American Anarchist
Regissør: Charlie Siskel

American Anarchist portrays the man behind the book, which can be linked to a wide variety of shooting episodes and terrorist attacks.


Most of us have done certain things as young people, or at other times in life, which we think back to with remorse. But, of course, some have committed youth sins with more serious consequences than others. Take American William Powell, for example, the main character in the documentary American Anarchist. When he was an allegedly angry, young man – specifically 19 years old in 1969 – he wrote the countercultural underground publication The Anarchist Cookbook.

Dangerous recipes. The book contains very pointed texts where Powell calls for an armed revolution, as well as recipes for how to produce various forms of weapons, explosives and drugs. It contains illustrated instructions for making LSD on the kitchen counter, tear gas in the basement or bombs in any room you prefer. Much of this knowledge Powell himself had found openly available under the section for military manuals at the library in New York, where he lived when he wrote the somewhat special cookbook in a few months. The idea was to make available information that both the military and various militant groups, such as the radical left-wing group "The Weathermen" (active in the 1970s), already possessed. Admittedly, the book comes with a warning that it is not intended for either children or idiots.

After more than 30 refusals, Powell finally received a quote from independent publisher Lyle Stuart, who was already known for publishing controversial books. The Anarchist Cookbook was published in 1971. Not surprisingly, it was met with much criticism – among other things, the publication was referred to as "the most irresponsible event in publishing history".

So far, a total of more than two million copies have been sold The Anarchist Cookbook, which has been linked to countless violence from the time of publication until today
episodes. The book, or excerpt from it, is apparently found among the assets of the perpetrators of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, the London bombings in 2005, the shooting during a cinematic display of The Dark Night Rises in Aurora in 2012 and the bombing of the Boston Marathon in 2013 – to name a few.

Angry young man. The motivation behind the revolutionary manual must have been a strong anger against the American authorities; not least because of the war in Vietnam. But according to Powell himself, he was also driven by the simple desire to become a published author.

Some youth sins have more serious consequences than others.

Still, he stayed away from the media after the book was released, and declined the many interview requests. In retrospect, Powell says that at this time he was having trouble standing for certain parts of the book's content, but that it was difficult to go public and dismiss something that had already been printed and distributed under his own name. Maybe a bit vain, but not completely incomprehensible.

It is also part of the story that the author early on renounced the rights to the book, which he hoped would disappear gradually. That is not how it went. The Anarchist Cookbook contained a type of information that can be obtained today on the more shady parts of the internet, where the book itself was also eventually published. But the paper edition is also apparently still readily available, in addition to, for example, Al-Qaeda's online instruction manuals may be inspired by Powell's book.

Buildable career. documentary American Anarchist is centered around director Charlie Siskel's interviews with Powell, which is filmed in the author's home in Massat, France in 2015. At this time Powell had lived outside the United States for the entire 36 years. Throughout his adult career he has worked as a teacher around the world for children with learning disabilities, as well as training for teachers in the same field. In the movie, the now 65 year old man comments that he sees the irony in having gone from writing The Anarchist Cookbook to teach emotional intelligence. Consequently, it is not entirely unnatural to think that neither the life of exile nor the constructive choice of profession has been entirely coincidental.

In addition, the serious youth sin has haunted Powell and his family regularly over the years, not least when he was denied teaching jobs for periods of time because of his involvement with this book.

The power of displacement. In the film, William Powell appears as a gentle, aging man, who answers well and well-formulated. He admits that the thoughts of the book's possible influence have a bearing on his conscience – but he also emphasizes that this is anything but pure remorse, without elaborating on it any further.

The book contains illustrated instructions for making LSD on the kitchen counter and tear gas in the basement.

At the same time is American Anarchist far on the way to a study of the power of displacement. Powell says that the first time he heard the book mentioned in the context of an actual crime was as late as Michael Moore's documentary Bowling for Columbine (2002). The perpetrators behind this school massacre were apparently in possession of Powell's book. Furthermore, the strong desire not to know, to protect himself, has led the author to actively seek out information about possible links between various crimes and his own manual.

Fortunately, filmmaker Siskel does not let the author escape the difficult questions related to his not too active attempts to stop further distribution of the book. Powell has published two public statements in which he refutes his content: First was a post in 2002 during the book's entry on Amazon. Then came a chronicle in The Guardian in 2013, after the newspaper contacted him in the wake of the bombing against the Boston Marathon. The latter article ends with a simple request that The Anarchist Cookbook «Should go quickly and quietly out of print».

Freedom of expression and responsibility. The year after the footage of the documentary was done, Powell died of an unexpected heart attack. American Anarchist does not address why he chose to be interviewed for this film, but hopefully the process gave him some reconciliation. It is at least both fascinating and at times also moving to witness how he gradually takes in the consequences of his gross youthful sins – while also having a point when he says that after all he was not the one who performed the various wrongdoings.

Eventually, the film also provides some insight into some of Powell's upbringing, which undoubtedly helped create the angry young outsider who authored the deadly cookbook – apparently without really thinking through what it could potentially lead to.

In addition to portraying a complex individual with a very special story, Siskel's documentary poses some interesting questions related to radicalization, freedom of the press and personal responsibility. And not least, it reminds you that just because freedom of speech means that you have rett to express something does not necessarily mean that one should outer it.

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