Wednesday, July 04, 2007
Reg Harkema: The Monkey Warfare Interview
This is the full text of my interview with Reg Harkema about his film Monkey Warfare, as ran in a shortened version in a past Discorder. Monkey Warfare is now out on DVD in Canada and on its way to the Viennale and to Australia! The DVD is available on Amazon.ca and features an entire rough cut of the film, with commentary by Harkema and his editor, alongside the theatrical cut with commentary by the cast - it's pretty cool!
By the way, Warren Kinsella says somewhere online that some of what follows is “unadulterated bullshit,” or something like that.
Allan: So you’re from Vancouver, originally?
Reg: Yeah, I was born in 1967. Actually, we actually just drove by the hospital where I was born in British Columbia, Burnaby General.
Allan: We were growing up around here at about the same time, then. I was born in 1968. Were you also on the punk scene here in the 80’s?
Reg: Yeah, I know, it’s really bizarre, y’know, with that little conversation we had when I ran into you, about going to the other location of Scratch Records. Christ, I’ve know Keith (Perry, of Scratch) since I was, like, 17. I met him when he opened that location, down on Cambie, across from the Cambie, and then moved down the street to Cordova, and I guess he’s on Richards now, right? I’m sure we’ve been to many of the same gigs...
Allan: Probably, although I was growing up in Maple Ridge, so I didn’t get out to as many gigs as I wanted to. Were you at the Dead Kennedys at the York Theatre, in 84 or 85?
Reg: No. But I was at Nomeansno’s first gig as a three piece, in ’84, opening for DOA. That was at the York Theatre, as well.
Allan: So you were in the Vancouver punk scene when the Squamish Five were arrested?
Reg: They were arrested in 82, right?
Allan: ‘83, I believe.
Reg: Well, that would have been the nascent beginnings of the whole punk thing for me. It was funny... Actually, let me just grab my beer. One second... Yeah, it’s funny, cos I kinda got into punk through the Pointed Sticks, believe it or not, in the late 70’s, and wanted to go see the Rock Against Radiation show, but I was too young, my Mom wouldn’t let me go. And then I sorta drifted out of the punk scene for a little bit, more influenced by my biker uncles, interested in Motorhead. That was actually the very first gig I was allowed to go to, finally, in 1982 at the Kerrisdale Arena.
Allan: Right, that was the gig that got the Kerrisdale closed down, wasn’t it? It was too loud.
Reg: I would not be surprised. And then I discovered CITR, believe it or not, actually, through a mutual friend who introduced me to someone at a U2 gig at the Queen E. When I got into CITR, that’s when I drifted back into the whole punk thing. And after that I was going to punk gigs and stuff.
Allan: Were you DJing at CITR?
Reg: No, she introduced me to the fact of the existence of the radio station. I eventually did start DJing at CITR a few years later, when I was going to university with some friends.
Allan: What was your show?
Reg: It was called "The Visiting Penguins" I believe. We were always accused of stealing records, but I want to set the "record" straight that nothing in my collection says "CITR" on it!
Allan: All of this was a little after the Five were arrested?
Reg: Yeah, I came on to the punk scene like, just after it. If my Mom had let me go to that Rock Against Radiation, I would have been there, Ground Zero, but I wasn’t allowed to go, cos I was only 12, and didn’t drift back into it until after they were arrested. I never saw the Subhumans, for instance.
Allan: Yeah, neither did I, when I was a kid, tho’ I’ve gotten to see them twice in the last couple of years, so that’s pretty cool... What your first awareness of Direct Action?
Reg: Just the sorta media blitz of it on TV, and my Dad going on about what a bunch of malcontents they were, what a disgrace. My Dad was a former cop, right? A Vancouver City Police cop, working in the downtown eastside. I guess he was a homicide detective at that time, mind you.
Allan: So what were your politics like? How did you feel about it when you heard about it?
Reg: Well, I was, at the time, pretty apolitical, and didn’t even really pay attention to the news or anything, and didn’t really care. It was only until about a year later that I became sort of politicized, when I started going back to the Clash records that I’d bought. I became politicized through U2, believe it or not. I’m not ashamed to admit it now, y’know, although I haven’t really listened to anything since the Unforgettable Fire. But that album War was a big album for me, and “Sunday Bloody Sunday” in particular.
