DRAFT OF NEWSREEL/THIRD
WORLD NEWSREEL ARTICLE
FOR YAMAGATA FILM FESTIVAL
by Christine Choy
Newsreel, the prolific, in-your-face, agit-prop filmmaker's collective
that emerged out of the turbulence of the 1960s, was one of the American
New Left's most potent consciousness-raising tools, a veritable Celluloid
Vanguard that its cadres hoped would usher in a brave new world of
people's democracy. With an image of a machine gun spitting out its
logo, Newsreel films were militant and confrontational: at the opposite
pole from the syrupy Hollywood feature. In the years before television,
the documentary newsreel occupied quite a different place in American
popular culture, with millions of moviegoers afforded a once-a-week
glimpse at world and national news via the newsreel trailers that
accompanied feature films and cartoons at neighborhood movie houses
from coast to coast. During World War II, the newsreels even served
as unofficial propaganda vehicles, showing American troops triumphing
in Europe or the Pacific. Always narrated by male baritone voices
with an unmistakeable undertone of "truth, justice, and the American
way," the newsreels of the 1930s and 1940s reinforced the view
that all was right with America.
The Newsreel that I joined in 1971 was at the opposite pole of this pollyannish world-view. Newsreel (with a capital N) burst onto the media scene in 1967 during a time when American complacency was being shaken to the core by the Vietnam war, urban unrest, and a youth culture that trusted no one over 30. So what if the grainy, black-and-white footage would never make it to Hollywood: It was the message--not the medium--that mattered. These were, after all, noble and self-righteous documentaries that would change the course of history. Besides, they were irking the system big time, no mean accomplishment in a climate when the FBI was infiltrating many countercultural and antiwar organizations.
According to Norman Fruchter, an early Newsreel participant who
in 2003 heads the Institute for Education and Social Policy at New
York University, Newsreel got its start during the marathon demonstrations
at the Pentagon in 1967. Such cineactivists as Marvin Fishman and
Jonas Mekas (now head of the Anthology Film Archives in New York)
persuaded symphatetic filmmakers to pool their footage and come together
as a collective to lend greater clout to their creative efforts. With
the release of that Pentagon film, titled "No Game," Newsreel
was born. About three or four dozen filmmakers were then participating
in the group, which incorporated under the umbrella name of Camera
News Inc. and was bankrolled in part by some left-leaning families
whose flower children were eager members of the collective. Chapters
popped up all across the country: in New York, Boston, Washington,
Los Angeles, San Francisco, Detroit, and Vermont.
One of the most unwavering of the early Newsreel activists has been
Roz Payne, who since 1972 has maintained a film, photo, and document
archive and distribution facility in Vermont, where she and other
filmmakers continue to create video documentaries. She teaches at
Burlington College and is at present shooting a history of the retired
FBI agents who worked in COINTELPRO against Don Cox, an exiled Black
Panther, and Marilyn Buck, the white woman who was a major supporter.
Roz Payne's website (www.newsreel.us), which archives dozens of Newsreel's
offerings, is a valuable resource of the collective's past and present
history. When she joined Newsreel in the late 1960s (in those days
there were only four mainstream networks: ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS)
it was with the sense that these establishment news organizations
could not be counted upon to present an unbiased version of current
events. At Newsreel, it was taken for granted that these media outlets
were part of the
"Military/Industrial Complex" and could be trusted to do
nothing more than maximizing a profit for corporate America and brainwashing
the public with reportage that supported the status quo. Roz Payne
says, "The only news we saw was on TV and we knew who owned the stations.
We decided to make films that would show another side to the news.
It was clear to us that the established forms of media were not going
to approach those subjects which threaten their very existence."
As its first post-Pentagon offering, Newsreel Boston made "The
Boston Draft Resistance Group" early in 1968 about Noam Chomsky
and a bunch of antiwar actvisits. Flush with its early enthusiasm,
Newsreel tried to put out a film a week during that early period.
