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Newsreel: A Report
...What we demand is the unity of politics and art, the unity of content and form,
the unity of revolutionary political content and the highest possible perfection
of artistic form. Works of art which lack artistic quality have no force, however
progressive they are politically...We must carry on a struggle on two fronts.
- Mao Tse-Tung, quoted at various moments by Kirilov and Véronique in La Chinoise.
Newsreel shows in general a vital and aggressive willingness to experiment with
traditional documentary methods in a concerted effort to work “on two fronts” and
integrate its political commitment with the movie-making techniques.
The earlier Newsreels are closer to usual documentary form. Except for some close-ups,
the camera in Boston Draft Resistance Group only records. It is a witness,
not a participant or a commentator.
Later newsreels do not completely drop this more “objective” and traditional approach
because the group preserves a sensitivity to the special kind of treatment each
subject demands. A comparatively recent film like Meat Cooperative again
has a fairly straightforward chronological form, while it describes in a Consumer
Reports manner the growth of a Lower East Side community meat cooperative that successfully
does away with the bad meat and high prices of the local supermarkets until OEO
funds are cut off and it must close. The second section, in which the leaders of
the cooperative try to get help from the local congressman to have the funds renewed,
is inconclusive and abrupt, like the action itself. But the promise of the cooperative,
and its potential as an example, carries the weight of the film. Although Meat Cooperative
like Boston Draft Resistance Group is aesthetically traditional, it is
politically part of a propaganda of possibilities that stands opposed to what one
Newsreel member called “the aesthetically and politically mindless propaganda of
But the more pervasive trend in Newsreel has been films that demand much more from
the audience in both aesthetics and political response. These more experimental
Newsreel films attempt to achieve a more open-ended political result by aesthetically
radicalizing the audience as well. The understanding needed to bring together sound
and image mirrors the understanding necessary to translate accurate analysis into
appropriate political action.
Talk, as it is embodied in the discussions that swirl around political actions,
forms an increasingly important part of Newsreel’s films. The films now in progress
concentrate even more on developing a kind of “follow” documentary, a film about
the dynamics of different groups as they get into, learn about, and try to deal
with the society they live in, to bridge the gap between talk and action. Garbage
and Chicago are the two most interesting and most successful attempts I
have seen so far to document this process of thought and action and produce a film
that has aesthetic form with political finality. Garbage follows a Lower
East Side group called “Up-Against-The-Wall-Motherfuckers” on a trip to throw garbage
into the central fountain of Lincoln Center as a statement about the cultural garbage
Lincoln Center purveys and the mounds of real garbage people are living in because
of the New York garbage strike. The soundtrack is full of talk -- jokes, arguments
about the project in earlier discussions, commentary during the trip itself, “America
the Beautiful” in falsetto, and discussions afterwards, and more talk about later
action to relate the existence of Lincoln Center to the problems of the Lower East
Side as a community. Garbage was shot by many Newsreel cameramen, and therefore
embodies many points of view, in its images as well as in its soundtrack, about
the appropriateness of the garbage dump as a reaction to the fact of Lincoln Center.
One especially ambiguous shot of a black janitor with a broom watching the exuberant
Motherfuckers go by introduces the idea that those in power will never be touched
by something as whimsical as this; the only effect will be extra work for the people
who have to clean up.
Films like Garbage, Chicago, Boston Draft Resistance Group,
and Meat Cooperative have a richness and vitality that repays seeing them
several times. Ideally, Newsreel is a community of politically committed film-makers
who can progress in artistic ability and political understanding at equal pace.
But more important is that many Newsreel films work fruitfully in the terms they
have set for themselves. The Newsreel is the words “The Newsreel” flickering violently
to the sound of a machine gun -- the cinematic equivalent of Leroi Jones’s line
“I want poems that can shoot bullets.”