Allan: So, like, when you were involved in the punk scene after that... I don’t know if you remember, but there were slogans on the back of DOA albums and stuff at the time, like, “Talk – Action = Zero.” That was on the back of Bloodied but Unbowed (brief plug for Joey and Co: this has recently been reissued on Sudden Death Records). Glen Sanford, the guy who made the documentary on Gerry – he was actually at the Rock Against Radiation gig – reports seeing graffiti around town reading “Talk – Direct Action = Zero”). At the time, to me – I remember being nervous about the whole punk thing, because I was getting into it, and I was, like, 15, and I didn’t really know what it was about or where I stood. For me, that slogan was kinda scary, and they were recording songs like “Burn It Down,” talking about burning down prisons and things like that, in support of the Five. It kinda scared me, but at the same time, but I thought it was kinda cool, back during the Cold War, that people had actually stood up... This is back when we were all walking around afraid that there might be a nuclear war at any minute. That stuff didn’t have an impact on you?
Reg: Yeah, you know, a little bit. Cos once I did become a little bit politicized, a little bit aware – once the narrow crack in the door was opened for me, I kinda went through it full force, and canvassed for them and so on. The DOA song that more affected me than those songs was that “General Strike” song. I think that was like 83, 84, something like that, there was some solidarity movement. They took the name of from the Polish solidarity movement and applied it to some NDP workers movement in BC at the time. I think the song was written for that, and I was really into that song and into the Green Party politics. But it was all less grounded in reality for me and more in teenage playacting, almost. The politics that DOA was kind of espousing and involved in was for me the same as the politics of another favourite band of the time, Stiff Little Fingers. I was as much into Northern Ireland as I was involved in what was going on in British Columbia. It was all kind of at arm’s length. While living with my parents, I mean. I was pretty sheltered, right? I’d grown up in a Christian churchgoing home with a cop as a father, right, so I was never really in the streets, so to speak. Actually, my most “direct action,” if you will, was at that DOA concert at the York Theatre, when I was kinda offended by some anti-religious stuff that was being shouted by Joey Shithead and I leaped onstage and pulled some banner down and unceremoniously got tossed out of the theatre... I wonder if he remembers that? (laughs).
Allan: (laughs) Someone somewhere is gonna read that and go “That was you!”
Reg: And after that I kinda got more into the Violent Femmes and Goth music, after the trauma of that DOA gig.
Allan: You said at the Q&A for the screening of your film that you had sympathy, but not necessarily approval, for Direct Action. Do you want to elaborate on that?
Reg: What they wanted to do, their whole vision of what society can and should be is a hard one to argue with. I still have very left-leaning politics and one of the obvious thematic streams of my own film was the whole bicycle thing and all that. I’ve never owned a car and I ride a bike wherever I go, blah blah blah blah, and y’know, recycle, blah blah blah blah, um, so in that sense I definitely have empathy for their aims, but I just don’t see violence as a solution to anything. There’s a continuum going right up from what they were trying to do to Hiroshima.
Allan: I don’t know if you want to get into a little third person argument with Gerry Hannah here, but Gerry had said to me that he questioned whether it should be described as violence, because, accidents aside, they were attacking property but not people...
Reg: But if I can kick in my cynical Godard side, he was nailing that in La Chinoise a year before the May 68 rioting, when he was showing how awry that can go. I read Ann Hansen’s book Direct Action and I kinda wished they’d been cinema fans, and watched Godard, rather than listening to the Doors. Then they probably would have seen... have you seen La Chinoise?
Allan: I haven’t, and maybe some of the readers haven’t, so...
Reg: It’s a film about a bunch of Parisian students who, during the summer away from school, they decide to take over someone’s relative’s apartment, and they spend the whole summer studying Mao and debating the use of violence versus non-violence in terms of trying to affect change in the world, and one of the members of the cell, so to speak, is ejected because they refuse to submit to the party line of the rest of the members in their decision to use violence. And near the end of the film, they decide to undertake a violent act, and assassinate a Soviet minister who is visiting to open a new wing of the Sorbonne, the Paris university, which throughout the film these students have a real problem with, because of the indoctrination students are undergoing... They decide to do this political assassination. It just goes wrong. The woman who goes in to do the assassination gets the looks at the hotel registry where the Soviet minister is staying, but she reads it upside-down and goes into room 23 instead of 32, and shoots the person there, so then she has to go back to room 32 and shoot the other guy... In the middle of the film, there’s actually a discussion with a philosopher who was involved with the Algerian resistance movement, and it’s an interesting discussion, because he actually advocated violence in the Algerian resistance, but it was because there was a widespread social movement backing him. Which is the point Ann Hansen makes throughout her book, is that they felt isolated, because in North America there is no widespread social movement backing people to overthrow the establishment, simply because everyone’s too content here... I guess I should mitigate what I’m saying. If you’re in an oppressed nation, where you’re under the boot of a dictatorship, certainly I guess violence maybe is an option...
