Thursday, August 2, 2007

An Interview with Hrag Yedalian

An Interview with Hrag Yedalian
The Director of ‘The People’s Advocate’ Talks about His Debut Film
By Khatchig Mouradian

The Armenian Weekly
August 4, 2007

Criminal defense and civil rights attorney Charles R. Garry is associated with numerous high profile cases in the ‘60s, making him one of the leading attorneys of the 20th century. In his career, which abruptly came to an end when one of his clients, Rev. Jim Jones, led 900 of his followers to mass suicide, Garry defended Black Panther Party chairman Bobby Seale and the anti-Vietnam war activists known as the Oakland 7, among others. He died in 1991, at the age of 82.

In his autobiography Seize the Time Bobby Seale wrote, “We don’t know every detail of Charles’ life, but we can see that he is a man who is dedicated to the survival and the existence of the right to self-determination of human beings. We need a lot more history on Charles R. Garry so we can understand what motivates a man to be such a defender of the people’s human rights.” In the documentary The People’s Advocate: The Life and Times of Charles R. Garry, director Hrag Yedalian attempts to find out what motivated the Armenian-born Garry (Garabedian) to embark on that road.

Yedalian studies film at the American Film Institute Conservatory. The people’s advocate is his first documentary. This phone-interview was conducted on July 30.

K.M.—Why did you decide to do a documentary on Charles Garry?
H.Y.—I was this young person trying to get involved with different causes and all of that was pretty much motivated by my origin, by the fact that my grandfather was a survivor of the genocide. I wanted to take that motivation and channel it in a positive way. And quite frankly, I was born in the U.S, I grew up in the U.S., I went to school here. It’s pretty important for me to get involved with what’s going on here. Charles Garry’s story was fascinating for a number of reasons. Despite the fact that he was probably one of the most sought after civil rights attorneys during the ‘60s, here was this guy of Armenian descent, and he was defending all these people who were seen as the poster boys and girls for the “Revolution.” I wanted to look into the story but most importantly, I want to use the story as an example.
As an AYF member, I used to interact with literally dozens if not hundreds of youth my age, and I wanted them to see that in addition to Genocide recognition, there are so many profound issues that affect us. I felt that Garry’s example would serve as a positive influence. Garry was an individual of Armenian descent who went out of his way, became an attorney and defended human rights.
I’m sure Garry has been criticized for changing his name, etc. I’m sure Armenians of the time felt that he wasn’t “Armenian enough.” But if you look into his trial transcripts of any of the Panther cases, or any of the anti-Vietnam war cases, his opening and closing statements often include reference to his own people. When defending the oppressed, his essential argument for the jury was: These people are being oppressed, segregated in this country today. Throughout history, we’ve seen what has happened to, for example, the Armenian people, and we can’t allow our government to be oppressive in the same ways that other governments have been in the past. And that was his main thrust, that was the central focus, and he understood it. So addition to being an Armenian who was discriminated against in the Fresno area, he lived through the Depression, he knew how difficult it is for the poor to get by in the U.S. So it was the dynamic of all this that attracted me to his story and I really wanted to present it to the public in general and people my age in particular.

K.M.—Talk about the sources you used.
H.Y.—At Berkley, I took this history class titled “Rethinking the Sixties.” The purpose of the class was to work on a substantial paper that dealt with any topic of the ‘60s. After the first class I was already thinking of Charles Garry. I approached the Professor and told him that I’m very interested in writing about Garry, but because there isn’t a lot of printed material I want to go and interview people. After she gave me the OK, I called Roxanne and asked for her advice. She e-mailed me the contact information of people she had spoken to and interacted with, and that’s where it started. I started talking to people.
Roxanne had the benefit of dealing directly with Garry. I never had that benefit because Gary passed away in 1991. So I had to tell a story about Gary without Gary, basically. Obviously the best way to do that was to interview the people who were closest to him. So if you see the interviewee list, it includes everyone from, let’s say, Bobby Seal, the co-founder of the Panthers, to his longtime girlfriend, to his two brothers, who both passed away since. So you have all this oral testimony that’s actually quite fascinating. I wanted to intentionally make a film that was not the duplicate of Roxanne’s film. At the end, I wanted for someone who was really interested in Garry to get different pieces from each of the movies. The only interviewee that appears in both is Bobby Seal.
In addition to that, the main sources come from the archival footage that I found from local television stations in San Francisco. That’s where the gold was. I think I’ve used archival footage from at least six or seven sources if not more. Also, an important part of the film was Garry’s legal documents; they are all at UC Berkley and I spent a few months going through them. There are copies of paperwork and legal files that I was fortunate enough to obtain and go over. So it’s really the mix of four or five different types of sources in the film.

