Film on Kent shootings shows emotions, fervor
Screening begins 4-day commemoration of May 4, 1970, events at university
KENT - Organizers at Kent State University began a four-day commemoration Sunday of the May 4, 1970, National Guard shootings that claimed the lives of four students with the debut of a documentary film that explores the impact and relevance of the incident.
Fire in the Heartland -- A History of Dissent at Kent State University, 1960-1980 proves to be an effective piece of filmmaking from Director Daniel Miller, a former Kent student from that era and current assistant professor of journalism and communication at the University of Oregon.
Shown in its rough form at a reunion of Kent's chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, the movie delves deeper into the tragedy through interviews with those who were active in the SDS at that time, archival footage of news reports and rare film of the shooting taken from behind the National Guard unit who opened fire on a group of unarmed student activists.
``This really represents the most authoritative representation of what happened here from the people involved,'' said Carolyn Knox, a former student and also an instructor at the University of Oregon.
Indeed, Fire in the Heartland looks into the incident, but what gives it its strength are insightful eyewitness interviews that give us an idea of the emotions and passions of that time.
Miller is still tweaking the documentary and currently doesn't have firm commitments for distribution.
He ties his subjects with one common thread -- how their experiences at Kent, both educationally and politically, helped them make the transition from childhood to adulthood. A familiar refrain with those interviewed was that political activism -- protesting the war in Vietnam -- helped them feel they were part of something and opened their eyes.
And their recollections about what led them to their political stance remain vivid. One recounted realizing the harshness of battle after seeing a picture of a former friend who was in the military holding severed heads.
Miller takes a tack rarely seen in pieces on the Kent tragedy, looking at the racist atmosphere of the time that led to the intellectual awakening of many of the students. But what proves striking is the initial portrait he paints of this idyllic, small college town that at its core was in political turmoil because of the differing views of the students and college administration.
Most vivid, however, are the memories that come rushing in like echoes across time. They paint an eerie picture of what it was like to be on campus at the time with a significant National Guard presence.
``I felt we were at war and I was the enemy,'' said one former student. Said another of the actual shooting: ``We could hear bullets zipping by and thumping into the ground.''
Even more tragic was that some believe it didn't have to happen. Just before the shots erupted, students who took part in confronting the National Guard thought the situation was over.
``That could have been `the year of the big broken windows in downtown Kent' and that could have been `the year of the weird ROTC fire,' '' rather than the year four students were killed, said another student.
Instead, Kent remains one of the pivotal chapters in American history, and members of the SDS used it as a link to the current political climate.
``Looking at it in 2005, there really is a question -- did we win?'' Bill Whitaker, an SDS member, said.
Whitaker discussed the similarities between then and now -- an unpopular war and a presidential administration he views as corrupt and criminal.
Knox openly questions the university's commitment to creating well-rounded individuals equipped to handle what society has waiting for them.
``I can't understand why this university doesn't embrace what we're trying to do here (by remembering the events of May 4),'' she said. ``After all, isn't a university about transformation?''
They can take heart in knowing that some are still listening. Among them: Lindsay Kimbro, a 20-year-old student majoring in middle childhood education.
``I really found the movie interesting. I learned a lot of history about the school, and that's important to me because I go here,'' Kimbro said.
George M. Thomas is the movie critic for the Akron Beacon Journal. He can be reached at 330-996-3579 or gmthomas@thebeaconjournal