November 20, 2009
By Ann Gibbons
Justice is a thin, razor-sharp blade that cuts both ways: A woman
convicted of helping the "soul" of the black power movement escape
from a New Jersey jail, serves most of a 43-year-sentence while the
fugitive remains free in Cuba.
But, the fugitive, Assata Shakur, recedes into the background while
the prisoner, Silvia Baldarini, looms large in an independent film
directed and produced by two Catskill filmmakers, Margo Pelletier and
Lisa Thomas. The Thin Edge Film's production, "Freeing Silvia
Baldarini," will be premiered at the Community Theater in Catskill on
Saturday at 6 p.m.
It's not a pretty story. It brings back haunting and troubling
memories of the domestic, radical movements of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
Pelletier, once jailed herself as a political activist, discussed the
making and remaking of the film. Baldarini was the national
leader of the May 19 Group (so named because the date is the
birthdays of both Ho Chi Mihn and Malcolm X), which Pelletier joined
in the late '70s while living in Park Slope in Brooklyn. She began to
attend May 19 meetings and joined its Madame Bihn Graphics
Collective, in which she was able to use her art background to
produce posters and newspapers for various leftist groups. She
eventually became a May 19 member and met Baldarini.
"I found Silvia, as an Italian, the most scientific in her
observations on American government and not full of 'leaflet talk'
like other members of the left," she said.
As part of a May 19 action to protest apartheid in South Africa,
Pelletier and others were arrested, tried and convicted for trying to
release stink bombs on the airplane of the departing South African
rugby team. "We wanted to give them the sendoff they deserved," she
said, adding that she spent six months at Riker's Island as a
Soon thereafter, the FBI came for Baldarini.
"I was working in Silvia's house the day the FBI came knocking on her
door," she recalled. Asked how she knew they were the FBI, Pelletier
said, "Well, of course I recognized them. Remember, they had also
arrested me a while before."
Almost simultaneously, Baldarini telephoned to say she had been
arrested, "jumped by eight FBI agents," on her way to the United
Nations to listen to proceedings, Pelletier said. Baldarini was
subsequently tried, convicted and sentenced to 43 years in prison for
her role in planning and carrying out the escape of Shakur, who
continues to live and teach in Cuba.
"It was an amazing victory, rectifying hundreds of years of
injustice, to free Assata," Pelletier said, further describing the
incident as almost a "supernatural act, a moment of 'people power.'"
Pelletier wrote to Baldarini in prison and suggested the film. By
that time, she had moved her artistic talents away from painting into
film. However, she had never made a film before. Serendipitously, she
met Thomas, her partner, personally, professionally and
philosophically, around that time.
"Thank God!" she said, explaining that Thomas was a film producer and
spoke fluent Italian, a talent that came in handy later in the
production process when they interviewed Italian political prisoners
and government officials.
For Thomas, who came into the picture around this time, Baldarini's
story could just not be true.
"It took a bit of research and digging into the subject matter before
I realized that Silvia and the organizations that she worked with
were, in fact, real," she said. "It was at that point that I knew the
film must be made because people like her were kept from the public
The importance of telling Baldarini's story dominated the two women's
lives for almost six years.
"It was important to tell Silvia's story because of what she
represents and because of the price that she paid to hold onto her
principles," Thomas said.
Baldarini served almost 18 years in U.S. jails. She finally was
repatriated to Italy to serve out the remainder of her sentence.
However, she developed breast cancer and Italian law does not permit
prisoners with life-threatening illnesses to remain in jail, so she
lived for a time under house arrest.
Then, due to overcrowding in Italian prisons, she was released in
2006 - just two years before her sentence would have been completed.
Baldarini's surprise early release from prison, however, caused a
crisis in making the film.
"At first, we thought we could just change the end. After four hours
of new interviews, we realized we had to remake the film," Pelletier
said. "Silvia was now a free woman and able, for the first time, to
invest her feelings in the history of her life," she said. "She
understands she has given her best years to prison."
Baldarini's story offers hope for a life beyond bars. She is well,
living in Rome, where she and her partner, Dario, a former Italian
political prisoner, own a restaurant.
"Being Silvia, she continues to organize, to work for change in the
world," Pelletier said. "She's a soldier, a revolutionary, people
whom we don't come across often. They tend to die young."
The film takes a look, not just at Baldarini's life as a
revolutionary, but also at the history of the radical movements of
those times. A statement on the film jacket perhaps describes it
best: "One country's terrorist is another country's revolutionary."
"Silvia was regarded as a hero in Italy," Pelletier said.
The producers hope the audience leaves the film struggling to find
the answer to the question the film inherently poses: Who are the
terrorists and who are the freedom fighters?
"We want people to come out of the film with a sense of hope. There
was a sense in the '60s and '70s that people really had power to
change the policies of government and I don't think people have felt
that way for a long time. We hope our film sparks that feeling of
'people power' again," Thomas said.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: The documentary "Freeing Silvia Baraldini"
WHEN: 6 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Community Theatre, 373 Main St., Catskill.
DETAILS: The filmmakers will be in attendance.
HOW MUCH: $7, $4 for children
CALL: (518) 943-4871