Allan Siegel and others started working on "Summer of '68,"
a film about the efforts to disrupt the Democratic Convention in Chicago
that August. The following year, Norman Fruchter, Robert Kramer, and
John Douglas went to North Vietnam at the invitation of Ho Chi Minh's
government to make "People's War," a film that documented
the impact of the American bombing sorties. They were disappointed
in not being able to capture Ho himself on film, due to the venerable
leader's growing invalidism.
Like many countercultural organizations of the era, Newsreel met in a series of basements in the East Village and Lower East Side sections of Manhattan, those familiar incubators for radical and progressive organizations. It later established more permanent office in the West 30s and 7th Avenue, near the garment district and Madison Square Garden. Each week, about thirty members of the collective got together to hash out political issues and film treatments, organizing themselves into smaller sub-groups comprised of students, women, Third Worlders and, in Roz Payne's words, "the infamous sex, drugs and party committee." And as with many countercultural activities, the commitment to a cause was not always accompanied by a commitment to organization. Roz Payne attests to the random nature of the process. "Sometimes films were made and some times not," she writes. "Most often they were made too late and did not go to the people who could use them best
In its heyday, Newsreel aimed at making two films a month and distributing
a dozen prints of each across the country, where they'd be shown on
college campuses or to meetings organized by other chapters, Often,
collective members would drive into an urban neighborhood in a blue
van loaded with projection equipment and show the film against a convenient
wall, creating an instant inner-city drive-in theater for the masses.
The hope was that these screenings would be catalysts for similar
grassroots films in the communities where they were shown. Newsreel's
output can essentially be categorized according to seven themes, according
to Bill Nichols, whose 1975 UCLA dissertation Newsreel: Documentary
Filmmaking on the American Left was published by Arno Press in 1980.
I must say at the outset that Nichols's analysis is by no means a
comprehensive account of the early days of Newsreel: he interviewed
only a few of the key players and he did not have access to important
archival material that would make his account a truly definitive study.
But it is useful to see how he categorized Newsreel films by topical
themes. These seven themes were Institutional Oppression--antiwar
films about Vietnam, and documentaries about prison, the military,
civil rights, police oppression, urban unrest; Women's Liberation;
Ecology; Working Class Struggles; The New Left Movement; National
Liberation Struggles; and Views of Socialist Societies--Cuba, North
Vietnam, and the People's Republic of China. The number of documentaries
involving communities and people of color far exceeded those about
white working-class issues. Films about other causes, such the as
gay or lesbian movement, anti-Semitism, issues dealing with the physically
or mentally challenged, were non-existent. Third World and Asian issues
were viewed through the lens of white male privilege until I started
agitating for the creation of Third World Newsreel in the early 1970s.
Plain and simple, the credo of Newsreel was not to create a touchy-feely,
hypertolerant rainbow nation; it was to smash the capitalist oppressors
and confront the military/industrial compex that was leading America
and the world toward a police state.
The first Newsreel film Roz Payne worked on involved the student takeover of Columbia University in the spring of 1968. Students had seized five buildings and there was a Newsreel film team in each one. It was not uncommon for Newsreel filmmakers to take an active participatory role in the events they were documenting, not being content to serve as disinterested observers. As she recalls, "Our cameras were used as weapons as well as for recording the events. Melvin had a W. W. II cast-iron steel Bell and Howell camera that could take the shock of breaking plate glass windows."
Payne recalls the contributions of many women in the early days
of Newsreel, like Lynn Phillips, Bev Grant and others. "The Columbia
film could not have been completed without the editing skills of Lynn
Phillips," she says. "Jane Kramer did some amazing things
in working with Allen Siegel on 'Amerika'." There was also Geri
Asher, now deceased, who did 'Janie's Jane'." Deborah Schafer
went on make many significant films about human rights, and was nominated
for a recent Academy Award for her human rights documentaries. I don't
feel like women were totally oppressed."
Though a number of key Newsreel figures were active in the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), there were no formal ties between these organizations or other activist groups of the period, such as the Black Panthers. Members of the Newsreel collective were certainly sympathetic to the aims of these groups, of course, and some of them participated with them in grass-roots community organizing, such as the High School for Dropouts project in Newark, New Jersey.