K.M.—Can you tell us briefly about your background? You mentioned your work in the AYF, but give us a more general background, your education, etc.
H.Y.—Well I went to two Armenian private schools. After I graduated from high school, what I really wanted to do was get firmly involved in the political process. During high school and after, I was involved with local political campaigns here in Los Angeles to get people registered to vote. I was fortunate enough to be a part of that process. And as I got more and more immersed, I decided to sort of take a different route. I got interested in organizational work, in international human rights work, and I wanted to go to law school so that I could try to do similar things. Garry’s a good example of what civil rights/human rights attorneys can do with their careers. After graduating Berkley, I started law school. I registered at UCLA Law, but a few weeks into it, because I was so involved with this documentary, I decided that it wasn’t the route to go. So I left law school for film school, and that’s sort of the route that I’ve decided on at this point—making films and hopefully trying to influence a few people through that work.

K.M.—So you’re still studying?
H.Y.—I’m still studying, yes. I’m going to start my second year in September.

K.M.—Let’s talk about the people you interviewed. Can you tell us how you made the selection, and about your experiences with interviewees like Howard Zinn?
H.Y.—To be in my position and to talk to these people was sort of an unreal experience because most of them are people who have influenced history. To have the privilege to talk to these people was a big deal for me.
You mentioned Howard Zinn. I’ll start with him. I’ve always been fascinated with his work, and I called him and told him that I was looking for a narrator for a film on Garry and whether he would be interested. Immediately, without hesitation—and I was actually shocked by it—he said he would definitely be interested in doing that.
I caught him at a very busy time in his life. He was going across the country, and if he was to do the narration, he would have had to spend a lot of time writing it. So we agreed to take a different route: He would be in the film, and he would provide the historic context. So, for example, when we’re talking about the anti-communist hunts during the 1950’s or the Vietnam War, he provides a brief context. There are four Panthers in the movie. There’s Bobby Seal, who was an obvious choice, and the other three are very interesting and important choices. One has to realize that although Charles Garry was defending Bobby Seal or others in court, he wasn’t constantly interacting with them because these were men in prison. He would visit them but he wasn’t interacting with them on a constant basis. He was interacting with the other people involved in the party. In fact, he was probably closest to David Hilliard, who was the chief of staff of the Panther Party. David talks about this on the phone. He and Charles Garry, they were partners during the late ‘60s. They would go around college campuses and David would represent the party, and Garry would talk about the legal aspects. And they would literally go on tours and raise money for these causes and talk about these cases. And then there is Ericka Huggins, who is an extremely sensitive person and truly admired Garry. I also interviewed Kathleen Cleaver because she knew the party inside and out, and she was very active with the first Panther trial. In addition to knowing Garry pretty well, she provides the historic background to most of these cases. Most of the interviewees were incredibly generous in lending their time and support to the film.

K.M.—Talk about Garry’s brothers, Harvey and Haig Garabedian.
H.Y.—Actually, the first interview I conducted was with both of the brothers in 2003. They were living in Fresno and I called them up, and we basically developed this friendship, and they would talk literally for hours.
They definitely didn’t know the details about, let’s say, his involvement with the Panthers, or his decision to take on this case or that case. They didn’t know any of that. What they did know, was about their roots, what Garry was going through as a child growing up in Fresno... That was the most important part.
Unfortunately, the brothers never saw my film. In fact, I don’t think Garry ever saw the final cut of Roxanne’s film, so it’s pretty unfortunate actually.

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