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40 Years of Radical Media

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[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

Jacqueline Stewart

Introduction

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.

JS : 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?

AS : 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?

AS : 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.

JS : 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?

AS : 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.

AS : 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 era.

 

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