The last word
Political filmmaking

by the Editors

from Jump Cut, no. 3, 1974, p. 24
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1974, 2004

This issue contains an interview with and an article by people working in independent political filmmaking, a subject that JUMP CUT will continue to explore in future issues. The views presented certainly don't exhaust the range of the subject, but they offer some obvious contrasts.

Following the French general strike in May-June, 1968, Jean-Pierre Gorin became Jean-Luc Godard’s partner. The two have pursued a revolutionary form to match an explicitly revolutionary content, and they produced the most controversial political films of the past six years. Cine Manifest is a new group working in San Francisco, coming to terms with their diverse experience in film and radical politics, and trying to create progressive new films for the mass audience.

Despite their differences, these filmmakers are engaged with the same problems of subject matter and treatment, relation to the film audience, and defining who that audience is or should be ... all of them, finally, political questions.

In this context it’s useful to raise another question, or rather to recall one raised several years ago by Norm Fruchter about left media work. In an article in LIBERATION (May, 71) Fruchter, who had worked in a Newsreel collective, made a number of criticisms of the way the movement of the 60s dealt with the media. One criticism was of the drift of radicals from direct organizing into one form or another of propaganda work: the underground press, research groups, printing efforts, and the Newsreel collectives. Although these groupings shared the larger political and organizational problems of the left at the time, they also took on their own characteristic form. Often the work at hand required only a small working collective, was task oriented, involved strong primary relations with each other, accentuated political discussion, and had an absorbing, rotating division of labor. The positive achievement of this form was to define a style of collective and participative work (and frequently a context in which questions such as personal elitism and sexism could be raised, and sometimes fruitfully dealt with). However, the collective also tended to function as an isolated group, defining itself and its media work in a “we/them” dichotomy, with no direct contact with “them”—the people they were trying to communicate with. As Fruchter stated it,

“Almost all propaganda work is a way of doing political work without directly facing or confronting a constituency ... “

The criticism remains with us today, whether the filmmaker is an individual or a collective. In many ways the problem is aggravated by the decline of the mass movement of the 60s. Then at least one could feel that a political film was going out to “the movement” where it would be used and where it would aid people in motion. Today that national organized movement is much harder to identify. Where it appears it is largely engaged in one kind of educational work or another—essentially the making and distributing of propaganda—or in service work, except for scattered local struggles for power. Which is to say, we're in a different historical moment, and that the same basic questions have to be answered in fresh terms.

Film in and of itself is not a viable way of breaking out of this relative isolation. Film appears as a finished product, a totality, with the result that documentaries or films of political analysis appear more coherent and unified than the original situation was. The makers appear, in turn, more certain—and unfortunately sometimes more rhetorical and dogmatic—than they really are. Movies are essentially private and reflective, passive individual experiences. And to equate the viewing experience, however intellectually engaging, with political action is false. Although there have been some video attempts to turn the screen around, to make the viewer an active participant in two way communication, the practical results we know of make it more of a group discussion with electronic apparatus present than anything else. At best, political films can only have a limited effect when operating without a direct relation to ongoing political activity. To paraphrase the Peruvian poet Caesar Vallejo, people become revolutionaries not from ideas they learn but from lived experience.

But dealing with these problems cannot be based on singing the “Where Has the Movement Gone” blues. U.S. film people—makers and users—have the opportunity now to learn from the lessons of the past, explore the realities of the present, and establish a relation to audience and constituency that goes beyond the already radicalized—who were, all too often, the exclusive audience for radical media in the past. For a radical today, using one’s skills making films might be, but does not have to be, “a way of doing political work without directly facing or confronting a constituency.” Fruchter’s criticism is still pertinent. But it must be responded to with the creative tension of working with a constant awareness of and commitment to a constituency. Two questions about one’s work go a long way to keeping it from being an escape: “For whom?” and “For what end?”

Cine Manifest argues for films that combine a left perspective with a popular narrative form already familiar to the mass audience, while Gorin and Godard believe that traditional forms themselves negate radical content. This question has been the most hotly discussed one among political filmmakers and critics here and abroad in recent years. One solution to the question has been offered by some feminist filmmakers in the United States who have shown it is possible to reach new audiences—in women’s groups, libraries, and public schools—with films that combine personal statement and political analysis with experimental and innovative means. We do not have a formula for the best kind of political filmmaking, but can see that answering the questions “For whom?” and “For what end?” is a necessary step. The fact is that there are political struggles filmmakers can relate to and audiences who need their films.