Nine polite, well-dressed men and women walked into the Catonsville, Maryland, draft board office May 17, 1968, tussled briefly with staff members there (apologized profusely for doing so), and then emerged with piles of Selective Service records they quietly set afire using napalm they'd made from scratch. As reporters and photographers scurried around them, the group held hands and said the Lord's Prayer.
Lynne Sachs' Investigation of a Flame brings the whole event to life, including the ensuing trial and publicity the "Catonsville Nine" earned. Sachs interviews John Hogan, Tom Lewis, Daniel and Philip Berrigan, and Tom and Marjorie Melville in this compelling 45-minute film. David Darst, George Mische, and Mary Moylan were the other participants.
Flame is wonderfully intimate; Sachs brings the camera within inches of her subjects' faces, capturing their thoughtful reminisces and personal regrets. Daniel Berrigan's lined face wrinkles further when he recalls "quaking in his boots" when his brother Philip invited him to participate in the action. "I didn't want to do it." He pauses. "But I couldn't not do it."
Philip, who passed away in December, was filmed sitting in the passenger seat of a car. He talked about his consuming anger in the early days of his anti-war work, of his deep shame at being an American, his hatred of "the system." He learned—or remembered—much later, he said, that the system is made up of people, and that we are called to love each other, even if we're enemies.
Sachs is thorough; she interviews nearly everyone involved with the action—including Steve Sachs (no relation to the film-maker), the chief prosecutor during their trial; Alva Grubb, a member of the jury; and, interestingly, Mary Murphy, a woman who worked in the draft board office when the Catonsville Nine came in for the records. Sachs shows footage of Murphy giving her testimony about the event to police, and then interviews her as a much older gray-haired woman. "It didn't matter if the government was right or wrong," she said. "We were there to help our boys."
Mary Moylan, now deceased, provides some of the most piercing words in the film. "I very definitely see myself as a criminal," she wrote in a letter. "I think if we're serious about changing the society, that's how we have to see ourselves. We're all out on bail, and let's all stay out."
Molly Marsh, editor of CultureWatch, is assistant editor of Sojourners.