What follows are pieces of information
and ideas. They are uneven, tentative, but I hope useful in outlining
aspects of Newsreel's beginnings and early development.
by Allan Siegel
During those first meetings, Jonas sat with his tape recorder strategically
placed near the centre of dialogue. His words were few. Faithfully,
innocuously recording proposals, debates, and laughter. His Nagra
symbolised a means of commentary, approval. The presence of Jonas
wedded to his tape recorder clarified the importance of the proceedings.
And, thus from the earliest moments there was the sense of weight;
And, a dimension to the discussions in which the measurements of the
possibilities seemed at the same time to be both comprehensible and
boundless. In the carefully chosen words, the untested ideas, there
was an impetuous sense of the necessity to sketch, formulate
roughly or elegantly this organisational thing that we were
Viewing those moments from afar, through the elongated twisting space
of recollection, it seems we all moved from room to room, building
to building, each with our own favourite toy-box of ideas. Each of
us using our own conceptual playthings reached, in compact or rambling
words and sentences, for descriptions of what it was we were formulating.
In this uneven, tentative gluing together of ideas the form and structure
of Newsreel evolved. And then, as the architecture of this home took
shape, its filmic furnishings appeared also. The deliberations that
marked each arrival (or each construction) clarified the outlines,
the events of the moment, and connected us (the bonds were elastic,
mainly temporal but also enduring) in the theatre on Wooster St.,
the loft on 14th St or the storefront on 3rd St. with the people in
Vietnam or Mississippi or Oakland, California or soon after
the earliest meetings the residents of Harlem and the protests
at Columbia University, four Americans in Japan who had deserted from
the US Army, or students in the streets of Paris.
The need for an identity emerged out of the first meeting at Anthology.
It became an imperative to define the organisation and establish a
presence. The practical questions were held in abeyance in favour
of the philosophical, defining issues. Who were we? Where did we come
from? What was film? The purpose of filmmaking? These broad ideological,
politically and culturally clarifying questions dominated the earliest
discussions out of which came a Manifesto containing the defining
precepts of Newsreel. Like most such documents it was specific
enough to establish functional parameters yet sufficiently subjective
so as to allow constant interpretation and reinterpretation.
In these opening days, much like a newly assembled cast at the first
days of rehearsal, Newsreel was propelled by an enthusiasm that swept
into our lives from all quarters: an admixture of personalities, clusters
of individuals and friends each with different political priorities,
inclinations, backgrounds; a group (finally a network of groups) whose
identity sprung from a chorus of voices under some anonymous baton
to an association of conductors always in search of a new orchestra.
Similar to the 1963 March on Washington (perpetually defined and re-defined
in Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech) in the
Autumn of '67 the Nation's capital became the focal point for a massive
outpouring of political dissent. Yet another turning point in civil
protest. The Pentagon demonstration (see Norman Mailer's "Armies
of the Night" for a thorough description) had a cathartic effect
on the tens of thousands of participants who came from all over the
United States. For the many filmmakers (artists, writers) who had
gone to Washington the Pentagon was certainly a defining moment; but
in a manner whose implications swirled as currents of ideas, actions
seeping on to the edges of popular consciousness.
The Pentagon events seemed to beg individuals, institutions and organisations
for some form of clarification. As in Œwhat do we do next?' but
more complexly, a kind of naïve, earnest form of social interrogation,
a critique of institutions, forms of communication and finally social
The enormity of the event - politically, visually and emotionally
propelled a schism between the experience of events, local and
distant, and their representation in the mass media. The reality of
the experience (the publicness of the identification with the Other:
Vietnamese, Afro American; the spontaneous acts of courage and commitment)
seen from the vantage point of a documentarian, a filmmaker, a photographer
- the burning of draft cards, the civil disobedience, the flower planted
in the muzzle of a rifle - on the streets of Washington, on the steps
of the Pentagon contrasted so completely with what was seen
on the nightly news or reported in the press. The bifurcation was
not about being for or against the Vietnam War or Civil Rights, or
the Panthers or Cuba etc.. Rather than a split, it became a paradox
arising during moments of self-confrontation and facing decisions
about whether to yield to the gravitational pull of new and untested
perceptions and swim amidst an unwieldy current of events and ideas
or, from the sidelines, simply to try and withstand the allure of
the carnivalesque. The veneer of civility and social equality that
had framed the assumptions of democracy, pluralism and global benevolence
in post-World War Two America had been stripped away by the civil
rights movement, the Bay of Pigs, the Kennedy Assassination and now
finally the escalation of the war in Vietnam. In disenfranchised communities,
in the pockets of the disillusioned on campuses there was a growing
impetus toward a massive (the full spectrum of institutions) social
transformation. in cities, the full gamut of the anti-war movement
was gaining momentum and was moving from the social fringes to a mass
Unknown to each other, unaware of the existence of, in the midst
of all the activity directed toward The Pentagon event, were various
groups of filmmakers clustered in their own areas but also concerned
about the forthcoming Washington demonstration. One group was centred
on Blue Van Films and included Robert Kramer, Norman Fructher, Robert
Machover and Robert Lacativa. Another, was based in my filmmaking
workshop at the Free University of New York. This group included Nick
Doob, Rene Lichtman, Shawn Walker, Stu Bird, Karen Mitnick, and Melvin
Margolis. A third group was based out of Marvin Fishman's film studio
on East 3rd St and was mainly Marvin and Oe Masanori. Newsreel was
formed out of these three basic nuclei. And, the catalyst that brought
them together was the Pentagon Demonstration. In Washington, in the
streets, on the steps of the Pentagon, filmmakers from around the
world (including Chris Marker from France whose Pentagon and Paris
'68 films were soon in the Newsreel distribution network) coalesced
(unknowlingly) to produce a massive collective ephemeral portrait
of a country undergoing the paroxysms of change.
