While documentaries possess a skill of capturing a moment in time, 'The Boys Who Said No!' feels more relevant today than it would have ever felt during production. 2020 will go down in history as a year to remember, for the good, the bad and the ugly, but as this feature presents, it's when one steps out of the pages of history that people can pave a way for real change.
'The Boys Who Said No!' documents the resistance movement towards the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War, when drafting to the military was compulsory, and refusal could lead to prison time for up to five years. This was the largest refusal movement in American history and saw over 500,000 men resist the pledge to the military. But what was so important about this resistance movement was that through it all, it was completely non-violent - a revolution built on values, not guns.
The director, Judith Ehrlich, is no stranger to such films. Her Oscar-nominated documentary 'The Most Dangerous Man in America' chronicles the story of Daniel Ellsberg - also interviewed for this piece - who investigated and eventually leaked the Pentagon Papers. In a not-too-dissimilar fashion, her latest documentary, 'The Boys Who Said No!', follows the story of "The Resistance", the anti-draft movement based on Ghandi's teachings of non-violent action, and the couple who most publicly embodied those principles, Joan Baez and David Harris.
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Muhammed Ali may have made the resistance front page news, and the messianic-like speeches from Martin Luther King Jr are still being studied today, but it all stemmed from Harris, who felt an overwhelming moral responsibility to confront what was happening and take action. The impact of Ali and Dr King are of course important, and they are rewarded with ample feature time, but if nothing else it shows how bravery and courage are contagious, because whilst it might seem common practise today, standing up to your government and marching for peace had never been seen on that scale before. It's truly outstanding to see the hope birthed from such anger, and it's a lesson learned from and exercised all over the world today.
The famous photos of people putting flowers in the gun barrels of the riot police is an image projected and seen many times over, but what 'The Boys Who Said No!' is able to do is not only show how something like this came about, but why it is so important. It was not just long-haired, bare-footed hippies standing up for themselves - it was nuns, musicians, and civil rights activists who all represented different arms of the movement.
This, for me, is the major take away from 'The Boys Who Said No!', because this is a microcosm of what it means to actually manifest social change. The idea is that you don't have to be Martin Luther King Jr or Ghandi, but that each individual can band together to make a difference - and most importantly, force change with non-violence. This movement in the late 1960s even inspired the release of the aforementioned Pentagon Papers, because these men become symbols. Once the resisters were willing to go to prison for their beliefs, loudly and proudly, then why shouldn't the government be put on trial and the public do whatever they can to stop an unjust war?
The idea is that you don't have to be Martin Luther King Jr or Ghandi, but that each individual can band together to make a difference - and most importantly, force change with non-violence.
Stories of the Vietnam War are plentiful, and there are many brilliant films depicting the traumas, but what 'The Boys Who Said No!' does is show that the powers who stopped the war - those who brought everyone home and stopped the killing - were in fact the people who stayed home. Spike Lee has become a master of mirroring his stories to current crisis, and Ehrlich does just that by showing all the peaceful protests going on now throughout the world at the end of the film. What separates these images from the news reel footage is that now you know what it can do, so that it suddenly moves you and it feels like a much more tangible goal. Successful resistance doesn't have to be violent, and social change can start from the smallest of acts.
An interesting, thought-provoking and ultimately challenging film, 'The Boys Who Said No!' is not to be missed. Although it felt laboured at times, the message shines through strong enough that it doesn't detract from Ehrlich's goal - that standing up for what you believe in can have a transformative effect on your surroundings. The story itself was not entirely gripping, and it re-used a lot of footage seen elsewhere, but what stands this film in good stead is the inherent values of social change, and how hopefully this film will now debut in a rehabilitated world.