[This is an abridged version of the original document. For information on how to
obtain the original version, please contact TWN.]
An Interview with Allan Siegel
As cofounder of New York Newsreel and former member of Third World Newsreel, Allan
Siegel has been a witness to and participant in the multiple institutional changes
the organization has undergone. Siegel joined the group that would form The Newsreel
after launching his career in New York's underground, experimental film scene in
the late 1960s. His filmmaking and administrative experiences with New York Newsreel,
and then Third World Newsreel, speak not only to his own political and artistic
journey, but also to the organization's evolving approach to filmmaking, distribution
and exhibition as agents for social change.
Siegel discusses his experiences as Third World Newsreel's only white member, and
the major shifts in its practices and priorities as it assumed a new identity. In
the process, Siegel theorizes the elements that have contributed to Newsreel's staying
power, and describes the assets that will ensure its survival into the 21st century.
JS: Describe the kinds of discussions, or conflicts, that took
place around what Newsreel's films should look like, since you had people coming
from these very different places.
AS: There was conflict particularly around language, a critical
language. Because those people who were politicized, who had the political background,
had a language to not only talk about politics, but also talk about films, what
films should do in representing a political movement or an event within the context
of a political movement. So there was that side of things. And then there were people
who were more preoccupied with what a film should look like as a film, but didn't
necessarily have the language to talk about that. People who were more subjective
in terms of, "Oh, I like this because it works. But I don't exactly know why it
works or how you would describe how it works." So there was this ongoing tension.
JS: Could you talk about the role of exhibition in Newreel's early
discussions? In what kind of exhibition spaces did Newsreel imagine showing films?
And how would you draw people who you wanted to see these different kinds of images?
AS: In creating this distribution network and the whole idea of
people going out with the films, basically people were becoming organizers. Political
organizers. So they weren't simply involved in making a film, but they were
involved in how the issues that the films raised related to people's lives.
Several writers suggest that because the core committee
consisted of educated, white men - white men that eventually women and third world
members began to challenge - they were in control of Newsreel and the kinds of films
that were being made. Could you describe in more detail the role that the Women's
Movement had on the breakdown of the collective?
Newsreel was basically a white male organization. The struggles that
were going on in Newsreel reflected the struggles that were going on in other political
organizations throughout the country. When women's issues began to evolve as a major
issue in the movement, well, it became a major issue in Newsreel. And a lot of people
couldn’t deal with the struggles around male chauvinism. They couldn't deal with
that particular struggle or they couldn't deal with giving up power to the extent
that it needed to be given up.
JS: What films did you make with Third World Newsreel? Could
you describe some of the topics your films covered?
Besides Teach Our Children
and We Demand Freedom
there was someone I met in this prison in Massachusetts who asked us to work with
him on another prison film. We did that film called In the Event That Anyone Disappears
(1974), which was about two prisons in New Jersey.
You mentioned that it seemed to you sometimes that there was an overemphasis
on production, but Third World Newsreel did establish a production workshop. Did
you create that?
Yes. People in different organizations felt we had a responsibility
to train people to make films. And that was part of the impetus of creating this
workshop. And it also became a way that we could recruit new people into the organization,
because people would come to the workshop and then some of them then wanted to work
with the organization. That's how Ada [Gay Griffin] joined Third World Newsreel.
She was in one of the workshops, and she stayed on and took over the organization.
So, the workshops were important, because they helped to rejuvenate the organization
with new people so that it didn't stagnate and so that the power within the organization
was always being challenged by these infusions of new blood. The workshop went through
various manifestations and reorganizations, but it still exists now.
Newsreel grew out of a very specific period of time and the convergence
of all these different forces and different events. You had developments in technology
that made filmmaking more accessible to people, a movement of experimental filmmaking,
the movement in terms of social activism and so forth. It evolved at this particular
historical moment, and was very much a factor in that. And what motivated people
and kept the organization alive was this multiplicity of forces. Social activism
was very much the gel that allowed the group to exist and to produce as much it
did within a relatively short period of time. Unless you are constantly aware of
the totality of all those forces at that time, then you can't get a full picture
of how it all happened and how it came about.
To me what's amazing and what's important is that this organization has
undergone transformation in terms of the people who are involved in it and so forth
and actually is a viable entity to this day.
Jacqueline Stewart is a doctoral candidate in English at the University
of Chicago, specializing in Black cinema, literature and culture. She is completing
a dissertation on Black spectatorship and independent filmmaking during the silent