Directed by Isaac Stambaugh, written by Donne Hayden. Rebel Pilgrim Productions, 2015. 90 minutes. $19.99/DVD.
Having never reviewed a video documentary for print before, I am a bit unsure. A book usually states its purpose and why the author believes others might value it; this documentary offers no such rationale. It was produced, the second frame informs us, “in association with Cincinnati Friends Meeting,” one of three in the city. Two Friends featured in it, however, are not affiliated with that meeting: Paul Buckley and Thomas Hamm, both acclaimed authors of numerous historical works, appear among the narrators. Some explanation of their involvement would have been useful.
The attached “trailer” promises an introduction to Midwestern Friends, but the bulk of the production centers on activities of average Friends in the Queen City and in nearby areas. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, for average Friends are often overlooked when the spotlight of history shines, as it usually does, on those who are larger than life. The times in which these Friendly Cincinnatians acted demonstrate how they responded to larger events created by others, how they seized the moment often sparked by outsiders, sometimes on the other side of the globe, as in the case of the Vietnam War.
For its genre, the video is celebratory and at times quite moving. More than a third of its 90 minutes is focused on how Friends responded to slavery, centered on Levi Coffin and his family’s activities in the Underground Railroad. But the story comes down to the present with a community “eco-garden” in the inner city and an art program designed to appeal to children who live there. These endeavors are valuable and require work and dedication on the part of Friends, but they are not on the scale of the Underground Railroad.
The especially compelling parts of the documentary are memoirs of people who were conscientious objectors in World War II, the Vietnam War, and, most recently, the Gulf War of the early 1990s. There is a section on American Friends Service Committee and a sketch on a prominent Cincinnati businessman who was a tax resister and how he made his stand public.
Historian Hamm utters what were, for me, this documentary’s most profound words: “Quakers try not to be proud, but there is something to be proud of for being countercultural for peace and justice, pulling the larger community to recognize the need to be more just and fair, and, yes, add I, more radical.”
Such sentiments and the stories that brought them to us surely demand a wide viewership for this video. May it, rooted in the experiences of average Friends, help produce many more far above average countercultural Quakers, not for the sake of oddity but for truth.
Article corrected to indicate the correct name of the author, Donne Hayden.