent Television Service, The Good War and Those Who Refused to Fight It. A mutual friend suggested I had to meet with Ellsberg to get his perspective on World War II. I took Ellsberg out to breakfast, which continued through lunch; in fact, he kept me spellbound until 3 p.m. I filled two legal pads with notes and decided at that moment that I would have to make a film about him after I finished the one that was in production. That was in 2000. In the meantime, Ellsberg wrote his autobiography, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, and I read it and realized just how rich his story was.

A few months into researching the subject, I wandered down the hall at the Fantasy building in Berkeley and asked Rick Goldsmith if he might be interested in working with me on a film about Daniel Ellsberg. Ellsberg and his wife, Patricia, happened to be scheduled to give a talk at a local high school at just about that time. Seeing them together — Patricia’s warmth and dramatic retelling of the earth-shattering events they had lived through decades before, combined with Dan’s intellectual prowess and ironclad memory and their obvious affection and respect for one another — I perceived an unbeatable basis for a film that would not be a dry polemic on political events, but instead had the makings of a love story and a political thriller.

During production, the film continued to evolve dramatically from a solid but standard history film to a film that had emotional content, suspense, drama and a personal voice — a film that drew on the broader toolbox of documentary filmmaking, including recreations and animation. The composer of the HBO series The Wire composed the soundtrack. Michael Chandler, our final editor, had edited Amadeus. This film has given me the chance to stretch creatively and to experiment with new approaches; that is a thrill.

We have screened our film around the world to audiences of all ages, and that has been a phenomenal experience. In Palm Springs, 1,000 students cheered at the film’s end and then swarmed the stage to ask how they could make their government more transparent. The head of the Orange County American Legion pledged to show it to all his members. In San Francisco, Major General J. Michael Myatt screened it at the 600-seat Marines’ Memorial Theatre and asked for copies to distribute to top brass at the Pentagon; in Hong Kong, a young Vietnamese woman wept uncontrollably, thanking me for telling the story of her people’s suffering in the war.

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers provokes strong reactions and spirited conversation about loyalty to country versus conscience and about the need for secrecy to protect states. In Eugene, Oregon, a young woman cried as she described her own experience of whistleblowing and the fear she felt in the face of the large corporation she was challenging. She told me Daniel Ellsberg gave her courage to pursue the lawsuit she had started. We continue to correspond.

Somehow this story of a courageous whistleblower who, after a painful spiritual transformation, risked everything to tell the truth strikes home across the political spectrum. I believe people are looking for models of principled behavior. Across the globe, we are sick of crooked politicians, arms dealers and bankers setting our national agendas. The Daniel Ellsbergs are too few and far between, but their very existence gives us hope and courage.

There are some criticisms. We have been accused of hero worship. So be it. We need more heroes and Daniel Ellsbergs. I don’t pretend to be objective about the need to reduce militarism in the world.

I started my career as a teacher, a teacher of teachers and a school principal. I see my job as a documentary filmmaker as opening hearts and minds to new perspectives the same way I did in my classroom and still do at the community college where I teach documentary film. I don’t apologize for having a point of view. I am an advocate for nonviolence as a powerful force in the world and I hope my films have made a tiny dent in propagating that idea. Thanks to POV for helping us reach millions of viewers with the message that war is not inevitable, that one man and each of us can make a difference and that our democracy can be responsive and healthier if we demand the truth.