The title card for "The Anarchist Lunch."
The title card for "The Anarchist Lunch." Credit: The Anarchist Lunch Credit: The Anarchist Lunch

In the opening scenes of a remarkable new documentary,  a group of old men shuffle down the sidewalk one by one and laboriously climb the steps to a Vancouver Chinese restaurant. The soundtrack rings out a rousing instrumental of The Internationale. These elders of  Vancouver’s  left intelligentsia  are the members of the film’s eponymous Anarchist Lunch group. This group of left-wing intellectuals, many of them associated with the University of BC, met regularly for Chinese food and conversation for over three decades. The filmmaker Rachel Epstein, daughter of one of the group’s founders, Norman Epstein, has made a remarkably charming and inspiring documentary about these men and the personal and political bonds they created and nourished over the decades.

In the documentary, we get warm, intimate glimpses of these men and their collegial solidarity. Like most elders, they compare notes on their health and talk about their families, but most of the conversation is about the current events and politics that have dominated their lives. Norman, for example, helped found the League for Total Disarmament and was a life-long peace activist. Together with Fred Stockholder, another founding member of the lunch group, Epstein helped found the BC Civil Liberties Association in the early 1960s. Epstein was an enthusiastic singer and late into his remarkably extended and accomplished life he sang with the Solidarity Notes Choir, a choral group dedicated to supporting worker struggles. Typical of the diversity of views around the lunch table, one funny scene in the film features members discussing their various names for the group, ranging from the Anarchist Lunch to DOG( Dithering Old Geezers,) The Professor Group and ROMEO ( Retired Old Men Eating Out), among others.

Members of the lunch group we meet in the documentary are members of several pro labour choirs and of Independent Jewish Voices, a group sharply critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians long before the current genocide in Gaza began. Another, more recent addition to the group, Ken Klonsky, campaigns with Innocence International, a group founded by Hurricane Carter, to free the wrongly imprisoned. Another, Carl Rosenberg, edited Outlook: Canada’s Progressive Jewish Magazine for years at the Peretz Centre. These guys are lifers in various progressive social movements, peace activists and supporters of labour struggles and Palestinian rights, and their time together was shaped by those shared ideals. (Full disclosure. I knew the filmmaker decades ago when she lived in Vancouver, and I have known some of the men in the Anarchist Lunch group over the years, working with several while I served on the board of the BC Civil Liberties Association.)

Told by an off-screen interviewer that the men in the lunch group considered him a leader, Epstein demurs. “I have never been a leader, “ he says. “I have always been rank and file.” This modesty from the self-identified libertarian socialist is typical of his character, but it cannot be denied that Norman Epstein was an important leader on Vancouver’s left over the decades, and in the life of the lunch group. This film is many things, but perhaps most centrally, it is a loving  and rightly respectful tribute to the filmmaker’s father.

Filming for this documentary began in 2018 and follows the men through COVID and the deaths of several members, including Epstein. We see their emotional intimacy grow as they deal with illness, accidents, pandemic rigors, and the ordinary catastrophes of old age. They even try to meet via Zoom and socially distanced in a park!

Marty Roth, one of the members who died during the film’s production, observes at one point on screen that “What progressives need to learn is to take action even when they are absolutely cynical about possibilities.”

To live up to that daunting challenge, progressives need encouragement and mentoring from earlier generations of activists. Over the past century, our movements have been attacked in repetitive cycles of red baiting and McCarthyism, and those attacks have resulted in a Left that sometimes lacks historical memory and continuity. This lovely, tender film is a reminder of how much we need to retrieve our lost history and listen to our elders. It is also a feast for the ears, featuring a lovely and unobtrusive soundtrack of progressive music. I urge every Rabble reader to check out this sweet, wonderful film. If you live in Ontario, you can access an on-line screening on June 10 and 11 here. There is a Facebook page for the film here which I am advised will be updated with information about other showings and ways to access the film.

Highly, highly recommended.

Tom Sandborn

Tom Sandborn lives and writes on unceded Indigenous territory in Vancouver. He is a widely published free lance writer who covered health policy and labour beats for the Tyee on line for a dozen years,...