“When did you ever feel like you would be happy to see children burning books?” asks a gleeful Nathan Freeman over images of his kids tearing up tomes and throwing them into a beach bonfire at the beginning of Blumhouse Television’s The Anarchists. For most, the answer will likely be: never! Even those embracing an anti-establishment lifestyle, however, achieve little lasting joy in director Todd Schramke’s six-part HBO docuseries (July 10), which focuses on an annual event known as Anarchapulco—held, as its title implies, in Acapulco, Mexico—that brings together men and women who object to governments and their corrupt, authoritarian rules and social norms. It’s a fascinating portrait of against-the-grain dissenters and their pipe dreams of true freedom, commencing with promise and concluding with the age-old lesson that you should be careful what you wish for.
Launched in 2015 by entrepreneur Jeff Berwick, Anarchapulco started as a makeshift conference attended by a few hundred people and orchestrated without a real structure—a tack befitting a get-together founded on ideals of autonomy and decentralization. Berwick differentiates his ideology from the more traditional view of anarchy (i.e. violent insurgence) by explaining that he and his Ron Paul-venerating compatriots share a core conviction about the unjustness of taxation and the villainy of central banking. To them, anyone buying into the global paradigm of “statism” is a sheeple, and the sole way out is to band together to form a new community predicated on unfettered thought and action. Thus, in more than one archival clip, Nathan makes it a point to performatively laugh at the word “allowed,” since it runs counter to this movement’s guiding ethos.
Nathan and his wife Lisa moved to Acapulco after the inaugural 2015 Anarchapulco, whose creator Berwick embraced anarchism following his introduction to G. Edward Griffin’s anti-Federal Reserve book The Creature from Jekyll Island. Berwick comes across as a hedonist with a lot of faux-big ideas and not much in the way of nuanced thinking in The Anarchists, and sights of him being drunk on stage and rapping at nightclub parties only enhance this notion. Nonetheless, Berwick tapped into a revolutionary sentiment felt by marginalized and screwed-up individuals who were angry at the world. Moreover, he was shrewd enough to recognize the disruptive anarchist potential of cryptocurrency, and bitcoin in particular, and when that market took off in late 2017, so too did Anarchapulco, drawing in thousands of new attendees and becoming a trendy meeting place for those looking to shake up the status quo.
Director Schramke documents Anarchapulco from its inception, thereby making The Anarchists a comprehensive overview of the event’s rise to prominence. It’s also, simultaneously, an in-depth snapshot of the personalities who dominate its south-of-the-border scene, led by not only Berwick and the Freemans, but by Lily Forester and her boyfriend John Galton, a pair of dreadlocked “anarcho-capitalist” potheads who wound up in Acapulco after fleeing the United States because of an arrest on drug charges that would have netted them up to 25 years behind bars. The two fugitives broadcast their story (detailed in a 2019 Daily Beast piece by Kelly Weill that’s briefly highlighted in the docuseries) on social media, and they soon became local celebrities due to their adherence to an anarchist standard far stricter than the one they believed was being promoted by Anarchapulco.
Populated by interviews with Berwick, Lisa Freeman, Lily Forester, and Lily’s close friend Jason Henza (who forced his wife to join him for Anarchapulco and was then left by her after she shacked up with a crypto-bro residing in a Mexican mansion), The Anarchists employs first-hand accounts, archival material and occasional hand-drawn illustrations to explicate the sordid mess that ensued, culminating with a gunman attack that left Galton dead and Henza clinging to life. Rumors flew that cartel assassins were behind the murder, and the series strongly suggests that those criminals may have been connected to Paul Propert. A military vet with severe PTSD, Propert originally travelled to Anarchapulco in a small yellow school bus in order to deliver a cryptocurrency, ATM (which, predictably, never worked), and he quickly became the unhinged fly in the wannabe-idyllic anarchist ointment. Once Forester pointed the finger at Propert for Galton’s death, he responded by posting online death threats to Henza, all as Berwick tried to turn Anarchapulco into a grander phenomenon by firing loyal and dedicated conference director Nathan.
Once Forester pointed the finger at Propert for Galton’s death, he responded by posting online death threats to Henza, all as Berwick tried to turn Anarchapulco into a grander phenomenon by firing loyal and dedicated conference director Nathan.
Chaos followed, which should have been right up these anarchists’ alley, and yet The Anarchists features quite a lot of doom-and-gloom lamentations about Anarchapulco’s devolution in the wake of Nathan’s departure and Propert’s lunatic behavior. The fact that none of these outsiders could turn to the police—or each other—for assistance in times of dire need renders their tale the epitome of the maxim, “You’ve made your bed, now lie in it.” Though Forester eventually comes around to recognizing the downside of living a truly “free” anarchist life—an unsurprising epiphany considering her days and nights were wracked with grief and fear over impending murder—she’s one of the few. The overarching impression left is one of scattered, alienated loners finding a community for their out-there views via the internet, only to realize that perhaps such ideas aren’t as practical as they wanted them to be, especially in a city like Acapulco where—no matter Berwick’s comforting claims—crime was rampant and safety was anything but guaranteed.
Suicides, the bitcoin crash of 2018 and cryptocurrency Ponzi-scheme scandals all prove a part of The Anarchists’ cookbook, with Schramke evoking the early enthusiasm of Anarchapulco and, afterward, a more sobering reality about the danger of casting aside all social structures. Like so many docuseries before it, this six-installment affair is unnecessarily prolonged in its momentum-challenged back half. Nonetheless, it accurately pinpoints its subjects as individuals linked by trauma and anger born from unhappy childhoods and dysfunctional familial dynamics. The sad irony of Schramke’s non-fiction series, consequently, is that it resonates as a story about disparate damaged people who chose to cope with the gaping holes in their lives by further rejecting the world and everything it stands for, rather than filling those voids with the very communal things (togetherness, trust, selflessness, order) that matter most.