LOS ANGELES, Nov. 19 (UPI) -- A new documentary combines contemporary interviews and archival footage to present a new take on the kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst and the emotional rollercoaster ride that the incident put many Americans through three decades ago.
"Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst," directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Robert Stone ("Radio Bikini"), follows the founding and growth of a loose organization of domestic terrorists calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army. The group gained its greatest fame -- or infamy -- by kidnapping Hearst in February 1974 and issuing ransom demands that included massive deliveries of free food to poor people in the San Francisco Bay area.
The demands were typically issued in the form of communiqués, often recorded on audiotape and delivered to radio stations. That method of delivering the messages, and the militant rhetoric of the SLA, made an impression on the American public, which largely came to see the SLA as a serious and significant threat to domestic security.
That was the first that most Americans had heard of the SLA, but Bay-area police knew the organization for its involvement in several murders and other violent crimes -- including the killing of an Oakland superintendent of schools.
The SLA began life as a small group led by Donald DeFreeze, who escaped from Soledad State Prison in March 1973 and adopted the name of Field Marshal Cinque. Along the way he partnered with future SLA members Willie Wolfe, Russ Little, Patricia Soltysik, William Harris and Emily Harris.
In May 1974 hundreds of officers from the Los Angeles Police Department, the FBI, the California Highway Patrol and the Los Angeles Fire Department surrounded a house in Los Angeles where several members of the SLA had been living. During the confrontation the house caught fire and those inside traded gunfire with police.
The conflagration ended with six SLA members dead -- including DeFreeze, Soltysik and Wolfe.
Police recovered Hearst in September 1975. During her captivity the heiress had adopted her own SLA name -- Tania -- and had been involved in a highly publicized bank robbery with the SLA. During her trial Hearst's lawyers argued that she had been brainwashed during her captivity -- a victim of what some psychiatrists had termed the Stockholm syndrome, in which hostages begin to sympathize with their captors.
Stone told United Press International he thought the members of the SLA were brainwashed as well -- by one another.
"They really got lost in a complete fantasy," he said, "and got completely divorced from reality."
Although the SLA is widely regarded as a terrorist organization with a political agenda, Stone said the group was really a cult.
"After the shootout, when other members joined up, they did not send communiqués and tapes to the media," he said. "They saw the shortcomings of that. The kidnapping of Patty Hearst got them into a situation that they never planned on doing."
The tapes issued by the SLA, and the extensive media coverage of the case, generated ample source material for the documentary -- but Stone said it took a bit of luck to gain access to a good bit of the original news footage.
"Most of the news stations in those days, shortly after this happened, they converted from film to videotape -- and they trashed their collections, threw them into dumpsters," he said.
Stone found a man who had worked at a San Francisco TV station -- a station Stone said had the best and the most extensive Hearst kidnapping footage -- and had retrieved it from the trash bin.
"He hauled it out of a dumpster and sat on it for 30 years," said Stone.
The movie includes footage of the key moments in the story. It has the first public appearances by Hearst's mother and father and her fiancé Steven Weed following her kidnapping, as well as a running account of Randolph Hearst's public appeals to the SLA to release his daughter. It also includes Hearst's meeting with reporters upon her release from prison. She had served nearly two years of a seven-year prison term when President Jimmy Carter commuted her sentence.
Stone said he did not pursue an interview with Patty Hearst for his movie.
"No, I never wanted her to be in the film from day one," he said. "I don't think she's a good witness to her own story. She's come to an understanding of what happened to her that allows her to live a balanced life, and she's remarkably well-adjusted."
Stone said he doubted that talking to Hearst would shed any light on the story he wanted to tell -- about the SLA, which managed to terrorize a nation even though it never had more than a dozen or so members.
"The way that this story has always been perceived is purely in terms of the drama of Patty Hearst," he said. "It eclipsed the greater analysis of what was going on there."
Stone's movie shows the SLA capturing America's attention by virtually hijacking the media.
"You see news really morphing into mass entertainment," he said. "They were giving us what we want."
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