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'American Anarchist' Is the Last Interview with the Guy Who Taught Us How to Make Drugs at Home

William Powell's 'The Anarchist Cookbook' offers instructions for making homemade bombs, drugs, and phreaking devices. The new documentary 'American Anarchist' confronts the author just before his death with the controversial legacy of his book.

by Kaleem Aftab
Sep 10 2016, 1:30pm

Images courtesy of director Charles Siskel.

The Anarchist Cookbook is like a boy scout's survival guide if written by Ken Kesey, Alexander Shulgin, and Tyler Durden. The 1970 text features "recipes" or guides to making homemade bombs, illegal drugs, and phreaking devices in the form of a kitchen manual. It also features illustrated diagrams, ingredient lists, and prose calling for social change and armed revolution. In the mainstream, the book gained notoriety after being discovered in the homes of mass murderers, such as the Croatian radicals who bombed Grand Central Station in 1976, Thomas Spinks, who bombed abortion clinics in the 1980s, and Colorado school shooter Karl Pierson. It has reportedly sold over two million copies.

But what about William Powell, the author of the book? He wrote The Anarchist Cookbook at age 19 during the peak of the counterculture movement to protest the Vietnam War. Years later, he worked as a teacher in Africa and Asia, and Powell distanced himself from his own work, denouncing the book on its Amazon page. It was also dropped by multiple publishing houses, and the author recently penned an op-ed for The Guardian, asking for the book to "quickly and quietly go out of print."

The book's contested legacy comes back into focus this fall thanks to Finding Vivien Maier director Charlie Siskel, whose documentary on William Powell called American Anarchist premiered out of competition at the Venice Film Festival this week. The film is not so much a documentary as an interrogation. Most of it is in the form of a talking head interview where Siskel asks Powell to recount his side of the story. But then something odd happens. Siskel starts pushing his own agenda, trying to pin Powell as responsible for the acts of violence the book may or may not have enabled, and even asks Powell whether he feels a moral guilt about the incidents. It becomes readily clear that the director's intent is not about painting a portrait of an aging man who wrote something controversial when he was 19, but rather point a finger at him and make him reckon with the accusations. At one point, the line of pointed questioning is even contested by Powell and his wife.

It's riveting to watch, but also strange, as Powell seems erudite and genuinely remorseful, yet Siskel seems determined to get some revelation to make his documentary relevant. Eventually, he gets Powell to open up about the abuse he suffered as a child, leaving the viewer more sympathetic with the film's subject than the director clearly trying to play puppet-master. That said, the on-screen antagonism, the history of The Anarchist Cookbook, and how the internet prevented Powell from escaping his past makes for an incredible film experience, even if the approach is sometimes questionable.

Unfortunately we'll never get to find out what Powell thinks of Siskel and the documentary. He died in July of this year. We did, however, talk to the director, who defended his interview tactics as a means to an end of getting the story he wanted.

Before I watched your film, I never really thought about the author of The Anarchist Cookbook.
That's how I felt, exactly. I thought about Powell when I saw his statement renouncing the book on Amazon. We included a mention of The Anarchist Cookbook in Bowling for Columbine, which I worked on, and I just found myself thinking more and more about that period and about the book.

I had always been interested in that period—the Weather Underground, Students for a Democratic Society, and the New Left—when the 60s counterculture movement turned from nonviolent peaceful process to violence with the younger generation more and more disillusioned with the politics of the old left and angry about Vietnam, and how [some of this generation] turned towards violence. Then I started wondering what would it be like to be the guy who wrote that book.

Watching the film, it seems that you came into the documentary with a set idea of the story that you wanted him to tell. At one point in the film, Powers even questions you about your own motives.
I had been thinking a lot about the Joseph Conrad book Lord Jim, and I quote that book in the film. I was very upfront with Powell about what I thought about his story and what I was interested in talking to him about. I also told him that I thought his story was a tragic one. I don't know if I used the word "haunted," but my sense was that he had written the book when he was young and that it was a youthful mistake and that he had paid a very high price for it. That was my instinct. Then we talked about the fact that I saw him as a flawed character. He was a real intellectual, so I don't think he was put off by that description.

