Cartographies and Radical Film in the U.S.

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Thinking about film movements along dialectical lines allows for a complex (though always incomplete) mapping of the ways they emerge and intersect. Like the “invention” of new technologies, film movements amass, develop and disappear within a confluence of societal forces. At the same time, the Bakhtinian notion of the chronotope (space-time) serves as a tool for looking at each moment within this dialectic as distinct in its treatment of previous moments. The relation is such that procession occurs through variation, hence Marx’s theory that “the concrete is the concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity in the diverse”. The dialectic is particularly useful for an analysis of radical film, since it is here that we can witness the conflicts and contradictions within a society at their sharpest. Like all film movements, radical film emerges out of an economic, political and socio-cultural background. Its distinction from other filmic modes is the way/s in which it reflects this background with a conscious revolutionary purpose. It does not proceed from a debate between the political vs the aesthetic avant-garde (although this is an important subject). Rather, it takes as a given the Third Cinema assertion that radical film means “making films the System cannot assimilate and which are foreign to its needs, or making films that directly and explicitly set out to fight the system” (Solanas, Getino 1968). This means that aesthetic incentives are subordinate to a clear political message. Drawing on recent scholarship that has outlined its intention to create a cartography of radical film movements from across the globe, we can analyse the development of filmmaking practices within the U.S. radical left, from Soviet influence on organisations such as the Workers Film and Photo League (WFPL), to the influence of the tri-continental revolution (uprisings in Latin America, Africa and Asia) on groups such as Newsreel, and later, Third World Newsreel. Analysing texts with cartographies in mind allows us to situate them more clearly within their respective filmic movements while simultaneously situating these movements against a wider socio-cultural background. In this way the real movement of cause and effect becomes clearer. We are able to identify what Teshome Gabriel calls “the confluence of phases and critical theory” (Gabriel 1989) that film practitioners within the U.S radical left dealt with throughout this period.

In a special issue of the journal, Third Text, Ros Gray and Kodwo Eshun outline their intentions to map a “cine-geography” of the “militant image” (Eshun, Gray 2011). A cine-geography takes into account not only the individual nodes or points of reference that we find on a typical map, but also different sets of cultural practices, both in terms of their relations to each other and their own specificity. For this reason mapping a cine-geography is an undertaking that could not succeed under a non-dialectical framework of linear progression, which would imply a quantitative research method, advocating a positivist form of ‘truth’ based merely upon the observation of appearance forms. Instead, Gray and Eshun’s action-theoretical approach ensures that the objects of study are not “frozen in the here and now”, but examined within “a field of tensions between the possible and the actual” (Adorno 1976). Nor can this project remain strictly within the field of Film Studies, for

Cine-geography indicates an interdisciplinary practice of mapping the affinities, proximities and affiliations of cine-cultures that emerged from and participated in the conflictual and connective militant politics of anti-colonial struggle and decolonisation in the late 20th century (Eshun, Gray 2011).

The term is also proleptic insofar as a cine-geography must continuously look towards the creation of new ways of engagement between audience and text, as well as between the audience members as individuals and, ultimately, their world. Solanas and Getino’s replacement of the film-showing with the film-act influences this attempt to bridge the subjective and the objective. The potential for the creation of new discursive platforms is discussed in Towards a Third Cinema in the context of activating the consciousness of a colonised people. Central to this Fanonian inflected idea is the creation of a space of anti-neocolonial activity, in which the form and structure of a film is subordinated to the requirements of the audience. In this way the film seeks “its own liberation through its subordination to and insertion in others, the principal protagonists of life” (Solanas, Getino 1968). The multi-temporal and multi-spatial aspects of a cine-geography transpire in the film-act because “each projection of a film act presupposes a different setting, since the space where it takes place, the materials that go to make it up (actors-participants), and the historic time in which it takes place are never the same” (ibid).

In both cases the gap between the subjective and the objective is bridged through an act that is designed to reveal the real movements of cause and effect (that is, to reveal the way the world actually is) while acknowledging its own specificity and partiality. This is why the Third Cinema motifs of Solanas and Getino are detectable in Gray and Eshun’s intention to combine the identification of different cine-cultures with a mapping of their less tangible relations and affinities, which is what the latter pair mean when they refer to “relational geography” (Eshun, Gray 2011). Here it is worth repeating part of their quote from Rogoff, which gives an indication of how this methodology welds the personal to the political. Relational geography:

 is cumulative, it lurches sideways, it is constructed out of chance meetings in cafés, of shared reading groups at universities, of childhood deprivations that could speak to one another, of snatches of music on transistor radios, of intense rages, of glimmers of hope offered by ideas that enabled imagining a better world (ibid).

Transposing this idea onto the tenets of Third Cinema is what makes the mapping of radical film movements possible. Furthermore, it proves that Third Cinema as a theoretical construct and methodology is far from obsolete, especially when considered in terms of cultural and political specificities that open up or liberate the horizon of possibilities through revealing the wider world. This is what Lacan refers to as people “consequently activating the subsequent development of their experience” (Lacan 1998). The major difference between Third Cinema and Third World Cinema is that the former can exist anywhere, inside or outside of the Third World, where the intentions of the filmmaker/s is to contribute to the development of a worldwide liberation movement.

