“But I ain't got no more to say into it. I've been trying to forget about all of that, and this is just bringing it all back up.” Ethel and R.A. Atkins, Honea Path, South Carolina. In many small towns, the strike’s existence had not been publicly acknowledged for over sixty years.
Mill workers in a spinning room in the 1930s. Stoney and Helfand showed surviving workers copies of letters that ‘34 mill workers wrote to the Roosevelt administration demanding that the government protect their rights as workers and citizens.
Honea Path, South Carolina, was the scene of the most violent confrontation during the 1934 strike. There seven local workers were killed by townspeople deputized to guard the mill from striking protesters.
The strike began on Labor Day, 1934, and involved almost 500,000 workers in 21 states from Maine to Alabama. Stoney and Helfand used footage taken of the strike to refresh interviewees’ memories for the film.
of The Uprising Of ’34:
On May 29, 1955, the citizens of Honea Path, South Carolina, dedicated a memorial to the seven local workers who had been killed during the general textile strike of 1934. The existence of the strike had been publicly unacknowledged for over sixty years, buried in the memories of local participants and their families. Only through the production and distribution of a documentary, The Uprising of ‘34, did the events and significance of the strike return to public awareness, affecting citizens not only in Honea Path but in towns throughout the southeastern United States.
Makers of a politically committed documentary film might like to imagine an audience responding to a film by rising up out of their seats and taking to the streets.1 However, they are probably satisfied if their film “changed the audience’s perceptions” or “increased awareness” of a problem. Given the long-standing interest of political activists in using documentaries for social change, it seems strange that most activists and media scholars still do not clearly understand what the political impact of a documentary film can or even should be. I would like to take up this question, what the “impact” of documentary film might mean, especially in terms of its production and distribution, by using as a case study a seemingly “perfect example”: George Stoney and Judith Helfand’s The Uprising of ’34.
The Uprising of ’34 is a perfect example of the politically committed documentary in three respects. First, the film represents the collaboration of two generations of activist filmmakers. George Stoney was a pioneer in community-based filmmaking. Now with Stoney’s collaborating with Judith Helfand, the two directors continue to explore new possibilities of coalition-based production and distribution. Second, as we will see below, Stoney and Helfand thought about the film’s potential use and impact throughout the entire process—through research, planning, production, and distribution. Third, The Uprising of ’34 embodies what Thomas Waugh terms the “committed documentary”—films that have a goal of “socio-political transformation,” take an “activist stance,” and are subject-centered—
Social scientists often look too narrowly at the political impact of a documentary film, assessing the impact of a finished film within the dominant public discourse and on individual citizens. Unfortunately, such a focus may look mainly at the circumstances where film would least likely have an impact; at best, such an investigation of a film’s impact provides us only with a limited understanding of the multifaceted, complex ways in which film enters the political process.
To assess impact adequately, we must first of all evaluate the entire filmmaking process, including both production and distribution, and not simply the finished product. A film’s development, production, and distribution create extensive opportunities for interaction among producers, participants, activists, decision makers, and citizens, and thus all the stages of a film can affect its impact. By the time an individual citizen sees the work, other moments at which the work has or could have had political impact may have already passed.
Second, to assess a politically committed film’s impact, we must also consider the larger political context, including relevant social movements and the networks of activists and elites associated with the issues that the film raises. Rather than just examining a film’s impact on individual viewers, a broader analysis of context might also lead us to evaluate a film’s potential effects on its producers and other participants involved in production, on activist groups that might contribute to or use the film, and on decision makers and other elites that might hear about the film. A political documentary has a more extensive range of effects beyond changes in individual understanding or attitude. For example, in certain circumstances a film might have a concrete effect on social behavior—if not audiences’ rising up at the end of a screening and taking to the streets, then perhaps community activists’ using screenings as a tool in local communities, or elites’ introducing legislation to address an issue that a film had raised.
Third, a committed documentary’s impact is most likely to be on discourses outside the mainstream, since social movements often strive to create and sustain alternative spheres of public discourse. Many political documentaries may never achieve widespread distribution and do not enter mainstream public discourse but still have an impact in certain subcultures, educating and mobilizing activists working to create social change.Producing for change
The planning, research, and production process for The Uprising of ’34 reflects the collaboration of two filmmakers with a passionate commitment to community-based film. Stoney and Helfand developed a “coalition model” of production for the film that involved the extensive participation of activist groups, scholars, and individual citizens.3 George Stoney, a life-long innovator in community-based film, has written, directed, and produced over fifty documentaries and television series, including All My Babies (1953), How the Myth Was Made (1978), The Weavers: Wasn't That A Time (1982), and Images of the Great Depression (1990). Stoney was Executive Producer for the National Film Board of Canada’s “Challenge for Change” program, which pioneered collaborative, community-based production, and he later co-founded the Alternate Media Center at New York University, which is credited with developing the concept of public access cable television.
