‘Attica’ Directors on Using Disturbing Footage: ‘You Had to See the Horror of It’

The directors acknowledged that some of the film's footage is hard to watch, but said "I don't think we even put in the worst."
'Attica' Directors on Using Disturbing Footage in Their Documentary

Consider This: Conversations highlight film’s award-worthy productions through panel discussions with the artists themselves. The above video is presented by Showtime and hosted by documentary filmmaker Dawn Porter. “Attica” is available now on Showtime.

Fifty years after the infamous prison riot at the Attica Correctional Facility, it often seems like little has changed. Debates about how the American criminal justice system dehumanizes people, particularly people of color, still rage on. There are still riots, and concerns about federal government corruption have not exactly subsided. In many ways, 2021 was the perfect time to revisit the Attica riot and the surrounding fallout. So Emmy winner Stanley Nelson — who has yet to be nominated for an Oscar — teamed up with MacArthur grant recipient Traci Curry to direct “Attica,” a Showtime documentary that recounts the riot with detailed footage that often borders on disturbing.

But while criminal justice reform remains a hot topic in America today, “Attica” directors Stanley Nelson and Traci Curry made it clear that they wanted to cover much more than just prison conditions. To them, the Attica prison riot was a jumping off point to explore the interlocking spheres of power in American society and the ways they can work against each other to perpetuate injustice. As part of IndieWire’s Consider This series, Nelson and Curry sat down to discuss the film with documentary filmmaker Dawn Porter.

“One of the reasons this story is so fascinating is that on one level it’s the story of the prisoners and the yard. Just these prisoners who have taken over this prison and don’t know what’s going on outside,” Nelson told IndieWire. “And then there’s the law enforcement and the people from the town surrounding the prison on the outside. And then there’s the town of Attica. And then there’s Governor Nelson Rockefeller, one of the richest men in the world who becomes a player because he’s ultimately in charge of the prison system. And then there’s Richard Nixon and the federal government who’s whispering in Rockefeller’s ear. So it’s a much larger story in so many ways than just the prisoners that are rebelling.”

Traci Curry echoed that sentiment, saying “This is a story about a lot of things. It is about the individuals, the prisoners, the people that lived in the town, and all of these various circles of power that shift throughout the course of the film. But all of these people are part of an institution and part of a system. All of them.” She went on to discuss the difficulty of using art to explore nuanced issues.

“I think what can be kind of tricky about, in storytelling, getting at questions of injustice at a systemic level is that it’s hard to point your finger at it and say ‘that’s it,'” she said. “It’s not like somebody burning a cross on your lawn.”  

The film accomplishes the directors’ ambitious goals in part because of the quality of the archival footage they unearthed. The film has attracted particular attention for its use of very graphic images of prisoners being tortured toward the end. The process of deciding what to include was a difficult one.

“I don’t even think that we put in the worst,” Curry said. “As bad as it is, there was even worse in those images. And we all looked at all of it, because that’s just kind of the job.”

Nelson said the choice to show the disturbing images “was a really visceral decision.” He told IndieWire that “it wasn’t like ‘we can show this much blood or not this much.’ It was more, ‘let’s put in the worst, and then see if it’s too much. And then pull it back a little and just keep pulling it back.’” While the images are extremely jarring, Nelson stands by the choice to end the film with them. “You had to see, as an audience, the horror of it.”

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