The conception and development of radical film was (and is) connected to fluctuations in global power through which cultural and political specificities develop. Although the main cultural influence on the New Left that emerged in the early 1960’s was undoubtedly the wave of independence movements that began in Ghana in 1957, “the rediscovery of the Film and Photo League…was an enormous shot in the arm…for the cultural activists of the American New Left” (Waugh 1984). Although some in this group disputed that there had ever been a connection between U.S. radical film and Sovietism, there was no disputing the influence of struggles in countries such as Kenya, Algeria, Vietnam, and, especially, Cuba on what Cynthia A. Young calls the “the U.S. Third World Left” (Young 2006)

Forged in the interstices between the New Left and the Civil Rights Movement, between the counter-culture and the Black Arts movements, this U.S Third World Left created cultural, material and ideological links to the third world as a mode through which to contest U.S. economic, racial and cultural arrangements (ibid).

Cuba’s declaration that it was free of racism struck a chord with the multitude of subjugated minorities in areas such as Harlem, New York. Indeed, when Fidel Castro visited the U.N. in 1959 he stayed at Harlem’s Theresa Hotel, prompting hundreds, if not thousands, of the black and Latino working class to gather in the street outside. Black intellectuals from the U.S. also paid frequent visits to Cuba as they began to contest the dominance of European culture. There was, however, a tendency within this movement to loosely associate the terms racism and colonialism. One symptom of this slippage was that those in ‘developed’ nations sometimes overlooked their privilege in respect to those in the Third World. Identification between the two peoples (or, at least, the former identifying itself with the latter) was catalysed by the increasingly repressive methods of the North American state, not to mention the Fanonian theory of internal colonisation, which re-cast the effects of oppression (foreign or domestic) at the psychological level of the subject. As Eshun and Gray explain, it was the Black Panther Party who “theorised this newly formed homology between the revolutionary struggle of third world nations…and the struggle of ‘urban guerillas’ located within the metropole of the principle enemy”, the U.S. military industrial complex (Eshun, Gray 2011).

Within this field of tensions and aspirations Newsreel began to operate. Similarly The original purpose of the group was to create newsreels that would counter the distortions enacted by the mainstream media. After the second world war the left of Hollywood, unsurprisingly, never sought to fill the gap left by the demise of the Communist influenced Workers Film and Photo League (WFPL). Indeed, Herbert J. Biberman’s Salt of the Earth (U.S. 1954), a film about a zinc miners strike, enraged the Hollywood establishment so much that the director was blacklisted and the film was dismissed as communist propaganda. The extremes of McCarthyism brought the contradictions between officialdom and actual experience into sharper focus. As the New Left emerged, so did its cultural producers, of which Newsreel became a significant representative. Founded in New York in 1967, and gradually forming decentralised film collectives in several cities, the politically tumultuous background against which it emerged, combined with its fundamental motif as oppositional, meant that the films presumed an already existing degree of political knowledge on the part of the audience. While maintaining the prevalence of a clear political message over an avant-garde aesthetic, the collective sought to at least narrow the gap between art and politics, embracing the need identified by Solanas and Getino to ultimately collapse this polarity. “The earliest priorities were on productivity, confrontation and survival”, and this emphasis meant that “little long range co-ordination or planning took place; members were free to propose and make films…and then distribute them as newsreels” (Nichols 1984). Replicating the methods of the WFPL (although probably, by this stage, more influenced by Third Cinema and the films of Santiago Alvarez) Newsreel combined the production of shorter topical pieces with longer analytical documentaries. They also adopted Solanas and Getino’s dedication to the film-act. Considering the homology that constituted the U.S Third World Left, this format gained a new level of importance in creating what Solanas and Getino called “a liberated space, a decolonised territory” that incurred upon and occupied spaces within capitalist society” (Solanas, Getino 1969).  These became sites in which radical film allowed people to situate themselves in relation to political struggle. The militant rhetoric of Third Cinema was also adopted. Films like Ice (Robert Kramer, U.S., 1970), the documentary Summer 68’ (Newsreel, U.S., 1968), and the Black Panther Party campaign video, Off the Pigs (Newsreel, U.S., 1968), reflected not only the growing militancy within the left, but also the connections between white middle class students, black militants, and the influence of Third World independence movements on both. Newsreel also produced Peoples War (U.S. 1969), the first U.S. film shot entirely in Northern Vietnam.

The Newsreel logo that appears at the beginning of each of their films flashes onto the screen accompanied by the sound of a machine gun, borrowing directly from Alvarez’s Now (Cuba, 1965). This is significant for Third Cinema because it introduces film as a weapon to be used in the cause of revolution. Summer of 68’ pools Third Cinema techniques with those of North American Direct Cinema to create a text that functions both as a newsreel and a reflexive analysis of the methods of revolutionary filmmaking, as well those of the broader radical left. The opening sequence forfeits any claims to ‘objectivity’, immediately situating the film on the side of the protestors shown at the Chicago Democratic National Convention of 1968. Shots of protestors and running battles with police are underscored by a mixture of narration and speeches recorded on the day of the action, showing Newsreel’s ability to combine topicality and analysis. Over a sporadic series of jump cuts the narration opens: “the movement’s belief is that what we want corresponds to the real needs of everyone who’s oppressed”, a line that highlights both the connectedness of different sections of the left and the presumptuousness of those in a more privileged position, that is, the body of mostly white middle class students who had more control over the means of representation than black and Latino workers. This opening line displays the slippage between colonialism and racism that was to become one of the main areas of debate as the radical left moved towards Third Worldism. In this case the film’s eagerly oppositional stance means it replaces the multitude of interests within the radical left with a unity that, to be fair, may have felt very real in a year when the movement was at its peak. The film’s reflexivity comes into focus in the following sequence, beginning with the only intertitle in the film “Agitation and Propaganda #505”. We then see Newsreel conducting a film screening, integrating the actions of the filmmaking group into the film itself. An activist from the Boston Draft Resistance Group (BDRG) introduces the film to a lecture theatre full of people: “You look at the film as a portrait of a reality that you can add into”. When he introduces Newsreel there is a sudden cut to the film being screened, at which point the dialogue within that film adds “we’d just like you to know that if any of you have a problem you should come see us”. The cut allows Newsreel to introduce itself into the narrative of the current film by way of an earlier film, which takes on an archival function. Newsreel can capture the film-act while introducing itself as a film. The pedagogical function is doubled. Not only can an audience add into the reality of a film, but film plays an active role in their reality, speaking to them on the level of any ‘real’ participant. Film, then, is as much an activist as anyone speaking to a lecture theatre full of people. This technique also shows the possibilities for an active archive, one in which any piece can be taken out and re-situated within another context. In this way the entire Newsreel catalogue could potentially function as one palimpestic text, continuously added to by new socio-cultural specificities that take what they need while the wholeness of each original text is maintained.

In this archive radicalism and education are inseparable, because it is only through their combination that consciousness can develop through the continuous revelation of the contradictions within a society. The film displays this unfolding of consciousness through a sequence of images of North Vietnam that were captured by one of the BDRG activists, whose self-reflexive narration accompanies them. His assertion that “I came back from Vietnam with a clear perception of what it meant to do political work” points to the relationship between the narrator’s subjectivity (his specific situated-ness) and the objective world. Through the juxtaposition of image and narration the film transfers this relational geography to the screen. It is this transfer that turns the self-reflexivity of the narrator outwards into a pedagogical tool, advocating the development of political consciousness by thrusting itself into the relational geography of the audience. In other words, the film makes itself into a tool through which the subject can situate itself in relation to the objective. This motive runs throughout the film. Utilising the Direct Cinema technique of closely following subjects, interspersed with occasional explanatory narration, the film shows the functionality of liberated or decolonised space. These shots are punctuated with Vietnam footage and still images, as in the sequence that shows two BDRG activists on the phone. I am reminded again of the intellectual montage of Alvarez when the mention of a “body-count” leads to a cut that shows the activists posing for a photo in Vietnam. This cut calls for the re-humanisation of the ‘body’ by posing the image of living people against the disinterested and mechanised notion of the ‘count’. It also displays an anti-colonial stance by imagining that similar disinterest could be shown towards the lives of white people. This form of intellectual montage dates back to the ‘kino-fist’ of Eisenstein, although it was the proponents of the New Latin American Cinema who articulated such methods in a neo-colonial context. In the late sixties Newsreel became one of the main distributors of Third World films in the U.S., helping to “demonstrate the importance of and need for such material” and drawing the American left into Third World struggle (Nichols 1984). The movement of the left towards Third Worldism corresponded to emerging tensions within Newsreel, as minority groups in the organisation began to question its role in society. Women and third world members demanded more control over the means of representation, while the aversion to Marxism that was perhaps an ideological hangover from the Cold War started to change into “a dynamic methodology that no longer contradicted but grew from Marxism” (Nichols 1984). Not only this, but the shifting political lens meant a movement “beyond Marx, Engels and Mao, to include black American and other Third World writers” (Young 2006). In the mid seventies two Newsreel members, Christine Choy and Susanne Robeson (Paul Robeson’s grand daughter), transformed the New York chapter of Newsreel into Third World Newsreel. San Francisco Newsreel (whose first film was Off The Pigs) became California Newsreel. In both cases the transformation was conducive with the consolidation of the U.S. Third World left as a Marxist movement inspired by Latin American and Pan-African cultures. Robeson began to frequent meetings of Third World filmmakers, notably the one held at the 1973 Pan-African National Congress (at which Ousmane Sembene and Med Hondo were also in attendance), and the 1974 Pan-African Federation of Film Producers meeting held in Senegal, at which Fernando Solanas was a speaker. Both Third World and California Newsreel are still active today, although their primary focus has shifted from filmmaking to distribution and skill sharing workshops.

You can watch Summer 68 in it’s entirety here: [youtube]

You can visit the websites of California Newsreel here, and Third World Newsreel here.

Author: Anthony Killick

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