Unfinished Symphony

by Jesse Ruskin

Democracy is not what government does; democracy is what people do—people acting on behalf of important principles of freedom and justice. Sometimes it's with government — more often it's outside of government and against government, because very often the government is acting against democratic principles. Civil disobedience becomes a way of expressing democracy in a very live, vivid, dramatic form.

— Historian Howard Zinn, from Unfinished Symphony

Bester CramWhen the nominations for the 2001 Sundance Film Festival were announced in November 2000, one of the nine documentaries selected was Unfinished Symphony: Democracy and Dissent, a film produced by Bestor Cram of Boston's Northern Light Productions and directed by Cram and Mike Majoros, a Rhode Island School of Design professor. Made over a period of six years in partnership with the Lexington Oral History Project (LOHP), the film received major funding from the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities. Additional funding came from the Soros Documentary Fund, LEF Foundation, and numerous individual contributors. Unfinished Symphony is a powerful exploration of the role of dissent in democratic society.

still from "Unfinished Symphony"It centers on the 1971 antiwar protest in Lexington, led by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), which resulted in the largest arrest in Massachusetts history. Over Memorial Day weekend in 1971, VVAW led an antiwar march from Concord, through Lexington and Charlestown, to Boston, retracing Paul Revere's historic ride in reverse. The veterans had planned to camp overnight on the Lexington Green, linking their dissent to the heroic actions of the Minutemen almost two hundred years before. Town officials opposed the veterans' action, and the night ended with the arrest of over 400 people — including many supporters from the community.

The film was born out of the Lexington Oral History Project's commitment to documenting a crucial moment in the town's history, which they feared was disappearing from public memory. Organized in 1991, LOHP collected over 70 videotaped interviews with townspeople, Vietnam veterans, and officials who were involved in the 1971 protest. One of the people they interviewed was Bestor Cram, a Vietnam veteran and a principal organizer of the demonstration. Cram himself was not a filmmaker in 1971, but he had arranged for Hart Perry Films, the award-winning camera crew that had photographed Woodstock, to document the event. With four to five cameras running, they filmed the march, the gatherings in Concord and Lexington, the debates in Lexington Town Hall, and the arrests.

still from "Unfinished Symphony"After the protest, Cram moved to Vermont to participate in the Back to the Land movement and run wilderness camps for kids. He then moved to England and studied film at the West Surrey College of Art and Design. When he returned in 1974, he joined the film department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He worked there for three years before establishing the company that eventually became Northern Light Productions in 1982. Cram and Northern Light have received numerous awards for their work. His cinematography credits include the PBS/BBC film China, Born Under the Red Flag, and the 1995 Academy Award-winning documentary Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision. He has been involved in a number of major PBS series including Vietnam: A Television History, Eyes on the Prize, The War on Poverty, NOVA, and The American Experience. Cram and Northern Light have received grants from MFH for a number of projects, and the firm produced MFH's 20th anniversary video, Stories to be Told.

still from "Unfinished Symphony"In 1995 LOHP approached Cram and asked if he would like to be involved in making a film about the events in Lexington. A year later, LOHP teamed up with Cram and Northern Light and received a pre-production grant from MFH to develop a script for the film. In 1997 they returned for production funding. A large portion of the MFH grant was used to restore the Hart Perry footage, which had been archived since 1971 in ten-minute rolls with separate audio recordings. The footage had to be transferred to videotape for editing and matched with the audio. In the final film, the story that first galvanized the members of the LOHP—the division among Lexington citizens caused by the veterans' actions — is present but not central; yet oral history remains at the heart of the film's narrative.

The title of the film came from the decision, late in the process, to organize the film around Henryk Gorecki's third symphony, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. The film is divided into three chapters corresponding to the three movements of the symphony. The music has a meditative quality, says Cram, which moves viewers to reflect on the ideas raised in the film.

Bestor Cram considers Unfinished Symphony a "humanities challenge" — a challenge to both the viewer and the filmmaker. "The experience of the humanities for me," he says, "is both intellectual and emotional, and the challenge is to find ways to express ideas that reach people on both levels — that of understanding something by the way you think about it as well as by the way you feel about it." The film has no narrator and does not attempt to direct the viewer. It juxtaposes unidentified voices, faces, and scenes without overt explanation, allowing viewers to interpret the events for themselves. Cram says, "It is not necessary for the work of an artist to persuade the viewer to a viewpoint, but rather to open up an arena for dialogue, to create the opportunity for conversation, interaction, and debate. This can be accomplished when a work transcends the urge to explain, when it avoids the insistence of definitive interpretation."

still from "Unfinished Symphony"Another challenge of a humanities project, says Cram, is to "re-awaken ideas that people have grappled with before and to make them feel fresh." The film is shaped by Cram's commitment to look at the Vietnam antiwar movement in a new way and to break down the "historical stereotype" that has distorted the public's memory of the Vietnam era. "Historically," he says, "the antiwar movement has been misrepresented as being a radical element of our society, when in fact it was a very mainstream part of our society. In the end, almost everyone was against the war." Cram also points out that there has been very little information available to the public about the protesting veterans. The film shows that there were many servicemen involved in the antiwar movement and, as Cram emphasizes, they were extremely thoughtful about their role as soldiers and as citizens taking a stand against the war.

Unfinished Symphony asks what it means to be a responsible citizen in a democratic society. The Vietnam War, says Cram, left the American people so deeply divided that it has been difficult to maintain a dialogue about the often ambiguous moral issues it raised. The film is an attempt to recharge this unfinished conversation and to confront viewers with the ideas expressed by the antiwar veterans — that patriotism may mean challenging your government, rather than unquestioningly following it to war; that dissent, far from being unpatriotic is, in fact, a "fundamental right and responsibility of citizenship." Cram hopes that viewers will see the vita-lity of the ideas expressed by the veterans and will continue to explore them: "The legacy of the era is a part of our lives today — the need to reinvest our energies in understanding our dissenting roles in democracy is essential; what remains is the commitment to do the work, to finish the symphony."


Unfinished Symphony will be screened in Lexington at the Museum of Our National Heritage on Sunday, May 27th, 2001, the 30th anniversary of the protest. For more information, contact the museum at (781) 861-6559.

©2001 The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities

Published in Mass Humanities, Spring 2001