An Interview With Hrag Yedalian

By Khatchig Mouradian

August 4, 2007

The Director of ‘The People’s Advocate’ Talks about his Debut Film

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. In this phone-interview,
conducted on July 30, he said, "[Garry’s] opening and closing
statements often include reference to his own people."

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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