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40 Years of Radical Media


[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

Michael Renov

Film Quarterly, Volume 41, Number 1, Fall 1987

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.


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.


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 Press, 1980).

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 pamphlets.

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.


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