In the weeks following Jonas Mekas and Melvin Margolis were the
ones instrumental in organizing the first filmmakers meeting, at the
original Anthology Film Archives cinema in Soho. From this gathering
Newsreel was formed. There, 60-70 filmmakers and interested parties
met at the Mercer St. theatre (I think that's where it was) to talk
about making a film about the recent events.
There was still that sense of euphoria and solidarity coming off
of the Pentagon demonstration and no one had any difficulty (in theory)
with the proposal to pool all our pentagon footage and make one film
(quickly as it were) rather than struggling individually to make many.
So it was basically agreed that a group should be formed to coordinate
this production (or undertaking) and Marvin volunteered his storefront
as the site for subsequent organising meetings.
As important as an examination of Newsreel's origin is (with a chronology
of the activities, an inventory of the films, the documents and the
pertinent details regarding its members) an inquiry of equivalent
importance would involve questions relating to its continued existence.
I say this with a touch of astonishment (and modest satisfaction).
Not because Newsreel shouldn't exist (in the incongruous manifestations
of California and Third World Newsreel) but that as a form of cultural
organisation it has managed to navigate the drought-stricken waters
of budget cuts and altered funding priorities to survive as a meaningful
entity. Thus, as one of the few still surviving, and geographically
scattered organisations that emerged during the Sixties (in a country
where non-mainstream - some would say nonessential - cultural/arts
institutions have a notoriously dismal life span) the incomplete example
of Newsreel - and its latter-day bi-coastal metamorphoses - provides
us with a model containing both the details of structure and the facets
and flaws of a collective creative environment. Here is an artistic
habitat filled with the vicissitudes of documentary filmmaking: the
conceptual tasks, stylistic range and discursive possibilities
gestating, developing - containing the dynamics of a cultural praxis.
A pertinent question regarding these early years of Newsreel's activity
revolves around the relationship between the political (organisational
direction, objectives and structure) vs. the cultural; more difficult
to actually pinpoint but generally those issues relating to film style
and form. These were always interrelated concerns, the tension
between them arose perpetually, and in each instance it seemed that
finding the juncture became a form of preoccupation (sometimes interminably).
The tension between filmic vs. political priorities arise in Newsreel's
earliest moments. They were there but unspoken in the first meetings
at Anthology Film Archives amidst this strange admixture of people.
The small cinema was filled with a post-Pentagon energy and excitement.
Small groupings of friends and acquaintances, an amorphous assemblage.
The unarticulated differences in the beginning spoke to the underlying
stress between issues of art and society, culture and politics and
other emergent questions. The dialogue in New York in 1968
was conducted at times with naiveté or ignorance and than in
bursts of prescient perceptions and in great depth.
It should be clear that Newsreel came about neither because a group
of people sat down and plotted its existence nor quite by accident
either. Rather, it came into being because of political/social events
and a general ferment within the New York filmmaking community. And,
not only in New York but internationally also. There was no specific
idea to create a Newsreel but rather when the occasion presented itself,
the need seemed logical, the necessity self-evident.
