Investigation of a Flame

16mm Color Sound 1997 35min.

"Investigation of a Flame" website

On May 17, 1968 nine Vietnam War protesters, including a nurse, an artist and three priests, walked into a Catonsville, Maryland draft board office, grabbed hundreds of selective service records and burned them with homemade napalm. "Investigation of a Flame" is an intimate, experimental documentary portrait of the Catonsville Nine, this disparate band of resisters who chose to break the law in a defiant, poetic act of civil disobedience. A series of informal, yet charged conversations with members of the group encourages viewers to ask their own questions about the relevance of such events today. How did the photos, trial publicity and news of the harsh two year prison sentences help to galvanize a disillusioned American public? "Investigation of a Flame" explores this politically and religiously motivated performance of the 1960's in the context of extremely different times -- times in which critics of Middle East peace agreements, abortion and technology resort to violence of the most random and sanguine kind in order to access the public imagination.

Over several years, Sachs found, met and interviewed six of the seven living members of the Catonsville Nine. They are now in their late sixties, seventies and eighties. By allowing their contradictions, regrets and ambivalence to be revealed, her film also becomes a stage on which to explore the revelations and disappointments of aging. With Daniel Berrigan, Philip Berrigan, John Hogan, Tom Lewis and Marjorie and Tom Melville with commentary by Howard Zinn.

Supported with funding from the Maryland Humanities Council, the Maryland State Council on the Arts, the Puffin Foundation and a Media Arts fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation.

Selected Reviews:

"BEST DOCUMENTARY in 2001", Phillip Lopate, Village Voice Critic, Jan. 4. 2002.

"Investigation of a Flame artfully revisits this footnote to recent history that took place right in our own backyard. This is an account of the war at home against the war in Vietnam. These people were not Yippie fist-shakers. All but one of the men wore suits. Investigation of a Flame captures the heartfelt belief behind the Nine's symbolic action of civil disobedience that sparked other (actions) like it across the nation. Sachs cannily avoids the usual documentary dance of talking heads and file footage by interspersing impressionistic shots. (The film) provides a potent reminder that some Americans are willing to pay a heavy price to promote peace." Lee Gardner, Baltimore City Paper, October 17, 2001

"By avoiding some of the orthodoxy of documentary filmmaking, Sachs has gone beyond the historical to the profoundly personal." Jed Dietz, Maryland Film Festival 2001

"This is a documentary about the protest events that made Catonsville, Maryland, an unpretentious suburb on the cusp of Baltimore, a flash point for citizens' resistance at the height of the war. Sachs found assorted characters still firm to fiery on the topic. She came to admire the consistency of the mutual antagonists in an argument that still rages (today)." Francis X. Clines, The New York Times

"A highly personal,... compelling 'anti-documentary' record of a once celebrated, now forgotten protest." Greg Rickman, "Zoom Lens" San Francisco Weekly

"(Sachs') stammering editing pace and hand-held camerawork is more avant-garde than MTV as the film moves apace with its idea that the history of Vietnam protests is more than simply a battle of hawks and doves." Peter Crimmins, Berkeley Daily Planet

"This poetic essay offers the perfect antidote to PBS: there is no omniscient narrator talking down to the viewer, reciting facts and explaining what to think, yet the story is perfectly clear. Brothers Phil and Dan Berrigan, who led the protest, appear both in the present and in archival footage, a mix that makes their commitment palpable, while images like a newspaper going in and out of focus remind us that shifting contexts alter our understanding of complex events." Fred Camper, Chicago Reader

"Sachs' documentary has added significance at the moment, but it would be relevant regardless of current events. " Johnny Ray Huston, San Francisco Bay Guardian

"To those who think that everything in a society and its culture must move in lock step at times of crisis, these two films might seem to be 'off-message.' But they are in essence patriotic... saluting U.S. democracy as it pays homage to the U.S. tradition of dissent." Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun, October 19, 2001

"This annual survey (Museum of Modern Art Film Fortnight) of recent social documentaries includes docs dealing with terrorism and war, including Lynne Sachs' Investigaiton of a Flame" (J. Hoberman) "You won't have to sit through any Hollywood calling-card films at the ambitious, eclectic, festival international (NY Expo of Film and Video). Don't miss the doc showcase with pieces by Tsipi Trope, Lynne Sachs ('Investigation of a Flame") and Marina Petrovskaya." Amy Taubin, Voice Choices, Short List, Village Voice, December 5-11, 2001

Screenings: Maryland Film Festival "Opening Night"; Museum of Modern Art, Documentary Fortnight "Opening Night"; Rhode Island Film Festival; Art Institute of Chicago; Mill Valley Film Festival; San Francisco Cinematheque; Pacific Film Archive; Corcoran Gallery, Washington, D.C.; Olympia Film Festival., Providence Women's Film Festival, Denver Film Festival; Harvard University Film Archive; Cornell University Cinema; Museum of Fine Arts Boston; NY Underground Film Festival; Vassar College; Ithaca College; Massachusetts College of Art

Distributed by:

First Run/Icarus Films (Distributor)
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