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Anthony Arnove Reflects on Making THE PEOPLE SPEAK with Howard Zinn

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The progressive movement still mourns Howard Zinn, who died several weeks ago. Anthony Arnove collaborated with Howard on Voices of A People's History . Welcome to OpEdNews, Anthony. We all miss Howard, but the loss is a very personal one for you. THE PEOPLE SPEAK, the documentary based on Voices , premiered on the History Channel at the end of December. Can you tell us a bit about what it was like to work with Howard on this project?

Zinn & Arnove, THE PEOPLE SPEAK. photo credit: Greg Federman

Howard was in is mid-eighties when we started working on THE PEOPLE SPEAK, and I was in my late thirties, but I was constantly struggling to keep up with him. He just was such a life force and had so much energy and passion for the project. And, while he had very clear ideas about the content and how he wanted the film to look, he was intensely collaborative. Chris Moore, Howard, and I really developed a great dynamic of arguing through sometimes different views on how we should select and present the material.

In the end, I feel the piece is stronger for it. There are fights I lost with Howard and Chris that later on I was glad I lost, and I think Howard and Chris felt similarly. After years of working in theater and politics, being someone who was so appreciative of film and the arts generally, Howard had a great sense of which moments in our nation's rich history of dissent and protest he felt were most dynamic. He also had very strong ideas on certain topics that we had to address: the reality of class conflict in our history -- and today, the brutality of war. But he also knew we had to create a film that would be emotional, gripping, engaging. It couldn't just be a history lesson.

How did the two of you come to work together in the first place?

I first met Howard when I was working at South End Press in Boston, and he invited me to a reading of a play he was working on, Marx in Soho. I loved the play and asked him if I could publish it as a book. We then worked together on a touring production of the play with my friend, the actor and activist Brian Jones. In the course of getting to know Howard, and publishing some more of his books at South End - a new edition of his play Emma, and a series of reprints of his classic books that had gone out of print -- we did some interviews together that we developed into a book called Terrorism and War, published by Seven Stories Press in New York.

One night, after a book tour event in Brooklyn, the publisher of Seven Stories, Dan Simon, and I were out with Howard, and we talked about a book idea Howard had brought up with Dan before, to create a primary-source companion to A People's History of the United States, which Dan was also very interested in publishing. I thought it was a brilliant idea, and offered to work with Howard on it. That began the process of putting together the Voices book. And then, this interesting milestone occurred: A People's History of the United States sold its one millionth copy, a remarkable achievement. The publisher of that book, Harper Collins, had the idea of pulling together a conference of historians to discuss the book.

But Howard had a much better idea: ask some writers, musicians, and actors to perform the words of the people themselves, from A People's History and the documents we were gathering for Voices. That reading took place in 2003 at the 92nd Street Y. Alice Walker, Kurt Vonnegut, Patti Smith, Marisa Tomei, Danny Glover, and James Earl Jones were among the performers that night. It turned out to be a very dramatic and powerful event, and it set in motion a series of live performances around the country, in high schools, churches, and theaters. There have now been more than eighty of them, and we have a nonprofit ( that supports live readings, as well as use of primary documents in the classroom.

And since then, another million copies of A People's History have been sold, a doubly amazing feat. Collaborating with Howard sounds amazing. You were so lucky to be in the right place at the right time. It's wonderful that Howard was around for the debut of THE PEOPLE SPEAK . What's next?

Yes, exactly; I do feel very lucky and that I was at the right place at the right time. Everyone who worked on the film was so thrilled to see Howard at the premiere, when we showed the final version on a big screen in New York a few weeks before our air date on History, and then to see the outpouring of enthusiasm for Howard and the project after our premiere on December 13. Looking at the history of dissidents, as we do in Voices and in the film, you realize many people did not see the changes in their lifetime that they worked for, and many did not received recognition in their lifetime for their contributions. Howard both got to see real changes that he worked to achieve (though, of course, he was fighting for other changes he did not witness), but also, in his lifetime, he received real recognition for his contributions. He was someone who inspired younger generations, and kept finding new audiences. I think that meant a lot to him. We dedicated Voices to "the rebel voices of the coming generation," and he actually had a chance to meet and interact with some of those rebel voices in recent years. I think that sustained him through the two years of intense work on THE PEOPLE SPEAK and some of the inevitable twists and turns that come with such an enormous undertaking. In terms of what comes next, we are just now releasing our DVD of THE PEOPLE SPEAK. This is the 110-minute version of our film, which is twenty minutes longer than we had on air, and has a behind-the-scenes, as well as a making-of feature. Our soundtrack on the prestigious Verve label is out, and we are working on a DVD of the performances on that CD, which should be out soon. Originally, Howard was going to narrate, but Josh Brolin generously stepped in and did an amazing job on the voiceover. We are developing a whole educational toolkit for teachers, which will include as much of the footage as we possibly can get rights to, since we filmed so much more than is our final cut. We are also at work on international versions. Colin Firth, who was very moved by the U.S. version, is now developing a version in the United Kingdom to explore the people's history of protest and dissent in their tradition. We hope there will be many more of these. And we are also putting together plans for a live tour or concert series, with our performers. A number of the folks in THE PEOPLE SPEAK want to take our show on the road.


Wow. A lot going on. It all sounds great. Although Howard clearly saw past all the corporate media distortions of historical and current events, he remained optimistic to the end about the ability of the people to bring about change. Can you talk about that a bit?

Howard never lost his optimism, absolutely. I think there are a few reasons for that. He had a sense of the dynamics of history. It has no guarantees, but if you struggle, you have the chance of winning. So he took a lot of inspiration from the moments when people did come together, often making changes they never expected they would see in their own lifetimes, or those people who worked for something that only came about later but which they had contributed to in some decisive way. And, because Howard did not rely on saviors like Barack Obama, he was not disillusioned or discouraged, as so many people are, when they did not deliver on their promises.

He knew we could only rely on ourselves in those moments, and that we had to build up the strength of social movements to demand and compel change. I also think Howard had a very clear sense of what goes unreported in the establishment media, what goes unnoticed even on the left. He saw the examples of resistance that you can always find, most recently with GIs refusing to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan and people resisting home evictions, and saw how those small acts of defiance could be the seeds of a larger movement. Howard also enjoyed the process of struggle, the life of working with others in movements. In his final words in THE PEOPLE SPEAK, Howard put it this way: "We don't have to wait for some grand utopian future. To live now, as human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself is a marvelous victory." Howard has not only left us an amazing legacy, but an amazing example.

So true. Anything you'd like to add before we wrap things up, Anthony?

No, thanks so much, Joan!

Thank you for talking with me, Anthony. It was a pleasure.

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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