This sense of "the personal is the political" pervaded
Newsreel and other leftist organizations of the time. Newsreel is
based on the premise that as humans we create our own histories based
on facts, memories, and selective memories. From the vantagepoint
of 1971, my past had been a blur. I was brought up in Shanghai, People's
Republic of China, but as an expatriate. My father was a Korean freedom
fighter who ended up there temporarily during the Japanese occupation
of his homeland. Several years earlier, in 1969, I'd arrived as a
teenager in the world's most advanced capitalist society, eager to
begin my studies at an American university during a period when the
very system was under siege. By 1971, after years of antiwar agitation
and community organizing, I and many of my peers had no ideology or
direction, nothing but the burning desire to change America from top
to bottom, to free all political prisoners, to damn the rich and uphold
the poor. Newsreel at that particular moment in time was going to
be my vehicle for putting thought into action I admired the passion
and commitment that inspired the collective to churn out a film a
week on such burning issues du jour as the displacement of poor Latinos
to make way for Lincoln Center, the phenomenon of women on welfare,
the ideological bias of textbooks used in schools and universities,
and, always, the Vietnam War. It was grueling work, the work of youthful
idealists as much under the influence of marijuana, rock and roll,
and the sexual revolution as that of any ideology. As the poet had
written nearly two centuries earlier, "Bliss was it in that dawn
to be alive/But to be young were very heaven."
Those were fierce times. The Vietnam War entered a new and deadlier
phase with the bombing of Cambodia. At home, National Guard troops
had fired on student protesters at Kent State, killing four of them
outright. Dozens of protesting prisoners were massacred at Attica
in upstate New York. The FBI launched its vicious COINTELPRO counterintelligence
program to root out so-called subversives in the antiwar and civil-rights
movements, as in the Weather Underground or Black Liberation Army.
There was massive infiltration of the protest culture, and arrests.
In the face of this, Newsreel began degenerating into factions, with
arguments over white privilege, issues of class and sexual orientation.
People were at each other's throats, becoming factionalized, sinking
into a haze of paranoia. We were too young and naive to understand
how the collective and the movement were being undermined by strategies
of "divide and conquer." Like a bad marriage, Newsreel started
coming apart at the seams. The middle-class white males lost their
direction; the working class members had to choose their sides. Caucuses
emerged around the "haves" and the "have-nots",
and Third World members. It was purely a matter of where people were
born and what school they went to. There were purges and resignations,
and factions such as the ideologues and the cineastes. Depending on
how you looked at things, it was either the height or the depth of
the sexual revolution, and it was not uncommon for one member to be
sleeping with five others, making "the personal as political"
even more convoluted than ever. Many of the "haves" went
back to graduate school for their Ph.Ds, or became shrinks, or went
into community service or Legal Aid. The whites all deserted, taking
with them reels and reels of unidentified film. In such disarray,
Third World Newsreel was born in 1972.
Even so, the revolution had to begin at home: Newsreel at this time
was comprised of white males (Anglo-Saxon or Jewish) who passed their
time watching pirated copies of "Salt of the Earth" and
reading Franz Fanon and all the populist ideologues of the period.
Films were being made about blacks, women, and (rarely) working-class
whites, but none of these subjects had access to power within the
collective. As in the larger culture, the women (almost all white)
were subordinates and sex objects. With the exception of a single
member in San Francisco, a Puerto Rican woman named Joanna Rodriguez,
I was the only non-white woman in the entire collective. In New York,
there was also a group of black students from Seward Park High School:
David Wallace, Robert Zellmer, and Martin Smith. Though I was neither
Chinese nor Communist, I was cast in a stereotypical role: that of
embodying the proletariat as defined in then-fashionable Maoist terms.
Regardless of my specific experiences, I was no revolutionary from
the East. I simply had read Marxist dialectics when I was in Shanghai,
a watered-down version, of course.
