Joe Tropea thought he was writing a research paper on the Catonsville Nine, a group of Catholic anti-war activists who set draft records ablaze outside a Selective Service office in 1968. But what he was really working on was a movie script.
"I just got hooked on telling the story," Tropea says of the six-year film project, undertaken with co-director Skizz Cyzyk, that will be getting its local premiere during this week's 15th Maryland Film Festival. The festival starts Wednesday and runs through Sunday.
"Hit & Stay" is a compelling documentary not only because it tells of a seminal moment in the history of the Vietnam-era anti-war movement, but also because it shows in intricate detail how that action — both the ideals it highlighted and the people who carried it out — would spread through the country over the next few years.
"I knew the story of the Catonsville Nine was a big local story here, right?" says Tropea, 43, a Baltimore native who works as a digital projects coordinator with the Maryland Historical Society. "Well, it turns out it was a big local story in dozens of towns across America — in weird places you wouldn't expect, like Geneseo, N.Y., Elizabethtown, N.J. There was an action in Hawaii, at an Air Force base. It turns out it was a local story everywhere."
A 97-minute collection of vintage stills and film footage mixed with contemporary interviews and graphics, "Hit & Stay" — a reference to the protesters' tactic of taking action (often destroying draft records) and then waiting patiently until police arrived to arrest them — opens with the story of the Nine. But after about 30 minutes, the film shifts from Catonsville to other areas of the country, mostly in the Northeast and Midwest, where similar action took place — the D.C. Nine, Chicago Nine, Boston Eight, Harrisburg Seven, Camden 28.
In the beginning, Catholic priests Philip and Daniel Berrigan and seven like-minded anti-war activists were looking to dramatize their opposition to a war they felt was immoral. On May 17, 1968, they entered a Selective Service office in Catonsville, removed some 600 draft records to the building's parking lot and set them afire using homemade napalm.
The nine remained until police arrived and arrested them. In October 1968, they were found guilty in federal court on charges of conspiracy and destruction of government property. Sixteen months later, when they were scheduled to go to jail, four of the nine — including the Berrigans — went into hiding.
Tropea and Cyzyk, 47, whose friendship dates to their days of jamming together while living in a decaying York Road funeral home in the early '90s, say they were initially inspired by Lynne Sachs' "Investigation of a Flame," a 2003 documentary that was the opening-night feature at that year's Maryland Film Festival. Cyzyk, already a mainstay in Baltimore's underground film scene for more than a decade, was just beginning an eight-year stint as the festival's chief programmer.
"I knew about the Catonsville Nine primarily because of seeing Lynne Sachs' film that first year," he says. "From the beginning, we wanted it to be very clear that we weren't trying to remake Lynne's film. We were recapping it, then looking past the Catonsville Nine."
As "Hit & Stay" takes delight in pointing out, many of the same people were involved in multiple protests, either by direct involvement or by spreading the word from city to city. Tropea, who wasn't even alive when the Catonsville Nine first presented draft-card burning as a form of civil disobedience, says he was surprised by how interconnected the protests were.
"The people who showed up for the meetings where they were discussing Catonsville, some of them weren't ready to act in '68," he says. "But within a year or two, they were ready to act. So they went back to either their hometowns, or a town where they knew there were some activists, and started planning other actions."
Finding the protesters today, nearly 40 years after they made headlines, proved a challenge. Some, including Philip Berrigan, have died. George Mische, one of the original Nine and now living in Minnesota, was reluctant at first, but relented after Tropea helped him organize an appearance at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Some of the women, their names changed through marriage, were impossible to track down. And some former activists simply said no, perhaps disillusioned that their work back in the late '60s and early '70s didn't bear more enduring fruit. In all, four of the Nine and some 80 peace-movement veterans and other figures in total were interviewed for "Hit & Stay."
Few involved in the peace movement take much solace in what is happening in the world today, Tropea says. "We asked a lot of them what they thought," he says. "None of them had very cheery answers."
But the film itself has been well received. It earned the audience award at the Chicago Underground Film Festival and was screened in Kansas City. It's one of the top draws at this week's festival.
While it was Tropea who first began looking into the Catonsville Nine and subsequent actions as part of his master's thesis at UMBC, it was Cyzyk who suggested he film his interviews. "I told him, 'Don't just go interview them with an audio recorder. Take a video camera. That footage will be valuable to some documentary filmmaker down the road.'
"Down the road," Cyzyk repeats with a laugh. "That's what got me roped in."
While both filmmakers agree that making "Hit & Stay" was a true joint effort, each easily settled into his role. Tropea did most of the writing and the interviewing — all in person, he notes, save for a few done via Skype. Cyzyk, whose documentary on the band Alice Donut, "Freaks in Love," played the 2011 Maryland Film festival, did the camera work and the lion's share of the editing.
"Skizz was the best cameraman I knew at the time," Tropea says. "I kept saying he should co-direct, but he always said no, he was working on another documentary. But I kept at him. It was like Chinese water torture. … I eventually got him to give in."
If you go
The 15th Maryland Film Festival runs Wednesday through Sunday at the Charles Theatre, 1711 N. Charles St., the Maryland Institute College of Art's Brown Center, 1301 W. Mount Royal Ave., and the Windup Space, 12 W. North Ave. Tickets for most films are $10; multi-film and all-access passes are available. Information: 410-752-8083 or mdfilmfest.com. Screenings of "Hit & Stay" are set for 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Charles and 1:30 p.m. Saturday at the Brown Center.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun