Hoffman, for those too young to remember, was a civil rights activist and founding member of the Yippies (Youth International Party) who became a counterculture icon for his role in the 1968 Chicago riots during the Democratic Convention and the highly publicized trial that followed.
It was during the 1969 Chicago conspiracy trial that Hoffman and his co-defendants were dubbed "The Chicago 8." The radical group also included Yippie co-founder Jerry Rubin and Tom Hayden, a future California assemblyman and state senator.
While researching his film, Morgen found an interview with Rubin that said they should be called the Chicago 10 because their lawyers, William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass, were charged and sentenced for contempt. Taking his cue from Rubin, Morgen named his film "Chicago 10."
"A number of principles in the Chicago 10 were Jewish, and I reacted to Abbie in a very visual and emotional way, rather than intellectual or cultural," Morgen explained.
The director sees a connection between Hoffman's formative years during World War II and his political views.
"I don't think you can separate his experiences as a young Jewish American growing up in the shadow of Nazi Germany and his actions in Chicago and as a demonstrator in the civil rights movement," Morgen said. "I think that the need to speak up against an oppressive government and the need to fight for those who are being oppressed had a big part to do with the era that he grew up in. He refused to allow the authority to silence him.
"I think he took his cues a lot from what was happening around him during his youth, and I think he set a wonderful example for those of us who came after him," Morgen continued. "That sense of community and social activism -- I don't want to say is uniquely Jewish, but it certainly is a huge part of our heritage and culture as well as comedy and laughter, and I think Abbie really combined those two worlds."
The idea for the film came from a discussion the filmmaker had with producer/Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter while they were working on Morgen's documentary, "The Kid Stays in the Picture," based on movie mogul Robert Evans' autobiography. But their vision was not to make a film about what was, instead choosing to relate those events to what is happening today.
"I describe it as a movie that's about [the present], that takes place in 1968," Morgen said. "The U.S. had just gone into Afghanistan and was preparing to go into Iraq, and we noticed that there wasn't a lot of vocal opposition against the impending war.
"We decided to make a film," he continued, "to tell the story in a contemporary way that would make it accessible to people who weren't around at the time, with the intent of hopefully inspiring people and at the same time challenging them to ask themselves, 'Are you doing everything you can to support the causes you believe in or to protest the policies you don't believe in?'"
Many films have been made about that turbulent time, but Morgen said "Chicago 10" is different. "Most films about the '60s have been made by people from that era," he explained. "There's something liberating about being able to approach it with an outsider's perspective."
Morgen chose not to do the obvious and interview any of the surviving members from the period.
"Memory is a very interesting thing," he said. "Memory is entirely subjective, and you and I might have been at the same event in 1968, and you remember it differently than I do."
He also wanted to maintain a contemporary viewpoint to the film.
"I didn't want this to be the story of Chicago as seen through the prism of a 70-year-old man," he said. "I didn't want this to speak to nostalgia on that level about 'how great we were then.' I wanted the film to have the vitality and visual impact that only a youth movement can have."
Even if Morgen had decided otherwise, it would have been a difficult task to get firsthand accounts from those who lived through the events. Many of the original participants of the Chicago conspiracy trial are dead, including the perceived leaders, Rubin, who was killed while jaywalking in Los Angeles in 1994, and Hoffman, who died of an apparent suicide in 1989. Fortunately, there is an abundance of written and visual documentation available, as Morgen discovered.
"We screened 1,200 hours of film, 14,000 photos and 500 hours of audio," he reported. "Research was exhausting." (Since there was no footage of the actual trial, Morgen chose to animate those sequences using actors to voice the court transcripts.)
It was during the research phase that Morgen also discovered his protagonist for the film.
"As I came into the subject not knowing whose story we were going to tell, the more I read about Abbie, the more I was drawn to him," he revealed. "Mainly because I felt he had the most contemporary take of all the defendants; because he was ahead of his time in the way that he was able to use the visual medium to get his messages across.
"In many ways I found him to be a precursor to Michael Moore in his ability to use comedy and theatrical techniques to sell political ideas and beliefs," Morgen noted. "To fuse the cultural revolution with the political revolution and put comedy front and center -- to counter the convention of death with the festival of life, I thought, was totally inspired and ingenious."
Although documentaries rarely receive a wide theatrical release, Morgen's hope of reaching a wide audience may be realized with the help of another filmmaker, Steven Spielberg. Inspired by Morgen's, film, the megamainstream director is making a feature on the same subject, which means this story will be seen by more people than a documentary could ever reach. "I think this is one of those moments in our history that everyone should be aware of," Morgen said. "This is a watershed moment in contemporary U.S. history, and I think there are a lot of lessons that can be drawn both by the events in Chicago and from the commitment that was exercised by the protesters.
"When you see the courage of the protesters, you have to ask yourself, 'Would I do what they're doing? And how far am I willing to go?'" he said. "I don't want to be arrogant enough to say I'm hoping this film promotes change, because it is just a movie. All I can hope for is that it entertains you and, most importantly, that it puts up a mirror to the audience that challenges them to ask themselves, 'What are you doing? Are you doing enough and are you comfortable with that?'"
"Chicago 10" opens in theaters Feb. 29.
Pat Sierchio is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Written By, the magazine of the Writers Guild of America, West.
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