I was livid. How could an idealistic collective like Newsreel attempt
to speak for the masses when it wouldn't let people of color or women
control their own media? In retrospect, without such a commitment,
we would never have a complete past for ourselves and the generations
to come. I had to challenge the structure of an organization that
purported to speak for the masses from an essentially white-male point
of view. Thus was born Third World Newsreel, a collective of people
of color and women making films out of their own experience.I convinced
Newsreel to let us have a caucus meeting, realizing that without recruiting
and training people of color, we would never have a future. Simply
put, most films coming out of Newsreel at that time did not reflect
a crucial multicultural attitude. Exceptions were Robert Kramer's
masterpiece "Ice," Allan Siegel's "Amerika," Geri
Asher's "Janie's Jane," and the collectively produced "Breaking
and Entering," "El Pueblo Se Levanta" (about El Salvador),
and "Beat Up People" (about the Black Panthers, though it
was never completed). Even some of the films we imported from England,
Holland, France, Australia - about national struggles in Vietnam,
Cuba, Guinea-Bissau, Angola, South Africa, Algeria, Laos - were being
created by all-white production teams. This was colonialism in action.
By 1972, Newsreel had lost much of its original steam and many of
the key members began going their separate ways. The Vietnam War was
winding down, and the countercultural movement had lost a lot of the
in-your-face energy that had characterized it during the late 1960s.
Some people were simply burned out, others moved on to other pursuits,
or dropped out of the factionalization and disarray, or couldn't stand
the government's unrelenting pressure. The movement itself disdained
institutions, so it was not surprising that it did not sustain an
infrastructure to continue its work. Roz Paine says that some people
wanted to move on to other priorities. She had been working with the
Black Panthers and Young Lords for years and now wanted to start organizing
white people. She and some other Newsreel people drove cross-country
for a few months to figure out what the next phase of the struggle
would be like. Though she admires Third World Newsreel for taking
up the torch, she says that TWN was more interested in distribution
than in organizing. "We were collectivists, we were revolutionaries
using our cameras as tools and weapons for social change. We went
out with our projectors into communities all over the country teaching
people how to change the world through film."
By 1972, there emerged a surge of black voices finally becoming visible in American media. There was a group of black UCLA film students, notably Hali Gerima, Charles Burnett, Julie Dash, Billy Woodberry, and Nima Burnett, who were beginning to empower themselves by making films about African American issues. Some noise was coming from the Latino community, too, though no films were made during this period. Native American filmmakers who contributed to Third World Newsreel included Chris Spotted Eagle and Larry Little Bird. Loni Deng was doing work on the West Coast, but no one from the Asian community on the East Coast was doing anything until I came along. It was under these conditions that Third World Newsreel was born.
My first film for Third World Newsreel, "Teach Our Children," was
done in collaboration with Sue Robeson, whose grandfather, actor Paul
Robeson, had been an outspoken advocate of racial justice a generation
earlier. It was a critique of the educational system and how it transmits
values that are inimical to the advancement of marginalized peoples
in our society.
I was determined to continue the legacy of the Newsreel spirit,
but instead of smashing the establishment, I was going to be pragmatic,
using corporations and the state to advance our own interests. I decided
to emphasize distribution, and to have distribution, we had to have
a catalogue. I wrote a proposal that convinced the McDonald's hamburger
people to give us $10,000 to finance these projects. It was arguably
Ronald McDonald's finest moment. In 1974, I applied to the New York
State Council of the Arts for $10,000 to make four films. I was amazed
that they granted the entire amount. Thus was born another of my early
Third World Newsreel films, "From Spikes to Spindles," which
I did in cooperation with Tsei Hak, the Spielberg of Hong Kong. This
film, which acknowledged the oft-repressed story of Chinese immigrants
- the men who migrated to the West in the 1800s to build the railroad,
and the women who still toil in garment sweatshops of America's Chinatowns
from coast to coast. This was a landmark film: an agit-prop documentary
shot in color. Even so, I realized my own narrow perspective in thinking
that Asian America was composed only of Chinese and Japanese immigrants.
I was naive enough to ignore the contributons of Filipinos, Koreans,
and Pacific Islanders who were also pioneers of the Asian American
experience. I was shy. I didn't think my people's story was worthy.
We, after all, were indentured servants, scholars, entrepreneurs,
a notch above the blacks who were victims of the slave system. Other
films followed in quick succession: "Inside Woman Inside,"
a film I directed about women in prison; "Fresh Seeds in the
Big Apple," which I did with Allan Siegel. Allan and Ernie Russell
also worked on a film called "Mohawk Nation," about the
Native Americans who were trying to assert control over their own
land. The film was never completed.
