[This is an abridged version of the original document. For information on how to
obtain the original version, please contact TWN.]
Newsreel Old and New: Towards An Historical Profile
December 1987 will mark the twenty-year anniversary of the formation of Newsreel,
a radical film-making collective conceived during the last flush of New Left activism.
Once boasting offices in New York, San Francisco, Boston, Los Angeles, Detroit,
Chicago, and Atlanta, Newsreel now survives in two versions: California Newsreel,
San Francisco, producers and distributors of films about the workplace as well as
South Africa and apartheid, with a new focus on media education (educating Americans
about rather than through media); and Third World Newsreel, New York, vortex of
film and video activities intended as the cultural interventions of the disenfranchised.
In the following pages, I hope to suggest areas of conceptual as well as functional
continuity and discontinuity between the two extant Newsreel organizations, as well
as between the present enterprises and their Newsreel predecessors.
INSTITUTIONAL TIES -- THE MYTH OF CREATION
The efforts of the early Newsreel collectives aimed to inform and inspire their
Movement audiences, with the balance between the two functions always in question.
While a pre-Newsreel film like Troublemakers (1966), which follows the
struggles of a community organizing group in a black neighborhood in Newark before
the riots (examining the project’s achievements and defeats), explores the contradictions
inherent in grass-roots political activism, the post-’68 Newsreel film was likely
to stress action and elicit an engaged (if not educated) response.
Problems arising from inequities internal to the collective -- income differentials,
housing, or childcare needs -- were viewed as secondary to the pressing struggle
for social change. The politics of sexuality and of everyday life remained issues
to be addressed in a later phase of the organization.
By the early seventies, although the first generation Newsreelers had left the organization,
factionalism based on differences of privilege and access enjoyed by collective
members prevailed. From 1971 to 1973, New York Newsreel members split themselves
into “haves” and “have-nots,” with the distinctions among ethnicity, class background,
and functional class position somewhat blurred.
But the rift within the collective evidenced by the have/have-not division was only
one stage among a series of convulsions that left New York Newsreel a three-person
collective by 1973. The success of the San Francisco-shot The Woman’s Film
(1971) had coincided with the emergence of an outspoken feminist faction within
the New York organization, which began to control distribution and exhibition; most
of the men left the collective in the months that followed.
As the Third World faction within the group began to focus on recruiting minorities
and passing on production skills, the rift between white members and those of color
intensified to the breaking point. With the dwindling of membership, the resources
capable of sustaining the collective enterprise were near exhaustion.
It should be noted that while the schisms that developed within Newsreel during
the early seventies around class, gender, and race effected a series of ruptures
at the localized, institutional level, these organizational convulsions serve to
reinforce a sense of continuity at a broader historical level. For indeed, these
were the same issues (gender, race, class) that increasingly split the always tenuous
coalition of New Left/countercultural forces as the focus on war resistance waned.
Newsreel was never merely a reflection or conduit, that is, about Movement tactics
and sensibilities; it has always remained of the Movement, a palpable index of shifting
fortunes and newfound necessities.
THIRD WORLD NEWSREEL
At a time when politically oriented documentary filmmaking in the United States
has suffered a near catastrophic decline, Third World has remained capable of producing
films at a dizzying pace.
The primary sources of this productive momentum remain Christine Choy and Allan
Siegel who manage to stay involved in countless projects simultaneously, all at
different stages of completion.
Spearheaded by Ada Gay Griffin, who joined Third World Newsreel through the Advanced
Production Workshop, distribution has become an area of intensified focus with the
collection including more than 150 films and tapes. By opting for nonexclusive contracts
with minority producers, Third World seeks further coverage and heightened visibility
for producers. Griffin has emphasized outreach to educational and community groups
on a sliding scale. The priority here is to promote the work of minority artists
unable to find distributional outlets elsewhere due to the limited appeal or controversial
nature of the work -- or its aesthetic roughness. Training programs and consultation
services rather than elitist distributional practices have been chosen as the way
to raise the level of professionalism within the minority media community.
The Anthology of Asian-American Film and Video functions as an additional and ongoing
distribution project for the collective. Begun in 1984, the Anthology houses some
thirty films by and about Asian-Americans making this the most significant collection
of such work. The Anthology is a serious contribution toward the redress of an historical
imbalance; the exclusion from public view of the dreams, aspirations and achievements
of minority populations within the United States. Given its history and the tenacity
of the core collective members, Third World Newsreel’s position in the vanguard
of cultural-political change seems assured.
1 From a series of interviews with Newsreel members in Film Quarterly XX,
No. 2 (Winter 1968-69), 47-48.
