Q&A: Margo Pelletier, radical filmmaker behind 'Freeing Silvia Baraldini'

It's unlikely that Margo Pelletier could have predicted her trajectory from struggling artist to political prisoner to documentary filmmaker when she first moved to Brooklyn's Park Slope neighborhood in the late 1970s, but the social injustice she witnessed there awakened a lifelong activism. Through her involvement with the May 19th Communist Coalition (a collaboration between the Weather Underground and the Black Liberation Army), Pelletier became a friend and colleague of May 19th president Silvia Baraldini, who was arrested on thin conspiracy charges in 1982 and sentenced to 43 years in some of the nation's harshest prisons. Pelletier will present a screening of her film Freeing Silvia Baraldini, which offers a first-hand look at a corner of the American left she feels has been strategically forgotten, at the University of Tennessee on Thursday, Feb. 17.

You and co-director Lisa Thomas are doing a Q&A session following the UT screening. Is this something you get to do often? What sort of things come up?

Nine times out of 10 we try to attend screenings and do a Q&A. We love hearing feedback from the audience and answering questions. People are very interested to discuss the ways to fight for change without violence, why people would go to the extremes of arming a component of the resistance movement. Young people who didn't live through the time period don't have a feel for the tremendous tension of the '60s, the '70s, even the early '80s. People had tried everything before they felt they had to resort to speaking a language the government could understand. It was a very organic development—they weren't gung-ho about putting their lives on the line.

What sort of audiences seem particularly drawn to the film?

The film brings in a lot of political organizers. ... In New Orleans [at the International Human Rights Film Festival] there are many young professional activists down there right now, so that audience really wanted to take some lessons away about how a white group can participate in a black or Third World movement from the perspective of "we want to help" vs. "here's what you have to do." They aren't coming from the same place, and don't have the same relationship with the state. People feel ripped off that they never heard about groups like the May 19th Coalition, which broke away from the traditional white left who were leading the struggle but didn't have the most to lose.

What sparked your interest in Silvia as a subject?

Well, I worked with Silvia in 1980s. I came to New York to paint, and moving from Hartford, Conn., to Brooklyn, it was total culture shock. [Former New York Mayor Ed] Koch was trying to gentrify Park Slope, driving people out of their homes, and I was slowly but surely politicized, and started working for May 19th. Eventually I was invited to head up an action against the South African rugby team [setting off stink bombs on a departing airplane], to help bring attention to apartheid. It went very poorly. Five of us were arrested, and I spent six months in prison. By the time I got out two things had changed: I was jobless, blacklisted from my carpentry job, and the FBI had a witch hunt going on to dismantle radical groups. They targeted both leaders and meeting attendees. Some went to prison on criminal charges, some were jailed for contempt of court because they wouldn't answer grand jury questions. Silvia hired me to do some carpentry work, and I was there, alone in her apartment, the day she was arrested.

Because the landscape had changed so much I decided to go back to school for fine arts. I did okay with that, but at the same time the country was becoming more conservative. There was an increasing distance between the present and the past, and I started feeling the need to address that in my art. I had been corresponding with Silvia since she went to prison, and I had the idea to make a film.

How do you think Silvia's story is most relevant today?

We have to think very carefully about who's being called a terrorist. We may not agree with the tactics, but we can't live with the benefits of what has been done and then dismiss the people who fought for it. Some people do it on the edge, some people do it in more subtle ways. Lisa and I and many people would hope that all these changes that need to happen could be brought about peacefully, but that doesn't give us room to judge someone whose community's life was on the line. It's not up to white people to decide how other people can struggle for justice. So it's surprising for our audience to meet a revolutionary, someone who has been labeled a terrorist, so up-close and intimately. She's a woman! She's a feeling human being! Her life is filled with losses but she remains dedicated to her principles.