In 1983, Renee Tajima joined Third World Newsreel as associate producer
of "Who Killed Vincent Chin?" For the first time, Third
World Newsreel received a large grant of $135,000 from the Corporation
for Public Broadcasting (CPB). On the one hand, it was cause for celebration.
On the other hand, it was destructive. For the first time, it meant
that Third World Newsreel began heavily relying on institutional support.
For an organization that was born in struggle and protest, that marked
a significant change. I took on a number of roles: cinematographer
for a film about Audre Lorde; with JT Takagi I was director/producer
of "Homes Apart," a film about families separated by the
political division of North and South Korea, for which we received
a moderate grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).
At this time, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) was seeking alternative
visions and we were in the right niche at the right time. But we were
divided over who was getting or who should be getting the money.
As a founder of Third World Newsreel, I was engaged in every single project, as producer, director, cinematographer on the various films described above. My loyalty was split within the organization. Finally in 1983 I resigned from Third World Newsreel to establish another incorporated entity: the Film News Now Foundation.
However, the Film News Now Foundation had been the receiving entity for Newsreel's
trust fund since 1968. When I pulled out from Third World Newsreel,
we had tax-exempt status, enabling donors to take a tax deduction
on their contributions, so Third World Newsreel had to reincorporate
as Camera News, Inc. and receive its own tax-exempt status. Thus,
from 1983, the entity was known as Third World Newsreel d/b/a (doing
business as) Camera News, Inc. The Film News Now Foundation became
its own entity. There was a new production entity: Camera News, Inc..
Newsreel was never a legally constituted corporation in its own right.
Today, Third World Newsreel/Camera News, Inc. is the legal entity,
and Film News Now Foundation is completely independent.
In retrospective, the history of the Left since the 1960s has been extraordinary, full of dreams and idealism. But, as seen in the experience of Newsreel, the Left had so many sectarian factions, a reflection of the American Left as a whole. People of color have maintained and archived material from both Newsreel and Third World Newsreel. Much material has been located at the University of Wisconsin and in individual collections. Now that Newsreel is celebrating its 35th anniversary, old films from its early days are resurfacing at prestigious film festivals in the U.S. and abroad, including the Asian American Film Festival and Latin American Film Festival in New York, and at Yamagata in Japan. Newsreel is one of the oldest organizations of its type.
As a founder, I feel extremely proud that capable people are continuing
its mission, such as Dorothy Thigpen, who now capably heads Third
World Newsreel. The organization is continuing the vision I had at
its founding: to be an entity where people of color control their
own representation in film. As Bill Nichols points out in his otherwise
flawed Newsreel: Documentary Filmmaking on the American Left (published
by Arno Press in 1980): "[Third World Newsreel has] also radically
reshaped the nature and purpose of Newsreel." The documentary
filmmakers of the 1960s and 1970s offered a perspective that is still
useful for contemporary activists seeking to offer important visual
critiques in today's era of terrorism and globalization.
1971...in effect....it wasn't the end of Newsreel---it began changing...a
lot of it had to do with the fact that in 1967 there were only 2 film
schools in the country - NYU and USC... and most people were wealthier...
Newsreel people could afford to be filmmakers, all sorts of working
class/political people, very diverse group... a big corps of filmmakers
(Mackover, Siegel, etc. Barbara Stone, David Stone) then grew very
large into that '71 people left for different reasons... Robert and
Norman and John Douglas went to Vietnam to make film about Ho Chi
Minh, go to John Douglas house in Vermont with Seimens, then went
up to edit film some people decided to stay in Vermont and do organizing....
a TWN try to distribute etc., but they were not organizers like we
were.... we were collectivists ... wanted to machine gun ... newsreel...
we were revolutionaries trying to make films making social change
... i went every week on Monday night .... took subway up to Harlem
branch of Black Panther Party we had political education around the
film for the recruiters of new Panthers....
working on DVD about Black Panthers--discovered a new LA Newsreel film...