Tiff Diary | If we can't live as people, we will at least die like men

Deccan Chronicle.  | Suparna Sharma

Entertainment, Hollywood

The 46th Toronto International Film Festival opens cautiously, in a hybrid format

A scene from 'Attica', which tells the story of America's longest prison uprising that began on September 8, 1971.

New Delhi: Do prisoners have human rights? If the men in charge of the survival and wellbeing of prisoners are racist, abusive, violent, how should prisoners demand humane living conditions? With polite petitions or by wresting power?

These questions lie at the heart of director Stanley Nelson's documentary, Attica, which is playing at the Toronto International Film Festival (Tiff) which opened on Friday in a hybrid format. Theatres have opened in Toronto with limited seating, but because of travel restrictions, there is a larger online viewership worldwide.

Attica tells the story of America's longest prison uprising that began on September 8, 1971, with prisoners taking some guards hostage and demanding, in exchange, basic human rights, including an end to beatings and brutality.

The uprising lasted four days where prisoners pitched tents in the large open grounds and organised themselves to survive and negotiate.  

With the water supply cut off, they dug trenches and turned them into latrines. A medical team was set up, the press was called in and a team of negotiators was elected who prepared the Attica Liberation Faction Manifesto of Demands, which included the freedom to pray, toothbrushes, daily showers and decent medical treatment.

A security group was also set up to protect the state negotiators who went back and forth — meeting the prisoners and the state authorities — to peacefully bring an end to the uprising and free the hostages.  

Stanley Nelson's documentary uses archival footage, TV clips, interviews with former prisoners who are still alive and families of guards to explain why the Attica Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison set in the all-white town of Attica, New York, had been on the edge for a while and how the marginalised, when pushed, can band together to remind the world that they exist.

At one point during the negotiations, we watch one of the prisoners take the mike to announce, "If we can't live as people, we will at least die like men”. A state negotiator springs up to hug him.

After the New York state’s pretence of negotiating with the prisoners for four days, the uprising ended on the fifth day in a carnage. The authorities dropped tear gas in the large yard and then ordered sharp shooters and armed troopers to fire indiscriminately through the smoke. About 43 people died of gunshots, including 10 guards.  

After the state took control of the prison, the prisoners were stripped naked and lined up in the yard. They were beaten, tortured, abused and made to run bare-feet to their cells on floors layered with broken glass.

Attica is a crucial, shameful chapter in the story of America’s racial crimes. It is also a reminder to governments with power to listen when a group of citizens want to be heard.