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The Rosendale Theatre Collective

a secret war on Americans, courtesy of your government: documentary Freeing Silvia Baraldiniby Jay Blotcher

If you attended public school in the 1960s and 1970s, civics class was a trip. It usually had no connection to the reality beyond the classroom. Outside, people protested the Vietnam War, battled poverty, wrangled with sexism and took on institutionalized racism. But on your blackboard and in your textbooks, the last American dissidents up for discussion were the Sons of Liberty.

Freeing Silvia Baraldini, a new documentary by Catskill-based Margo Pelletier and co-director Lisa Thomas, puts the lie to the numerous omissions that comprised our late 20th-century education. For those in school now, this chronicle of the radical and progressive American movements of that era is an unsettling, fascinating document of a country at war with itself. A benefit screening of the award-winning documentary will be held on January 24th at The Rosendale Theater.

Like the compelling William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, which appeared late last year, Freeing utilizes a colorful individual as a springboard to a retrospective of a tumultuous era in American culture. In this case, the radical Everywoman is Silvia Baraldini, implicated in the liberation of a black female revolutionary and sentenced to prison for 43 years. (She eventually served 26.)

“Important films find the people to make them, and not the other way around,” said co-director Margo Pelletier. She first met Baraldini 30 years ago when Pelletier moved to Park Slope, more a warzone than its current incarnation as a tree-lined upscale family paradise. Angered by the poverty of the area and the refusal by landlords to rehabilitate unsafe buildings, Pelletier (fresh from art school and eager to be a celebrated painter) joined the neo-Marxist May 19th Communist Organization. This group pledged to make changes to the neighborhood, and eventually, to the American system.

One of the group’s more charismatic members was Baraldini, an Italian national with stunning blue eyes and a calm demeanor that was a marked contrast to the wild-eyed, voluble rebels who dominated the collective. Pelletier began silk-screening protest posters at the Madame Binh Graphics Collective, which was the propaganda arm of the organization. As she worked, she was indoctrinated as a foot soldier. She learned the intricacies of the unjust capitalistic system. How entrenched racism turns a profit and how policemen are mere pawns in maintaining the status quo.

She preferred to listen to Baraldini, who was fast becoming a leader of the group on a national level because “she broke things down. She was much clearer—she didn’t sound so much like a political leaflet.” Pelletier decided Baraldini saw the current strife with “a fresher set of eyes” as an outsider from Italy.

Freeing Silvia Baraldini deals with the lesser-known organizations that agitated for change during this era, seeking to win equality for the poor, the homeless, the black and the Latino through aggressive and fiery groups such as The Black Panthers, The Republic of New Afrika and the Puerto Rican independence movement.

Why these groups are all but unknown in mainstream circles, the film tells us, is because in its zeal to maintain the status quo the United States government launched a war against them, coming down hard on their acts of civil disobedience, often using federal anti-racketeering laws to crush their opposition.

Pelletier was a victim of this government escalation; in 1982 she spent six months in jail for protesting the appearance of a South African rugby team in Albany, while that country was still under the yoke of anti-black apartheid laws. Soon after she was released, Baraldini was imprisoned, accused of freeing Black Panther, Assata Shakur from prison. The sole person who claimed to have seen Baraldini at the scene failed to identify her accurately.

As Baraldini lingered in an American prison, radical organizations began to collapse under ongoing government scrutiny and FBI-generated smear campaigns. Pelletier became disillusioned and returned to her art, only to become disgusted by the transition of the art world from an arena of discovery to blatant marketplace, artificially inflating prices, and becoming an elitist enclave. She began to study sound as a visual artist at Bard, obtained a degree at the Institute of Audio Research and began creating aural art pieces.

But in 2000 she decided to return to the matter of her friend and comrade Silvia Baraldini. She had just met Lisa Thomas, who possessed film and TV experience and decided she now had “the gumption” to embark on a film.

She felt that the case of Baraldini was particularly poignant, because it emphasized the government’s inherent racism, she said, its aggression towards politicized people of color and those seen as helping them.

“I chose Silvia as the focal point because I wanted to emphasize racial issues: a white freedom fighter helping to free a black woman.” Convincing her old comrade, however, was not an easy task. Baraldini rejected the project initially, Pelletier said, because “she’s just been mistreated and lied about for so many years.” But she finally relented, when told that her side of the story would dominate the narrative.

After numerous negotiations during the late 90s, Baraldini—now known as a celebrated political prisoner in her native land—was finally returned to complete her prison term in Italy. During her incarceration, she had contracted breast cancer and other ailments and had lost her mother, all the while fighting for her release. Pelletier and Thomas traveled to Italy to interview her, while she was in prison and then under house arrest. By now, Baraldini had spent 24 years in jail, some of that time in total isolation.

If Freeing Silvia Baraldini often plays like a film version of a radical broadside, overstuffed with rhetoric, Pelletier makes no apologies. Objectivity was not her goal.

“It’s not a secret that the movie tells the movement’s side of the story,” she said. “The other side was told loud and clear. The state actually used the media to criminalize a lot of these activists.”

Pelletier had planned to complete the narrative of the film in 2006, leaving Baraldini as a prisoner in limbo to drive home the injustice. But news came that she had officially been released. The crew returned to Italy to interview her as a free woman. The change in their subject was striking. “She seemed to feel so much more ready to invest her feelings in the questions,” Pelletier said. They sat with her for four hours, repeating questions they had asked in previous sessions, which had originally elicited wan responses.

“This was our golden interview,” she said.

Throughout the interviews, Baraldini comes across as a woman who bleeds idealism but never self-righteousness. She makes no pretensions to sainthood, but tells her story plainly and honestly, recurring tears underscoring her poignant tale.

Freeing Silvia Baraldini is the perfect civics lesson for the other United States.


The Rosendale Theater presents Freeing Silvia Baraldini on Sunday, January 24 at 2:30 PM. 408 Main Street in Rosendale, with a Q & A with filmmakers Margo Pelletier and Lisa Thomas. Wine and cheese reception. Tickets $10.00. Sponsored by The Haitian People’s Support Project and The Martin Luther King Day Planning Committee. Snow date January 31 at 2:30 PM. Call 845.658.8989 or 845.943.8633. Visit www.thinedgefilms.com.



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