It is far too easy to criticise documentaries of conventionality, as if the language of documentary wasn’t an established and effective way of prioritising the documented over the documentation. Attica is a conventional documentary, formally it holds no surprises or divergences. In doing so, though, it elevates the subject matter and lets the story take centre stage.
This is a chronicling of a police led massacre at Attica prison (on both inmates in guards) in which the voices of the previously silenced are heard. It tells the tail thoroughly and effectively, building up to a vital final thirty minutes that is truly harrowing. It is a documentary aimed at those not in the know, yet does give a clear overview that will be additive to those with prior knowledge. Shamefully, this is an area of history I knew little about (I will use the excuse of being from the UK and not alive at the time), Attica has remedied that, and has done so with real clarity. It is a powerful telling of what happened through the voices of those that were there, or those related to those involved. Wider figures involved in the event or in its coverage are also included.
Formally speaking, we mostly focus on talking head interviews (very well conducted), and some appropriate use of stock footage. It is necessary to note that the footage in the final third is beyond shocking, to the extent that all (but many more than most) will find it uncomfortable to the point of being potentially unwatchable. But, the images add to the narration and the film has been building up to this, carefully and effectively. This is not a film that all need to watch, for many it cuts too close and covers far too known history; for many, it is mandatory.
The film, as a whole, perhaps does not quite earn its length, an economy to the storytelling may have aided its overall impact, but this is forgiven by how it lets the right people talk (and gives them the time and space to do so). This is especially powerful when the work ends with the facts that show both the impossibility of justice and a lack of even attempted justice: the film sits comfortably as an important document. Overall, it is a work of effective contextualisation. It knows how to thread the personal stories in with the national and wider political story. Yet, at no point does it feel purely polemical. It is a strict retelling that gives you the right information from the right places. The filmmaking takes the back seat, reality rises to the fore and the impact is very potent.