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TIFF 2021 Review: Attica

In reaction to the inhumane conditions, inmates orchestrated the largest prison uprising in United States history at the Attica Correctional Facility on September 9, 1971. 

Former Attica intimates, prison guard family members, journalists, lawyers and negotiators who took part in the Observer Committee reflect on what led to, occurred during and the aftermath of an uprising that led to a five-day standoff; the crisis which made nationwide headlines was brought to a bloody ended by a raid New York State Police which resulted in 43 dead including eight hostages.   50 years later, the emotional scars remain as all the interviewees talk about what occurred as if it happened yesterday.  There is a mixture of humorous and tragic stories which makes the recollections all the more poignant.

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Hallmarks of great documentary filmmaking is relying on first-hand accounts rather than outsider commentaries and being able to represent different perspectives of what took place.  In these areas documentarian Stanley Nelson can not be faulted; he has even gone so far as to obtain White House taped conversations between President Richard Nixon and New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller.  There is a prevailing sympathy for the inmates though the ugly side is not glossed over like the death of a prison guard that brought negotiations to a conclusion.  However, the violent conclusion validates the accusations of systematic racism and abuse within the prison corrections institution.

Archive footage places the viewer on the actual prison grounds as well with the amassing law enforcement presence outside of the walls.  A lot time and effort has been put into providing the proper context.  The only problem is that the proceedings go on for too long and some of the observations become repetitive which lessens the impact.   A clever and effective shot is of various prison guard family photographs stacking closer to the screen as well as intercutting the post-credits with postscript texts and footage.  Nelson has done a worthy study that strips away the veneer from the American dream and reveals the darkness underneath.

The 46th Toronto International Film Festival runs September 9-18, 2021, and for more information visit    

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada; he can be found at LinkedIn.

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