Newsreels under Pressure
I write this short essay in the University of Michigan library. Thirty years ago or so a group of students regularly projected the films of Newsreel against the outside of this library, a busy thoroughfare between the neighborhoods and the university Diag (where most political protests take place to this day). When I first heard this story, I was struck by the image of this wall=screen as an interface between an interior storing knowledge from around the world and an exterior graced with an ephemeral intervention contesting common sense knowledge and the politics that informed it. The books inside lay in wait for readers; the images flung against the wall snared passersby, capturing their attention on, presenting them with alternative takes on the most pressing issues of the day, and then sending them on their way to act in and on the world.
As Allan Siegel notes in his essay for the retrospective catalog, the fact that Jonas Mekas recorded the first Newsreel meetings with his Nagra suggests they recognized the historical importance of their endeavor. However, despite the apparent historical weightiness suggested by this anecdote, the degree to which Newsreel and its foreign counterparts were cognizant of each other or of their precursors at this formative moment remains unclear. It is unlikely they required precedents in any case; in times of struggle one considers the weight of the weapons at hand—and the risk of their deployment—and then moves in the present, thinking about the future. This is an attempt to place Newsreel in a larger picture, in an expanse of time and space.
First, we must think of Newsreel as an eminently modern phenomenon. Times of political conflict and oppression, of which there are so many examples for in the last century, inevitably provoke struggles to envision alternative ways of life and new modes of organization. Masses of people gather. They write their dissent in the amorphous crowd, moving through urban space with their placards and banners, a writhing throng of symbols that gathers and disappears (sometimes not by choice). In the modern era, this dissent was also committed to and distributed on all manner of new media, thanks to the printing press, the typewriter, and the mimeograph. Or in the most extreme of situations, people resorted to more surreptitious and less permanent modes of communication, like gossip and graffiti. In the twentieth century cinema, that most modern and novel of the arts, offered a new route to voice dissent, to envision new ways of being, and to mobilize people of like mind into action.
It took several decades after the invention of cinema to realize this possibility. In the late 1920s, advocates of the dispossessed took up cameras and made the metaphor of “camera as weapon” their motto. They themselves had the example of the Soviets, most particularly Dziga Vertov and his kinoks. Their mobile train units, plying the countryside with both cameras and projectors, would provide a model for both activists and governments for decades to come. However, theirs was a post-revolutionary situation, and thus a well-funded one at that. This is a decisive difference.
Probably more important than the Soviets was the marketing of low-cost, small-gauge cameras and projectors, a relatively minor aspect of the new commodification of leisure time. All it took was a small leap of the imagination to appropriate these new toys of the bourgeoisie—manufactured by the likes of Kodak and Pathé—and transform them into megaphones for voicing dissent, tools for spinning new networks among widely scattered and anonymous comrades-in-arms. Newsreel-like collectives sprung up around the world, probably starting with Japan’s Proletarian Film League of Japan in 1928 and followed shortly in places like Germany, Korea, and the United States. These politicized groups made and distributed films before government suppression or the inevitable complications of human organizations led to their dissolution after only a few years. The 1940s and 1950s were a relatively quiet time for this brand of collective filmmaking. More typical was the individualized effort of politically engaged directors like Kamei Fumio and Joris Ivens, to name only two among the many.
If a comparison of the Newsreel and its 1930s counterparts reveals anything, it is the apparent necessity of pressure. The late 1960s presented another pressure cooker situation, with the added dimension of what appeared to be the possibility of revolution in many parts of the world. Amidst all this turmoil, Jonas Mekas convened a small gathering of filmmakers in Manhattan and Newsreel was born. Considering the area’s concentration of filmmaking talent and the increasing use of 16mm film for alternative cinemas of one sort or another, Newsreel was probably inevitable.
I would like to highlight the presence, at that inaugural meeting, of a Japanese filmmaker. Oe Masanori’s participation at the birth of Newsreel signals a new stage for the activist camera. Back in the early 1930s, the U.S. Workers Farm and Photo League knew of Japan’s Prokino only through a single, short article in an issue of Experimental Cinema. Neither distributed, let alone saw, the other’s work. In stark contrast, Newsreel had an international dimension from its first meeting. Similar groups spontaneously appeared all over the world. Initially, they were unaware of each other. New York’s Newsreel, for example, had no idea that a very similar group, Ogawa Shinsuke and other students’ Independent Screening Organization, had emerged in Tokyo two years earlier. However, since the 1930s, transportation and communications technologies had vastly improved and Newsreel’s networking activities immediately attained a global reach. The various groups engineered equipment and print swaps and began distributing each other’s work, in effect networking struggles all over the world. Watching films from faraway collectives was a strong experience, as evidenced by the following quote from a Japanese high school student about 1960s newsreels:
“They felt in their bodies the fear of their own police state. But what of Japan? The government is establishing American and Self-Defense Forces bases within a daily life that takes the appearance of calm, they utilize political power on the basis of a police state. Naturally, young people light a firestorm of opposition and defiance of authority, recalling Paris in May in their struggle for freedom and the liberation of humanity. Then those flames spread to Haneda, Yokosuka, Sasebo, Sanrizuka . . . There are tremors that continue ceaselessly in the present, pointing to the reemergence of a new Paris-like insurgency.”
We may not react to these films with the same passion. However, Newsreel and its foreign counterparts do give us all an opportunity to think about a wide set of relationships: past and present, film and video, moving image media and the internet, alternative and mainstream, politics and aesthetic, production and reception, the group and the individual—there are many agenda items on the table at Yamagata this fall.