U.S. political filmmaking: 2 stories

by John Hess

from Jump Cut, no. 8, 1975, pp. 23-25
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1975, 2004

Since the appearance of JUMP CUT No. 7 two events of considerable importance to political filmmakers have occurred.

Feds harass film crew

Four filmmakers—Emile de Antonio, Mary Lampson, Haskell and Jeff Wexler—were served with subpoenas, ordering them to appear before a Federal Grand Jury in Los Angeles on June 13 with all film and sound recordings from the film they are making about the Weather Underground. Mysteriously, the subpoenas were withdrawn a week before the scheduled appearance. The filmmakers had already declared that they would not cooperate with the Grand Jury, and many Hollywood notables had signed a statement defending them. Among these were Robert Wise, Hal Ashby, William Friedkin, Shirley MacLaine, Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Peter Bogdanovich, Terrence Malick, and even Elia Kazan.

Clearly, we have not returned to the days of the “Hollywood Ten,” but just as clearly the government had no qualms about trying to harass citizens who attack them or even criticize the system. Although the government would not say why the subpoenas were withdrawn, the quick reaction on the part of the filmmakers and the Hollywood community played an important part. But issuing and then withdrawing the subpoenas is a very powerful technique of harassment. Subpoenas which are withdrawn can be reissued at any time. Therefore the filmmakers are subject to immediate arrest. Since they fear confiscation of their materials, they are not now able to securely work on their film. Withdrawal of the subpoenas is not enough. They must be quashed and the filmmakers must be allowed to continue work on their film.

The Los Angeles ACLU, which is handling the case, has stated,

“Grand Juries were once established to protect a free people from overzealous governments. Today they have become the handmaiden of the prosecutor. They deny the basic democratic rights of witnesses to have counsel present, to present evidence, and to cross-examine hostile witnesses “ (Press release of June 6).

From Joanne Little in North Carolina to American Indians in North Dakota to the San Quentin Six and these filmmakers in California, the number of illegal political trials, government tampering in trials, and illegal uses of the Grand Jury system are mounting all over the country. No one who expresses their wish to live under a better social system is immune from government harassment. Everyone on the left must unite behind anyone who is attacked in order to prevent a return to the “Red Scare” days of the 1940s and 50s.

The history of the government harassment of these filmmakers and their reasons for wanting to do a film on the Weather Underground are so interesting that we are reprinting major portions of their press releases of June 6, 1975.

From: Emilé de Antonio

Harassment in film work is not novel to me. State, local, and federal police have all had a go at it for over 12 years. Electronically, and with threats, gumshoes from the White House to the Dallas Homicide Squad have poked around in my life and work. In addition, threats to bomb movie houses where my films played, theaters which have been stink bombed, theaters whose screens have been painted over with hammers and sickles and the word: “traitor.” I prize them all much as I did “liberating” Nixon’s Checkers Speech. It had been mothballed from its original delivery in September 1952 until MILLHOUSE: A WHITE COMEDY, in 1971.

I am now working on two films. The government has been keenly interested in both. One is a fiction film based on Philip Agee’s book, Inside the Company: CIA Diary. Communications between Agee and me stutter, sputter, falter. Once a call was interrupted for half an hour.

The other film is the subject of the subpoena, a film made with the Weather Underground. The untitled Weather Underground film began last year when I read an extraordinary work printed and distributed underground. It is called Prairie Fire. [...] Obviously Prairie Fire represented a change of direction for the Weather Underground; it meant an expansion, a coming out, a recognition of the need for coherent theory.

I read and reread and wanted to make a film with the people who wrote it and lived it. We met. It wasn't easy. We talked and planned: could such a film be made? How? Where? Who would be the crew? I obviously cannot and will not tell you anything at all about those meetings. Only that Haskell Wexler and Mary Lampson joined the project and that the film is in progress. When the subpoenas were served, we were ready for editing. The subpoenas have stopped that. Withdrawing subpoenas doesn't make the film any more possible right now. Will a new subpoena be issued? A search warrant? What stratagem will the Justice Department pull out of its holster? For example, were we to begin editing right now, I am confident we would be placed under surveillance and the film seized.