One might presuppose that because of the character of the times (or
the milieu in which Newsreel was immersed) that politics would command
an overriding role in choices of subject matter, methods of approach
or forms of production. Also, using a model pulled from the Russian
Revolution that we sought to emulate Dziga Vertov and the ProlCult
trains. Using these superficial notions, and imagining Newsreel's
ties to overtly Œpolitical' organisations (like SDS or the Panthers)
it would follow that choices of subject matter were imported from
a directorate and that once a month a political commissar would deliver
a list of appropriate subjects, methods of approach and maybe even
a satchel with the monthly finances. (Strangely enough this scenario
might actually appear buried in the vast FBI documentation of Newsreel
Yes, I know this is a distorted picture but I am attempting to focus
on some way of clarifying the process of how films were made (the
choice of subjects) and the rough process of fashioning an aesthetic
(is style a more appropriate word?) within Newsreel. (After all, it
was composed of an odd aggregation of accomplished filmmakers, social
activists and others drawn to it simply because it provided a vigorous
and sustaining organisational home during a very turbulent time).
In retrospect, we might even say that Newsreel, in the commotion of
a perpetual identity crisis, found the ideal vehicle for sorting though
questions of group dynamics, ideology and economics. But film - its
planning, production and distribution provided recurring motifs
in which the group could invent (and reinvent) itself and forge an
ongoing purpose. The concreteness of the film process, the specifities
of its constituent elements, was the ballast that grounded the abstractions
of organisational politics when these issues became unwieldy.
There was the question of language (how indifferent a tape recorder
is when it is recording sounds and words; it never thinks in terms
of sentences). Beyond the prerogatives of individual self-expression,
in an organisation, how does one formulate a language of ideas? Particularly
when there is both an unevenness (not an inequality) in each person's
warehouse of ideas and their means of explication and discursive engagement.
Thus, Newsreel first was about finding a basic common language of
ideas, then the language of representation and finally about the language
of spectatorship. Each film, each event, social reality and political
possibility involved a grasping at the language of that reality and
its equivalent representation on film. Were they related, did they
intersect? Certainly. But these languages never devolved into a singular
form or style (although in the language of power there was a drift
towards uniformity) nor a doctrine that was imposed, but rather we
sought out principles that could evolve and grow from the experiences
of the issue (the subject) and production.
Language therefore played a pivotal role in a films inception and
in its use. (How do we talk about making a film and how do we talk
about screening a film?) The process of mediation was initiated by
both the film and the projectionist. One arrived with the other (how
simple this would be today). One could, in a sense not imagine a film
unless there was an imagining of the organising and consciousness
raising (which often overlapped). We needed to consider, collectively
to comprehend, how it would be viewed and discussed; and not allow
the viewing to deteriorate into some didactic exercise but permit
a scenario of possibilities. Three of the earliest films are basic
to comprehending the impact of Newsreel and the singularity of its
vision. Immediately, by defining the reductive one dimensionality
of mass media and television reportage vs. a something that was more
discursive and open-ended Newsreel embarked on a filmic/organisation
trajectory in which the rhetoric of social possibilities was irrevocably
tied to a filmic reality. And in a context where one frame validated
another Newsreel delivered in grand fashion. These three early films:
No Game, Columbia Revolt and Black Panther suggest a broad aesthetic
canvas, a political range of interests and incredible productive capacity.
Within the first six months of its existence what had begun as one
Œcollective' in New York had already spread to San Francisco,
Boston and Chicago. At least six films were in production; alliances
and exchanges had been formed with sympathetic organisations and individuals
in London, Paris, Mexico City, Havana, Buenos Aires and Tokyo.
Furthermore, symbolically and practically, we had established an
expansive distribution network which encompassed every imaginable
form of community or university organisation or club. Those organisations
which historically represented the framework for such a network were
basically bi-passed for the groundswell of new anti-war groupings
on campuses and in local nooks and crannies.
It must seem odd now when we take for granted the change from one
video format to another (and where sync sound is a given and an often
poorly recorded afterthought) but then, within the filmmaking underground,
there was a kind of hierarchy based on the type of camera you used
or had access to. Of course initially everything was shot in 16mm
(B&W) and the only really accessible sync sound camera was a modified
version of an Auricon (the workhorse of television news coverage)
or the CP16. Only later was there access to an Arriflex or an Éclair.
The Mercedes (and Citroen)of documentary cameras.
There was an interconnectedness between peoples and organisations
that seemed to grow exponentially, spontaneously. Films were viewed
as the vehicles, the pivot point around which discourse and mobilisation
evolved. It had something to do about creating a contrast, an alternative
voice, to the evening news. But, there was the idea of a collective
voice (or scream). The traditional avenues of representation were
encoded with a language that was inadequate and disconnected.
