Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train

Director: Deb Ellis and Denis Mueller

Topic: The life of alt-historian Howard Zinn, whose book “The People’s History of the United States” has become relevant to a new generation of activists.

Financier: Mostly small grants, including grants from several state humanities councils, as well as donations from individuals such as narrator Matt Damon.

Budget: About $140,000, if the filmmakers had paid for in-kind services. Actual budget was somewhat lower.

Shooting format: DV, archival footage.

Why it made the list: Zinn’s lively personality and lifelong commitment to activism make the film memorable, and his recent anti-war efforts show why his work remains important.

Memorable scene: Zinn and Dan Berrigan travel illegally to North Vietnam as part of the first prisoner-of-war exchange in 1968. The trip is especially meaningful for Zinn, as he had dropped napalm bombs during World War II and was moved by seeing U.S. troops once again bombing civilians.

Distribution/broadcast status: First Run Features released theatrically in June in approximately 40 cities.

Box office: $116,000

On making the film: Co-director Denis Mueller had been mulling a doc about the nature of history when he came across Zinn’s autobiography and realized, “Maybe you tell it through Howard’s eyes.” Zinn, a professor and historian, writes about American history from the point of view of dispossessed communities, such as Native Americans, African-Americans and labor activists. An influential activist for civil rights and against the Vietnam War, the still-vibrant Zinn is now speaking out against the war in Iraq.

After recruiting Deb Ellis as co-director, Mueller secured Zinn’s approval for the biodoc by sending him his 1997 film on the Vietnam Veterans Against the War org. “At the time I didn’t understand how much being a veteran was part of his identity,” Mueller says. The directors started following Zinn as he lectured around the country, and brought in Matt Damon as narrator. Damon grew up next door to Zinn and incorporated some of his ideas into the script for “Good Will Hunting,” which led to more interest in Zinn’s writings.

“A lot of academic writing doesn’t tell a story,” says Mueller, “but Zinn’s writings have a clear narrative. We hoped his own personality and involvement would get across how he fits into history.”

While the historian has his critics in mainstream academia, the docu focuses on Zinn and supporters such as Alice Walker and Noam Chomsky rather than trying to tell both sides. Mueller says, “I understand the criticisms, but our decision was to let Howard tell his own story.”

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