I believe we have a right to make this film. The film now lies still until we obtain judicial recognition of that right.

I took the position that, while we were still under subpoena, I would give the Grand Jury one fact and only that: my name. I can give the press more but not much more. My answer will have to be incomplete because what I say here may be used against me in the future.

As soon as a Federal Court proves to me that the Constitution is alive and well, I will tell you all. I will even invite Mr. Kelley and Guy Goodwin to a screening in Washington. I have nothing to hide; it is the government which doesn't want the film to be seen.

When the ACLU of Southern California, Bert Schneider, and many others helped us, I thought: why should that unity blow away after we finally win? I hope you who have helped us will go on. I hope that the film community here will create a group to help filmmakers everywhere. Memories of the Hollywood Ten, of the blacklisting of the 50s, of gray listing today, and current snooping make it a good thing that there are those who will work together to fight. It is only by fighting passionately, by being strong and aggressive that we can win. The battle may be more than a single film.

From: Mary Lampson

When D asked me if I would like to join him and Haskell in working on a film about the Weather Underground Organization and their politics, I started to think about what I knew about that group of people. I knew that in the past 5 years of underground life they had succeeded in building an efficient, flexible and effective organization. An organization capable of printing and distributing a collection of women’s poems, the first issue of a newspaper, OSAWATOMIE. That they had planned, and successfully carried out, a series of armed actions against institutions of the government in protest to the continuing involvement in the Viet Main war. That they were a group who had done all this and yet managed to avoid capture by a government with tremendous resources at its command. These people are usually portrayed as being extra-ordinary, different, crazy. And yet when I thought about it I realized that we had many things in common, they were people like me—who had gone to school and college at the same time; they had experienced the war in Vietnam as I had; the sense of outrage, impotence, frustration—whose commitment to ending the war had led them step-by-step to their present position. I had not followed the same path and did not agree with some of their positions.

Then I discovered that everyone who was to be involved in the film saw it as a dialogue between the three filmmakers, who came to it with their own point of view, and the Weather people. That they welcomed differences. At this point I agreed to participate, in fact I felt very lucky to have that chance.

[...] The strength of a movement can be judged in part by the government’s reaction to it. Their response to this film has been swift and harsh. They do not want to allow the U.S. people a chance to react to the ideas expressed in this film. The government withdrawal of the subpoenas is a response to the support which people already have given to our right to make this film. We expect continued harassment by government agencies at every step and we intend to finish it.

If we are subpoenaed to appear before the Grand Jury again, we will not cooperate and will refuse to answer any questions.

From: Haskell Wexler

I am a cameraman-filmmaker. I have photographed many feature films and documentaries. My documentary work goes back 30 years. The subjects include labor, civil rights, Stravinsky (CBS), Bob Hope (NBC), interview with My Lai veterans, expose of torture in Brazil, interview with Salvadore Allende, the Catonsville 9, and most recently a film with Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden about Vietnam.

I have been the subject of intelligence agency operations, harassments, interrogations in varying degrees of intensity, for years. This includes IRS audits triggered by the Special Services Staff, Naval Investigative Services interrogations, Army and secret service surveillance in cooperation with Mayor Daley’s Red Squad in Chicago before, during, and after the making of MEDIUM COOL.

For the past three weeks the FBI has tailed me, tapped my phones, photographed me, my house, my cars, and spied from a hillside with binoculars. Although this is not a new experience, I asked my lawyer to contact the FBI to find out what was going on. The answer came in the form of a subpoena.

Months back, Emile de Antonio and I planned to work together on a documentary film about the Weather Underground and its politics, including its views on the FBI, victory of the Vietnamese people, racism in America, moral and practical aspects of violence and a dialogue between the filmmakers and the Weather Underground, on U.S. foreign and domestic policy.

Though we work from somewhat differing viewpoints, de Antonio and I embarked on this film. In addition to presenting the positions of the Weather Underground, we believe this film will expose aspects of a secret government, a repressive complex which existed before Watergate and continues after.