Allan: Here, we’re too comfortable, so it stands out as a fairly unusual behaviour. It doesn’t win a whole lot of approval for the cause.
Reg: No. And you become that which you’re fighting against.
Allan: You talked to both Ann and Gerry in researching the film?
Reg: We talked to Ann and Gerry – my girlfriend, Cindy Wolfe (who acts in the film, was in charge of the antiques department, and helped secure music rights), talked to Ann and Gerry not in researching the film so much, but in researching a photo that’s used in the film, that’s in Ann’s book, to find out who had the rights to it. They had to remember who the photographer was, and the photographer was a BCTV photographer, so then we had to figure out who owned BCTV, and, y’know, all along the food chain until we found someone who was willing to sign off on it.
Allan: So Ann and Gerry weren’t really directly involved?
Reg: No. I mean, Ann was indirectly involved, because her book (Direct Action: Memoirs of an Urban Guerrilla) was a huge influence on Tracy’s character. I gave it to her as research material.
Allan: What was the book Don McKellar read to prep for his role?
Reg: He was reading Fugitive Days, by Bill Ayers, who was one of the Weather Underground. He was Bernardine Dohrn’s husband and lived underground with her. It was funny, because Bill Ayer’s book was in the New York Times book review on September 11th, 2001, and Ann Hansen’s book I think was released shortly before, between the lines. (This is especially ironic because of the history of Reg’s development of the screenplay for Monkey Warfare, which was based loosely on characters in a previous project he’d started, Bad Chloe. Bad Chloe was “about a couple of young radicals in love. The script ended with the character Chloe suicide-bombing the Molson Indy after her boyfriend Nick is run over by a Coca Cola truck.” Harkema’s first pitch meeting for the project was scheduled for 9 AM, September 11th, at the TIFF).
Allan: So you weren’t personally in touch with any of the members of Direct Action...?
Allan: What about Terry Chikowski, the security guard who was injured at Litton Industries (the Toronto branch of a US company, manufacturing Cruise missiles in Canada; they were the target of Direct Action’s biggest action. I interviewed Terry awhile back, but haven’t found a publisher for the piece yet).
Reg: No, until I talked to you, I didn’t even know the guy’s name, or whatever happened to him.
(Mild Spoiler Warning: from here on in, spoilers begin to accumulate. If you hate any spoilers, you’d best save the rest of the article until after you see the film. If you don’t mind mild spoilers, it’s safe to continue for now).
Allan: He’s actually in Las Vegas right now as we speak. He’s off visiting his money, he says... anyhow. Your characters seem like they’re in a state of denial or remorse – they seem to have suppressed a lot of their political feelings in reaction to the fact that the security guard in your film is injured. Am I reading that correctly? Are they supposed to be running from their pasts?
Reg: Yeah, they’re both carrying huge amounts of guilt. I don’t know how well this comes through in the film, but part of the guilt is a result of them inwardly blaming themselves for what happened, but outwardly blaming each other?
Allan: Ahh. Okay. Yeah, I can see that there, tho’ I didn’t at the time...
Reg: It probably could have been drawn a bit better, but there’s a moment, after they reveal their secret to the young girl, where Don is saying “It was my fault,” and it becomes a little dialogue between the two of them... It has resonance any time I watch it, but I’m not sure it’s having resonance for the audience.
Allan: I wanted to ask you what you wanted the film to say, actually. There’s a sense of something generational going on. You’re very aware of the radicals of the 1960s in the film, and then there’s Don and Tracy as radicals from the 80s from Vancouver, and there’s this young kid smashing up SUVs, so there’s a sense of something being handed down from generation to generation. The last line of the film – “You guys should have taught me how to make a Molotov cocktail” – do you think they should’ve?