2 Author’s interview with Larry Daressa, 22 December 1983.
3 See Bill Nichols, Newsreel: Film and Revolution, unpublished master’s
thesis, UCLA, 1972. Nichols has, to date, produced the most valuable and extensive
scholarship on Newsreel. In addition to the fine master’s thesis cited here, see
his Newsreel: Documentary Filmmaking on the American Left (New York: Arno
4 Newsreel was but one of many Movement manifestations of the “Great Refusal.” Identifying
with the dispossessed, the relatively affluent first generation Newsreelers cast
their lot with those systematically excluded from privilege. By the end of the decade,
the lumpen ranks were swelled by middle-class youth who rejected their birthright
in order to effect meaningful social change.
5 Interview with Norm Fruchter in Film Quarterly, 44.
6 Author’s interview with Deborah Schaffer, 19 August 1986.
7 . A particularly striking index of the shift of organizing focus and radical sensibility
from 1965 to 1969 is provided by contrasting two films by Norman Fruchter, one of
the central figures of Newsreel’s “first generation.” Troublemakers (Fruchter
and Robert Machover, 1966) chronicles an SDS organizing effort (the Newark Community
Union Project led by Tom Hayden) that brought the skills and energy of middle-class
college students to a black ghetto of the urban north. The film’s brilliance lies
in its willingness to consider the Movement’s shortcomings and limitations in the
period preceding the outbreaks of violence and confrontation. For further discussion
of this phase of New Left realpolitik, see Wini Breines, The Great Refusal: Community
and Organization in the New Left 1962-69 (New York: Praeger, 1982). The
second film, Summer ‘68 (Fruchter and John Douglas, 1969), focuses on the
several facets of cultural and political struggle within the ranks of a foundering
New Left coalition (the G.I coffee house movement, the underground press, draft
resistance organizing) which culminated in the August 1968 confrontation on the
streets of Chicago at the Democratic National Convention. The shift is from community
organizing to mass agitation, from fighting small battles using non-violent tactics
to waging mass-mediated war with Daley’s s. It is these emergent, relatively maverick
constituencies that late capitalism must now attempt to proletarianize. But Newsreel
has, from its beginnings, remained an active contributor to the development and
dissemination of this “surplus consciousness,” advocating resistance to the hegemonic
while cultivating the values of a nascent political culture. Amidst the conservative
backsliding and backlashing of the eighties, Newsreel has emerged as America’s most
consistent radical documentary voice. If, in the early years, its films spoke primarily
to the Movement vanguard, Newsreel has moved toward a deepening of its ties with
a broad spectrum of working Americans, offering a coherent Left perspective for
an analysis-starved audience as well as a route to public access for minority artists.
And finally, through continuing distribution of the early films of struggle and
confrontation, the Newsreel enterprise has sustained the popular memory of concerted,
energetic political activism. If the efforts of the sixties are to escape recuperation,
to survive and, in time, to be renewed, it will be through cultural as well as political
agitation. Given the history of the organization and its achievements to date, one
can reasonably look to Newsreel for leadership in the struggle ahead.
1 From a series of interviews with Newsreel members in Film Quarterly prison
on drug charges.
18 Author’s interview with Christine Choy, 20 August 1986. Choy noted that her first
Newsreel paycheck was not drawn until 1981, a full ten years after her arrival.
A two-year CETA grant, welfare and unemployment compensation furnished her means
of survival for a decade.
19 See my “The Imaging of Analysis: Newsreel’s Re-Search for a Radical Film Practice,”
Wide Angle 6, No. 3 (1984), 76-84.
20 Over its 12-year lifespan, California Newsreel has published eight separate catalogues
and five books including an 88-page text entitled Planning Work, a manual of resources
on technology and investment for labor education funded by the Ford Foundation and
the German Marshall Fund. Using Films in South Africa: An Activation Kit on Investment
contains suggestions for post-film discussions, a series of fact sheets exposing
the scope of U.S. investment in South Africa and a packet of reprinted articles
covering precise, related topics culled from newspapers, scholarly journals and
21 Author’s interview with Siegel.
22 Author’s interview with Ada Gay Griffin, 8 August 1986.
23 See in particular Herbert Marcuse’s An Essay on Liberation (1969), which contains
the following succinct formulation of the “aesthetic ethos” of the sixties, a theoretical
position that validated the realm of the creative imagination and independent quotidian
(and frequently neglected) efforts towards mass base-building: “…the development
of the productive forces beyond their capitalist organization suggests the possibility
of freedom within the realm of necessity. The quantitative reduction of necessary
labor could turn into quality (freedom)…But the construction of such a society presupposes
a type of man with a different sensitivity as well as consciousness: men who would
speak a different language, have different gestures, follow different impulses…The
imagination of such men and women would fashion their reason and tend to make the
process of production a process of creation.” Herbert Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation
(Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), 21.
24 Fredric Jameson, “Periodizing the 60’s,” in The 60’s Without Apology, 208-209.