In the same year that Newsreel was founded, the Universal Newsreel
(which played in cinemas prior to the main feature) folded. Television
reportage was confined to the Œwhite paper' (a form of investigative
report; a public affairs special) and analysis by notable TV journalists
(Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite were prime examples) or reporting
that was sandwiched into the nightly news. The discursive parameters
of this arena were predetermined by time-slots, the rigidity of formulas
and finally an ideological perspective in which definitions of free
speech, freedom of the press and the other journalistic precepts of
liberalism delimited conditions of dialogue and conceptualisations
of social reality.
In a reflective tone: it is difficult to ascertain (retrospectively
and another project) the exact manner in which these different
episodes/sequences materialised or their precise impact on individual
lives but for those of us attending the first Newsreel meeting there
was a common bond that undercut our differences and initiated some
unlikely alliances. Perhaps, simplistically, this originated in the
frustration of the many thousands of people seeking a form of political
engagement. Yet, we know it was much more than that.
Our purpose was to make films; economically we had no idea how that
would be possible: there were no foundations, or grants or proposal
writing to fuel the budget. In the whirlwind of manifestations, meetings,
crises our purpose was to discern the importance of the situation,
one confrontation vs. another. The criteria for clarifying these distinctions
was often vague. We were propelled not to simply record events or
reformulate them; we were neither propagandists (mouthpieces for "an
other group") nor passive chroniclers of action.
The emergence of Newsreel, its earliest self-definition, suggests
a conundrum. Audaciously, it presupposes its existence and purpose
as a model organisation and searches for the means to clarify, to
comprehend the nature of its components; the tools that would allow
(or substantiate) this self-definition. But, where do the components
for creating such a paradigm originate? There is no formula. We each
carry our own ideological, conceptual baggage; each of us with a unique
tool chest of materiel and tools.
As it moved forward it needed to also look back; yet, the exigencies
of the moment could only produce an abbreviated form of self-reflection.
Today, when the concept of discourse is merely in the packaging, in
the simulacra of various forms of dialogue, the concept of Newsreel
(born from a crisis regarding the very notion of discourse) can provide
those of us interested in the media, communication and the documentary
process with considerable insights; not simply through the amazing
legacy of its films but also the organisational processes that facilitated
Allan Siegel, Budapest 2003
 The major repository for Newsreel documents and films is at the
Wisconsin State Archives in Madison. Also, some of these documents
can be found in A Documentary History of the New Left by Massimo Theodori
(I hope I'm spelling this correctly). I'm sure this is probably out
of print but if it can be found it is an invaluable resource.
 We know about Jonas' interest in Newsreel, but Melvin who
died of cancer was never a filmmaker but a major motivator
in mysterious and often unfathomable ways in the organisations
 Unfortunately, descriptions of Newsreel (and its present-day
incarnations) are too often coloured by present and past affiliations
(I don't exclude my own bias here). Many from Newsreel's earliest
days have little connection to any of the present forms. And, then
there are those who distance themselves from the past history. Regardless
of what they are today, neither Third World nor California Newsreel
would exist today without their organisational precursors.
 The only style that was overtly rejected, or frowned upon
for aesthetic, ideological and economic reasons was cinema verité.
 Outside of the political mainstream of the Democratic or Republican
Parties, previous to the 60's, the major voices of dissent were usually
associated in some form with the Communist Party USA, progressive
trade unions and in the Afro American community groups such as the
NAACP. The new organisations of the civil rights movement, i.e. SCLC,
SNCC, the Panthers, the League (in Detroit) and countless student
and community anti-war groups changed this configuration. The old-left
alignments tried, unsuccessfully, to harness (and in some cases manipulate)
these new entities. Yet, the point is that these new groupings became
the basis for the Newsreel distribution network.
 In fact the disposition and use of this camera was related to
the group's internal dynamics; who had access to the fancy equipment
the Nagra, the Arriflex.
 Late in 1968, Newsreel and other Œalternative media' was
invited to appear on a Œlive broadcast' interview/discussion
news program on the local public television channel in New York. There
was considerable discussion about how to respond to the request. What
emerged was to talk about Œalternative media' within the confines
of a format that was contrary to all we were about was to belie our
own identity or sense of purpose. Thus, in a brilliant piece of theatre,
it was decided that we would occupy the TV studio (which we did) and
attempt to redesign the program; the occupation unfolded in a frenzy
of cross-discussions and muted on-the-air celebrations until the station
pulled the plug and called the police. Nine members were arrested
(The Newsreel Nine) and the headline next morning in the Daily News
was HIPPIES TURN THE AIRWAVES BLUE.
 Although, in San Francisco Newsreel's relationship with the Black
Panthers there is the closest sense of an overlapping of priorities
and a blurring of critical distinctions.