Reg: I dunno, I mean... there’s no real message to the film. The last line drives a lot of the screenwriter types crazy, right, because it doesn’t really wrap it up and bounce it home, if you will... I’m not really offering a message; it’s more really a discussion of whether they should have or not, and it’s more speaking to the overriding framework, in my mind, of how society takes our idealism and beats it down so that we’re slotted into these little units that function, not for the betterment of our society, but for the way the powers that be want our society to work. Most obviously the nuclear family, right? So at that moment that she says that to them, they’re kind of like her surrogate parents. And what do parents do? They practice a form of censorship on their children. And what do the greater, overriding “parents” in our society, the powers that be, do? They practice a form of censorship on the masses. That’s why we go into this whole discussion of hidden histories and what history is taught, y’know? We’re taught how Ronald Reagan told Gorbachev to pull the wall down, and that ended the Cold War, but we’re not taught about people like the Vancouver Five and the radical anarchist movement. Going back to what you were saying of the possibility of there being nuclear destruction at any moment, I’m sure you had that whole experience of a loud bang happening at school one day, and thinking, just for that moment, “This is it!”
Allan (laughs): Right.
Reg: Or what was that movie, The Day After...
Allan: The Day After, Threads – The Road Warrior. It was even a fantasy, back then... What do you think the Five’s effect actually was? Something like that, blowing shit up, people getting hurt, getting sent to prison... that’s gonna have repercussions that are going to be very hard to trace, very hard to map, y’know?
Reg: Well, I mean, it’s interesting, because Ann Hansen addresses that a bit in her book, and I find it hard to argue with a bit of what she’s saying, y’know? It kinda makes you wonder if there was a way for what they’ve done to influence larger segments of society, these actions would have a greater practical effect. She talks about how Litton Industries pulled up their factory and all their contracts out of Canada, and Red Hot Video actually having to shut down some of their operations.
Allan: I’ve heard about the Red Hot Video thing, but I’m not sure about Litton, actually. I’ve interviewed Chikowski, and he continued working at Litton for years after the bombing.
Reg: But they had a contract to make the Cruise missile, and that contract was lost after that action happened...
Allan: Maybe Chikowski is wrong...
Reg: Where I’m taking it from is Ann’s book, so... It’s a little section at the end of the book.
Allan: Hm. How do you think it affected punk rock?
Reg: On reflection if I look back from what I know now, certainly it did. At the time, though, I was such a fringe element. I was a snotty 17 year old kid pulling down banners at DOA shows. “Free the Five” seemed like just another cause.
Allan: ...okay. Well, let’s come to Warren Kinsella. Did you read the chapter on Gerry in Fury’s Hour? (which I'd lent Reg about a day before the interview, btw).
Reg: Yeah, I read that thing. I was a little bit disappointed, because obviously the guy has written a few things and obviously he’s got half a brain, but he’s got an axe to grind. It brings out the worst in human character. It just seemed to be a polemic and a character assassination than anything else. It’s just really prurient and juvenile, some of the stuff, where he just takes stuff Gerry Hannah said out of context and just make some kind of joke about it.
Allan: It seems really snide.
Reg: Snide, exactly.
Allan: It’s unfortunate, because he’s doing an important thing, because he’s interviewing Terry Chikowski. You’re talking about not knowing Chikowski’s name until I mentioned it – I didn’t know his name until I read Fury’s Hour. In a way, I’m kinda grateful, because I was one of these Free the Five people when I was a kid, I was supporting this, and I didn’t want to think about Chikowski very much.
Reg: But you’re someone who is trying to see both sides of it. Kinsella is doing the research and finding this guy to shove it in Hannah’s face.
Allan: The theory that’s coming up from talking with Hannah is that a lot of this stems from Kinsella being pissed off that Hannah wouldn’t do an interview with him.
Reg: Yeah, exactly. I’m not surprised by that. It seems like a personal grudge thing is going on.
Allan: Okay, so enough of the Five, enough of punk rock. Let’s talk about eBay for a bit.
Reg: You know, if you look in the movie, there’s a couple of inserts in the movie of it being this website called Antiques Online. And I dealt long and hard with the issue of how these people don’t have credit cards or anything, and how are we gonna make it legit that they could sell online. We worked long and hard on it, and after screening the film a few times – people just fuckin’ don’t care. No one things to themselves, okay, these people are underground, how can they do this. And in fact it’s always referred to as eBay, as well, in reviews. I tried to consciously make it not eBay, so no one would go “you need a credit card to sell on eBay,” and no one cares. (laughs).