Judith Helfand, a former student of Stoney’s, has continued to explore new variations on collaborative models. In her A Healthy Baby Girl (1996), an autobiographical documentary about her experience with cancer caused by DES, she recorded her meetings with focus groups “as a way of documenting the process of filmmakers collaborating with community organizers and educators to make media that is truly effective in both its production and use.” These focus groups included organizers and educators involved in a wide variety of relevant issues, including labor, the environment, and women’s health. As one part of her distribution efforts, Helfand linked her film to a national campaign by Health Care Without Harm for environmentally sensitive health care. Her work continues with Blue Vinyl: A Toxic Comedy for the Turn of the Century, about vinyl workers and communities who live in the shadows of the petrochemical industry. To develop and coordinate the public education and organizing associated with that film, Helfand has co-founded Working Films, a new non-profit organization “dedicated to strategically linking filmmaking to long-term social change.” The organization’s objective is to
The Uprising of ’34 originated from a request made to Stoney from the “Consortium on the General Textile Strike of 1934,” a loose association of scholars, organizers, and union activists who were interested in labor history and who wanted a film produced on the 1934 textile strike. The strike began on Labor Day, involving almost 500,000 workers in twenty-one states from Maine to Alabama, and ended in defeat three weeks later. The members of the Consortium knew the strike was important in Southern labor history but also knew that few people today had heard of it, much less of its violent suppression and continuing legacy. When Helfand joined the project in the summer of 1990, she began systematically tracking down primary source materials, particularly archival materials that could lead to the identification of the strike’s participants. Funding for the film came from a large number of organizations, including the MacArthur Foundation, the Southern Humanities Media Fund, several state humanities councils, a variety of unions, the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, and the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, and it was ultimately presented on TV through the Independent Television Service (ITVS).
Labor history has long been suppressed in Southern U.S. culture. To counter the loss of political memory, the film explores the by-now unfamiliar events of 1934 by combining rare archival footage and dozens of contemporary interviews. The strike itself had lasted three weeks, involving hundreds of thousands of cotton mill workers, who were challenging the working conditions in the mills. The film documents the events of the strike but more importantly probes the strike’s incredible disappearance from our historical conscience, especially in the communities in which major events took place.
In the process of developing the project, the filmmakers found themselves involved in a fascinating set of interactions with Southern communities. Armed with videotape of original Fox Movietone newsreel footage, primarily unedited outtakes of the strike, Stoney and Helfand visited some of the strike’s key locations, hoping to refresh memories and generate publicity to gather interviewees for the film.
The producers then publicized a toll-free number that people could call to volunteer recollections or any information relevant to the film.
Stoney and Helfand approached the project as an example of “participatory filmmaking,” in which all interested parties would take an active part in the filmmaking process. Also from the beginning the filmmakers considered the film’s potential use--this was not to be a film that would be broadcast once on public television and then relegated to the archives. Rather, it was to be useful for local community organizations, union organizers, or educators, and scholars. Stoney and Helfand sought to produce a work that would stimulate real discussions “about labor, class, race, history, power, memory, and shame.” According to Stoney, “the primary purpose of [The Uprising of ’34] is to help divided communities come together and talk.”5
Throughout the production process, the filmmakers asked a wide variety of individuals and organizations to become involved. They especially encouraged the cooperation of many individual citizens, particularly former union members and their descendants from small textile communities throughout the Southeastern United States. The producers hoped that this extensive engagement of people in shaping the film’s content would not only improve the film but also give everyone involved greater incentive to use it. Even newspaper reporters were invited to cover the production process. Not only did that presumably increase reporters’ interest in covering the finished film, but newspaper stories also played a role in leading more former mill workers to come forward to speak about the events of 1934.
This extensive collaboration with scholars, activists, and community members continued during the editing stage. The filmmakers held preview screenings of the rough cut in many venues, from meetings of labor groups to scholarly conferences to small-town gatherings. Helfand and Stoney received feedback on the film’s style (too fast, too slow, too confusing) and content (not enough to counteract stereotypes, not enough on race) and on the needs of activists and organizers. These reactions shaped the final editing film—for example, the makers then added a new section on the role of African American service workers in the mill villages.
