SOME NOTES ABOUT NEWSREEL AND ITS ORIGINS
From theYamagata International Documentary Film Festival 2003

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 putting together.

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[1]. 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 identity.

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 movement..

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[2] 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[3]. 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.[4] 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 activities).

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[5] 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[6] 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.[7]

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[8].

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 their production.
Allan Siegel, Budapest 2003

 

[1] 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.

[2] 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 growth.

[3] 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.

[4] The only style that was overtly rejected, or frowned upon ­ for aesthetic, ideological and economic reasons ­ was cinema verité.

[5] 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.

[6] 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.

[7] 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.

[8] 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.

 


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