In the film, both he and his wife tell you that you questioned him harshly.
Umm...[long pause] I feel empathy for Bill and I felt that he would be willing to look at the uncomfortable truths about his past and confront some of the uncomfortable facts—that he continued to take money from the book, that he never took his name off the book, that he had opportunities to speak out more about the book. I sensed that he would be willing to do that, and I was empathetic to him, and I was on his side.

It is a difficult thing to do, and it is a human story. We all have things about our past that are uncomfortable, things that are easier to ignore than to confront, but I did know that it wouldn't come easily. I thought he would be a reluctant witness, so to speak, and that it would take some prodding and pushing to get him to talk about some of the stuff. I had to do that, to press him about his actions, his inactions, about the story that he had grown comfortable in telling, and to also try to point out some problems with his story.

Do you feel that you manipulated him?
It's such a loaded word. I don't think so because, again, he invited me to interview him. He knew the story what I was interested in telling. I was very upfront with him about that and it's clear in the film.

But at times it seems like you don't believe his testimony?
During one of the early moments in the interview process, I was genuinely surprised to hear that he had not read the book since he wrote it, and that he did not own a copy of it. I brought a copy with me, not because I thought that he hadn't read it, but because I wanted to film him reading part of the book as part of the storytelling. I didn't know that he was going to say that he hadn't read the book, and I still don't know if I believe if that's true. As I say, I was up front with Bill about the story that I wanted to tell. So no, I don't think I manipulated him, but I know that is a word that gets thrown about a lot in a documentary context.

So why do you repeat the same question about his moral guilt to him throughout the documentary?
He was trying to spin it as something that is different from what it is. He starts off by saying that the book does not advocate violence, and then when confronted with some of the words in the book, he says well, "OK, that's just over the top rhetoric." Then he reads some more and then finally admits that [the book] is a call to action, to violence. He had a long time to think about those things, and so I think that he was having a hard time admitting to me, or on camera, or to himself, that he had thought about these things and was ready to admit that the book had caused all these harms, or that the book did advocate violence.

In the 1970s, there were the Weather Underground bombings. For it to never have occurred to you that the book might have been used to commit crimes seems implausible. The book, in the early 1990s, was used to blackmail him, as he describes it. It is an infamous book, but what made the book infamous? The fact that it has been used in these other ways [by criminals].

For more on 'The Anarchist Cookbook,' watch our doc on the controversial book:

Don't you think the internet would have made the information that was available in the book, available in any case?
Yes. If Powell didn't write the book, then this information would still have been out there in many ways. It was already out there in the public domain. Look at where he got it from... He got it in military manuals at the public library. The Weather Underground figured out how to make bombs without using Bill's book, presumably the same way that he did, with military manuals. I don't think that the movie, nor I, would not want to suggest that the book was somehow the cause of any of these acts of violence. There was something universal in his story that we can all relate to, and one thing in particular is that young people do stupid things. Today, a lot of people do stupid things on the internet, and they are publicly paying a price for things.

Why do you think Powell decided that you were the right person to tell the story? Do you think he knew he was about to die?
I don't think so. I do believe he was in reasonable health. I think his death was unexpected. He was reflecting back on his life and he was working on a memoir and so it was all about the right timing for him.. And in terms of choosing to work with me: I asked, and I don't know if any one else did.

But in the film, you say he had many requests to talk?
That's true. But I don't know if there was anyone asking to make a documentary film about him.

You reveal that Powell suffered abuse as a child quite late in the documentary. Why did you you not include those details when talking about his upbringing earlier in the film?
Why do you think? That's an editorial choice, obviously. I hate to say this, but I did a very similar thing in Finding Vivian Maier. I feel like mentioning it early is like loading the deck in some weird way. I feel like [a reveal like this is] not earned on some level in the beginning, and that you don't know the person at the start. It will not mean something unless we've gotten to know the person of whom you are learning these sad things.

Do you think that the story of the abuse is true, or was he trying to get sympathy?
Oh, that's a good question. He doesn't identify who did it, but I do think that he's telling the truth. Yes, I do, because he doesn't have to lie about that. There is no shame in having been abused and it's obviously very important that survivors of abuse talk about it.

In the film, you show a lot of kids making the recipes into bombs. It's a pretty funny sequence.
It's terrifying. Sadly a good percentage of internet content is kids doing stupid things. I want people to be shocked by it and worried by it. There is also something funny about it and irresponsible. That is what young people do. Being young is the time to do stupid things.

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Visit the film's website to learn more about 'American Anarchist.'