Remarks about a documentary film
Much of the conversation about Sidney Rittenberg, as suggested, among other places, by the title of his memoir composed with Amanda Bennett (The Man Who Stayed Behind), concerns “what it was like to have been there.” After looking at documentary “The Revolutionary” (Stourwater Pictures, 2011) I think it becomes more clear that the question is really “what was it like to have been then?”
The problem with the “there” question is that it suggests the view of China as a far away, strange land. In fact, Chinese experience is growing ever closer to our experience. As increasingly the infinitely stretchy parameters of “our” bend themselves quite completely out of shape, hard geographical “origin points” will make less and less sense. Where Sidney was will matter less and less. What Sidney was then is the question to be addressed.
And what, after watching this film, we find was a profound commitment to social justice coupled with the wherewithal to put that commitment to work in ways that he, as a young, affluent, Jewish communist in Charleston, South Carolina circa 1940, could hardly have known. As a major player in the firestrom that was the Cultural Revolution in China, Sidney found himself in de facto control of the Broadcasting Agency, one of the Chinese government’s major mouthpieces for issuing the directives that propelled a population (of some 700,0000,000) into mass revolutionary fervor in a way more substantial than facile calls for “change” could suggest, a fervor that was severely idealistic, pure, democratic, and destructive to the death.
Here is a man who is fiercely moral, engaged in social justice. And here were good people, his friends, people who struggled and sacrificed for the good of China, physically abused right in front of him, and he did not oppose, did not largely object. His fervor for the social cause blinded him to what was happening right before his eyes.
The film does an excellent job of showing us this, mostly by allowing Sidney to speak (at length). There is a bit of monotony to the format, virtually one talking head interspersed with images and music from (mostly) China’s long twentieth century. But the head in question is so incredibly–in the real sense of the word–full of information that it hardly matters that his voice is all we hear.