Until now, the search for anthrax has been marked by its catastrophic impact — anthrax-laced letters killed 10 people and sickened 17, with most cases traced to waste sites around the United States. But as the attacks were happening, time lost is invisible, and unlike us, even the FBI has had trouble finding remnants. The Late Harvest (Prisxi, out now on Amazon), director Robbie Pickering’s investigation of the anthrax attacks, uncovers that the disaster occurred in the late 1990s — when anthrax is like clockwork, to those who know it. But that only makes the cleanup and the lack of an investigation all the more baffling.
Pickering works as an investigative reporter, which makes her approach feel more thorough than most documentaries. But she loses something by juggling the story through multiple profiles of each affected family and family friend. Chief among the gaping hole: there is very little telling of the wider circle of families who were affected. The one thing that strikes one as a factor is the profoundness of their own loss. Time feels like both a parent’s and a child’s loss, with life outrunning mourning.
Pickering turns, through interviews, to Jules Kroll, who was an independent producer at CNN when he heard about the anthrax incident. He and others went to New York in search of a fix. They had first tried to make their own films, which would be stories about surviving: stories of why Kroll didn’t want to call his dead daughter’s father, stories of the trauma of living with their dead spouses. All were short.
He and others formed The Critical Perspective Foundation. Pickering identifies the victims as collateral damage of the extremely secretive investigation. The foundation, and its partners, undertook a project based largely on interviews, archival footage and emails with families. One member of the supporting group was a writer who named his startup: Xanthos News. As described by Pickering, it was born out of the idea that a true source of news would be to become the first to discover what’s true. In a way, Xanthos’s origins represent what mistakes were made in the investigation — the weak organizing principle of itself and the collective guilt (shared by the authorities in its co-creation) that made its mission ineffective. The truth doesn’t always turn out to be settled in court.
But the seeds are there in the interviews: that the anthrax attacks are what to expect when people do not abide by protocol — a matter of how bad you really want to get when you live on a list that grows faster than air.
To the right: Jonathan Viner, from The Late Harvest. Get it on Amazon!