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Film

One Thousand Pictures: RFK's Last Journey

The film draws connections between these many experiences, as Kennedy's speeches, his hopes for the future, sound gorgeously over the pictures of people who missed him.

One Thousand Pictures: RFK's Last Journey

Director: Jennifer Stoddart
Cast: Paul Fusco, Frank Mankiewicz
Rated: NR
Studio: HBO Documentary Films
Year: 2010
US date: 2011-06-08 (HBO2)
Website
Trailer

When Bobby Kennedy was killed, people mourned. And when the funeral train passed through towns en route from New York to Washington DC, people gathered alongside the tracks. They stood at attention, they waved, they cried. Many saluted. And one man caught on fire.

As Joe Fausti tells his story in One Thousand Pictures: RFK's Last Journey --premiering on HBO2 on 8 June -- he's briefly surprised to note that it was "already over 40 years ago." The day that Kennedy's funeral train passed through Trenton, New Jersey on its way from New York to Washington, DC, Fausti was 18 years old. He and some friends gathered to pay their respect, he recalls, and as he raised his hand to wave at a helicopter overhead, he caught it on a high-tension power line, some 35.000 volts. "I burst into flames," he says, "The electricity entered my hand, went through my body, and exited through my left ankle." People nearby wrapped him in jackets and shirts, suffocating the flames. "It still gives me goosebumps," he says, remembering the skin grafts and pain he endured. "I could have died that day."

Fausti's story is extraordinary, one moment of it recorded in a photo of his body, blackened and collapsed on the ground. His story is s also one of many collected for Jennifer Stoddart's documentary, which takes its title and premise from the photographs made by Paul Fusco during the funeral train's 225-mile journey. Most of these photos show people alongside the railroad tracks. Their reactions are varied, though most often, their faces look stricken, tearful or anguished, stoic or horrified. The film reminds you, as well, of what images can do, how they can single out or even create an instant of meaning, and then how they might be lost or found, again. As much as One Thousand Pictures is about this particular event, its gravity and its precision, it is also about how meaning is made, forgotten, and rediscovered.

The people are of all ages, men and women, black and white. Sedrick Robinson was a boy at the time, in Philadelphia, "A highly segregated city at the time." As he sees himself standing amid a mixed crowd, clumps of white people standing near clumps of black people, he says, "These memories brought back no hope, no food, going to school with no lunch." He remembers his friends who didn't survive their encounters with drugs and violence, and he adds, "I was just one who indulged in it. It was just a blessing from God how I got out of it."

Robinson's story is echoed by Vanessa Chambers, who spots herself on the platform, a few people away from a boy named Tootie. "We used to go together at that time," she remembers, "He was a vey sweet guy, very quiet" They had a child together, she says, as you look on their faces on that day, so incredibly young. "Tootie was killed in a car," she continues when the camera cuts to her face. "I'm not really sure of all the circumstances, but I know he was shot in the chest and he died on the way to the hospital." Remarkably, she adds, "This is the only picture with both of us in it, just like you're frozen in time."

It's striking, of course, that her life story is so closely tied to the photo of that day, a chance image. Her memory of the event, like those of everyone who speaks for the film, is framed by her experience, what she saw and what happened to her afterwards. Kennedy's press secretary at the time he was killed, Frank Mankiewicz was traveling on the train, and so his perspective takes a different shape, not captured in one photo. He speaks to another context, still limited in its own way. "I don’t know whose decision it was," he says. "Why by train? I don’t know, perhaps to dramatize, to make sure Americans understood how important and how devastating this event was in American history." Before you can wonder how he wouldn't anticipate that "Americans" already knew this, he goes on, "I had no idea people would gather or stand by the side of the train as it went by."

As Mankiewicz rode the train, passing the people who gathered, he could have no notion of what they felt or how they lived, any more than citizens of Elizabeth, NJ -- say, Joe Sciscione, who held a baton and wore a uniform, or Richard and John Curia, whose parents were killed by another train on that day -- could know what happened in Princeton Junction, as Paul Kettler watched the train with his mother, both still mourning he loss of his father, who died two years earlier. These disparate memories can only be hinted at in the photos.

And yet, the film draws connections between these many experiences, as Kennedy's speeches, his hopes for the future, sound gorgeously over the pictures of people who missed him. "It was the end of something that hardly even began," says Charlie Maurone, now, still visibly moved. A Democratic party chairman in Pennsylvania in 1968, he was impressed by the candidate's "new vision." And then, Maurone sighs, "He was gone, like his brother was gone."

One Thousand Pictures remembers that passing, remembers a time of devastation and also, a time of deep and abiding respect, a sense of legacy and loss. It's hard not to compare this moment of quiet, sorrowful and solemn (self-)contemplation with the seemingly relentless cycles and fragmentations of today, the cynical, sad, still divided and still yearning United States.

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