Allan: Is there meant to be any commentary on the commodification of punk or punk nostalgia...? At one point the girl takes the Don McKellar character to task for placing too much value on his books as artefacts that are worth something...
Reg: Definitely. There’s a commentary along the lines of how our idealism is commodified and made palatable and sold, definitely. The Baader Meinhof book – Ann Hansen herself went to Europe in the 1980s in the waning days of that and was inspired by what was going on there – and now it’s become this book to be valued, so hopefully it will make some money when they need it when they’re too old to get some medicine, or something...
Allan: I mean, the film doesn’t seem cynical per se, but you’re certainly not very optimistic about the state of things right now.
Reg: Oh yeah. When the movie’s released and the Vancouver Sun coverage on the movie comes out, I think there’ll be a Katherine Monk interview with me and three actors, and the large bulk of the interview is them talking about what a sense of hope the movie has, and me refuting everything they say.
Allan: Yeah, it’s pretty grim. This is our idealism: hiding underground, rooting through trash, selling shit on the internet and hoping to stay alive. That’s not very optimistic.
Reg: I think that what it comes down to is the actors live in the world of their characters and see their characters as going beyond the last frame of the movie, where as I see them almost as little chess pieces and there lives end at that last frame. So for me, it’s over, boom, there’s no hope. 23 years from now, no one’s gonna give a fuck, so let’s deal with it. Live in the now, man. Whereas they’re like, “They’ve formed a little family, let’s go on.”
Allan: We arrive at the nuclear family.
Reg: Which... I’m hard pressed to see the positivity and the hope in that.
Allan: There is the sense... Our own families, we don’t usually get what we want from our own families. Everyone has leftovers. But in the way that we seek out alternate histories, you seek out alternate fathers and figures of inspiration, other teachings. And in a way, this girl has found people who can look out for her, and have at least a little bit of wisdom that they can impart on her. So there’s a little bit of hope there.
Reg: I guess, y’know, as long as she applies aloe vera leaves to her face every day and it heals and all that, and she doesn’t rat these two out, they may have some kind of understanding, sort of relationship, because her involvement in threatening guerrilla activity has probably come to an end. So I guess in that sense there is some hope.
Allan: So if you were to make a sequel, what would you do?
Reg: (laughs) I dunno. I keep thinking in terms of the last scene which was never shot, actually, which I wrote for a sales agent who was really interested in giving us some money up front. She wanted to see a couple more scenes and one final scene after that one to bring to her people, so she could convince them to give us some money so we could shoot in Super 16... She never did, but the last scene was them winding up on a beach somewhere and Tracy unwrapping Nadia’s bandages and her face is all healed up, and Don reaching over and putting on a record on the portable record player, and the song is “Revolution Blues” by Neil Young, and that was gonna play over the end credits. So I guess the sequel would be Agitation in the South Pacific. Or Toronto Island. Something like that.
Allan: I really liked the song you used over the end credits, Leonard Cohen’s “The Old Revolution.”
Reg: Yeah, that came pretty late in the game. All the music was kinda in the realm of “Yeah, we’ll be able to afford it,” which is why we used it, and that one was a little bit pricier than anything else, but the producer managed to get it inexpensively, relative to Leonard Cohen. We were actually going to end with a Weird War song at one point, or the Halo Benders. They have this song, “Bomb Shelter Parts One and Two,” which has got these great lines in it: “Next time you’re at one of those big concerts waving your lighter, don’t waste your lighter fluid! Take it to the streets, let ‘em know how you feel!” And that was gonna dovetail into our little Molotov cocktail thing with Flick Harrison after the end credits (which, I gather from IMDB, may be removed from the theatrical version of the film “for legal reasons.”) But yeah, “The Old Revolution” is so appropriate as a poetic summation of Don and Tracy’s relationship in the film – “Into this furnace/ I ask you now to venture/ You whom I cannot betray.” They’re held together by that secret, and the whole fire thing...
Allan: There’s a generational thing there, as well.
Reg: Yeah. And those paying close attention, hopefully, will pick up on the fact that it’s the same song Nadia labelled as “hippie shit” earlier in the film...
Ifny, Allan, Reg, and Flick Harrison; photo by David Repa, we think!