Directed by: Anthony Giacchino
Watch the Trailer
In political conversation nowadays the word "religious" tends to be immediately succeeded by the word "right", and for those dismayed by the hijacking of Christianity to fight abortion but not to fight against war, director Anthony Giacchino, in his straight forward documentary The Camden 28, takes us back to once upon a time when there was such a thing as a vibrant and active religious, specifically Catholic, left. Essentially, the film is about acting consistently with one's faith; "life is important," Father Michael Doyle says, boiling down his group's perspective. Even the lives of distant brown peoples.
The New Jersey activists of the title, named for their city of origin and their number, not only are inspired by their faith to engage in civil disobedience to stop a war—"What do you do when a child's on fire?" Doyle asks, "Write a letter?"—but, when their 1971 plans to break into a local draft board to destroy their files are foiled by an FBI informant within their ranks, they even, though reluctantly, forgive his betrayal; ain't that Christianity? The informant then becomes their star witness against the government, who lose their case against the activists amidst accusations that it was the FBI that funded, trained and allowed the attempted burglary to occur. The informant, mostly unapologetic, says that the FBI promised him no one would go to jail, but "of course, they lied," he says. "Their intention was to destroy the Catholic Left."
But instead of a gauge of the defendants' guilt or innocence, the trial of the Camden 28, according to the film, became a referendum on the war and the general national condition; Doyle was even allowed to silently present a slideshow featuring images of Vietnam horror blended with those of Camden poverty, drawing a connection between profligate military spending and the decimated condition of the ghettoized city. (Howard Zinn pops in too, as he tends to do in these types of documentaries, to give a convincing speech on the distinction between justice and law, conflating the Camden group with the great American disobedients of yesteryear, such as the Boston Tea Party gang.) The group's trial victory, in 1973, was the first for the anti-war movement of the time, and as one group member notes it left them feeling "vindicated by the system." One juror later noted that the verdict was intended as a message to the "powers that be" that they disagreed with their war.
Comparisons to the situation today are glaringly obvious though mostly unspoken until the very end, when some members of the original Camden 28 are glimpsed in present day footage protesting the Iraq War, but what the Camden 28 were protesting then is still true today; as Doyle points out from the present, money spent on bombs could be spent on buildings, and the final shots of the film, of burned-out homes in contemporary Camden, are indistinguishable from similar archival footage seen previously, save perhaps for their digitality and color. Technology changes, but poverty stays the same.