Producing a political documentary means intervening in an ongoing social and political process. The production process itself may act as a catalyst in different ways. In assessing the impact of this film’s production, I have sought to consider its impact on interviewees, particularly those elderly participants in or observers of strike-related events. For most of these participants, getting involved in the film’s production meant that for the first time they were encouraged to speak about long-suppressed events. As a result, speaking out sometimes had a cathartic or therapeutic effect. Most had never spoken publicly about the events of 1934, and now the film provided a new context in which to understand their experiences, a context of which most were not aware. For some the experience was too painful. As one woman says at the beginning of the film “I ain't got no more to say into it. I've been trying to forget about all of that, and this is just bringing it all back up.”Distributing for change
From the makers’ perspective, distribution started with production. Everyone involved in any way with the production process now became a contact for distribution, since distribution involved the same wide coalition of organizations and individuals. While the filmmakers sought and certainly appreciated getting a mass viewership through television, their primary distribution strategy was get the film out to groups who would most benefit from it. The producers particularly tried to “bring the film back home” to the communities in the Carolinas where the strike occurred. Far from leaving the outreach potential of their film in the hands of a distributor, Stoney and Helfand personally devoted their time to ensure that the film reached the grassroots.
To set up group screenings, local activists and educators created a variety of public spaces in which citizens could encounter the film. Most active were labor organizers, in particular from the Carolina Alliance for Fair Employment (CAFE), South Carolina United Action, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), United Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE), and Grassroots Leadership. Educators at all levels were also involved, including those in high schools, technical colleges, universities, continuing education, community literacy programs, and museum programming (e.g., Kannapolis, Charlotte). Screenings took place in cultural centers such as the Peace Center in Greenville, malls, community meetings, libraries, national union meetings of both the SEIU and the Conference of National Organizers Alliance, a workshop on labor history in Charleston, religious conventions such as the Quakers Palmetto gathering, and labor meetings such as the Greenwood chapter meeting of CAFE. Groups also donated copies of the film to community and high school libraries in North and South Carolina.
To guide public presentations of the film, Stoney and Helfand promoted an innovative “coalition screening” model. They encouraged presenters to bring together disparate community organizations, including labor unions, peace and justice groups, schools, churches, and other community groups. In Orangeburg SC, for example, when the South Carolina Public Television decided not to broadcast the national P.O.V. feed, a community organizing group, South Carolina United Action, organized a screening at South Carolina State University, co-sponsored by the university History Department and local trade union chapters of the Communication Workers of America, United Auto Workers, and UNITE.
Central to the coalition screening model is the principle of establishing a context for the audience. Because they wanted the film to be a vehicle to promote community discussions about labor issues, the filmmakers specifically tried to avoid casting it simply as a pro-labor film, an “us vs. them” exercise in historical blame. Focused on an historical event, the film does not make any explicit connection to contemporary labor issues. However, the filmmakers assumed that when such a context was provided at a screening where one of the co-sponsors was a union, it would naturally lead an audience to such a discussion. In other contexts, the film could be framed in other ways: as a film on class issues, on gender issues, on issues of historical research (from what perspective is history told?) or on issues related to media literacy.
When the national PBS broadcast aired on June 27, 1995, as part of the P.O.V. series, Stoney and Helfand understood the film might be received by an audience of passive individuals: “P.O.V. is a legitimizing gesture, but it doesn't’t have much effect when people see the tape alone, late at night, on television.”6 To counter passive, isolated TV viewership of their work, the filmmakers organized a “Labor to Neighbor” program to get local community groups to utilize the national television feed. In this way, union members might invite their neighbors to come over to watch the national broadcast. Supplied with a discussion guide, they could lead a discussion before and after the broadcast. And the following day, participating union locals could sponsor brown-bag discussions about the members’ experience of sharing labor history with their neighbors.
Drawing on their contacts within the National Organizers Association, Stoney and Helfand identified groups across the nation that might organize such “Labor to Neighbor” viewings. In Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, for example, one organizer invited the community to gather in a local church after the broadcast to discuss the issues raised. Other events were held in Massachusetts, Montana, North Carolina, and Maine. In New York, Manhattan Cable sponsored a live call-in discussion for hours after the broadcast. In September 1995, Stoney and Helfand promoted a similar program, announcing a “Nation-Wide Labor Day Initiative” with the theme of “Linking the Community to the Classroom.” During that month, they hoped to bring social studies teachers, their students, and working people together to attend screenings and discuss the contemporary relevance of labor history.