I am asked by this subpoena to deliver material done with the Weather Underground, to deliver the fragmentary beginnings of our film, what is essentially our notes, our raw material. I do not have the film demanded by the Grand Jury. Even if I did, I would not release it. I make films to be seen, not hidden. If the FBI would stop harassment, we could finish our film. They would be welcome to see it on television or pay in the theatre like other people do.

If we are subpoenaed to appear before the Grand Jury again, we will not cooperate, and will refuse to answer any questions.


Emile de Antonio included in his press release a series of White House memoranda about both MILLHOUSE: A WHITE DOCUMENTARY and THE CHECKERS SPEECH. These memoranda, however ludicrous they sound, reveal how important the ruling class sees film and to what lengths they are prepared to go to stop one they don't like.

June 25, 1971: Jack Caufield to John Dean

I recommend we watch the progress of the film, taking particular note to determine if Larry O'Brien is stupid enough to get behind it. If so, we can, armed with the Bureau’s information, do a Nofziger job on de Antonio and O'Brien, thereby losing the battle but winning the war.

August 10, 1971: Jack Caufield to John Dean

I will have someone take a look at the Washington showing of the Checkers Speech once it is advertised, with a view towards determining if the showing is a shady, money-making scheme or a politically directed attack—or both.

October 13, 1971: Jack Caufield to John Dean

This matter seems to be building. You are reminded that a    significant derogatory dossier is in the hands of the bureau vis-a-vis de Antonio. My view is that we should use such information at a propitious moment—ideally when interest or support for the fun is evidenced by Larry O'Brien and company.

October 15, 1971: Jack Caufield to John Dean

Attached is a copy of a Variety article indicating the expected interest of the D.N.C. in “Millhouse.” I recommend that it is, time to move on the above firm and individuals, as follows:

A) Release of de Antonio’s F.B.I. derogatory background to friendly media.

B) Discreet IRS audits of New Yorker Films, Inc., de Antonio, and Talbot. [Dan Talbot, head of New Yorker Films—JH]

Note: Talbot advised our source today that massive distribution of the film is planned for colleges after 1/15/72.

October 20, 1971: Jack Caufield to John Dean

Talbot was pretext interviewed during a visit to his office ... Talbot’s office was observed as being a sloppy one room operation with no secretary.

Talbot advised that his future plans for the film include distribution to college groups on a lease basis. He also described plans to distribute the film to other cities, but careful questioning determined a market only in third and fourth rate theatres.

Even though the financial handling and distribution of this film appears to be in the hands of amateurs, it must be remembered that it is getting considerable play in the liberal press. Additionally, D'Antonio was interviewed by Agronsky on TV this past week. Further, Variety reported the DNC approached D'Antonio with a view towards acquiring the film.

I feel that there is potential here for this film to take fire and become a cause celebre. At the moment only the radical left is patronizing it. We must be quite careful not to be identified with any act or actions which would incite the interest of the general public. Resultantly, any action taken vis-à-vis D'Antonio or Talbot should be weighed carefully and well hidden. This includes previous comments re D'Antonio’s background and our capability at I.R.S.


Political filmmakers should not work on the assumption that they are working in a democratic country. Many of our “freedoms” are illusory and disappear when tested. It is also clear how much the ruling class fears political films; that is why they are so hard to get money for and to distribute. We must, however, continue to make political films which counter the ideological hegemony of the bourgeoisie, and we must make sure that people see them. Film is a powerful propaganda weapon and, like any propaganda weapon, can be used by anyone with adequate means. Mass media are in general very expensive, but we cannot allow the bourgeoisie to totally dominate them.

Cine Manifest split

At the end of July, Cine Manifest (JC No. 3) suffered a serious split, and Peter Gessner (FINALLY GOT THE NEWS) left the collective. Cine Manifest had received $200,000 from the Public Broadcasting System’s “Visions” series to make OVER-UNDER, SIDEWAYS-DOWN and had begun shooting under the co-direction of Gessner and Gene Corr (the co-authors of the script). Ever since their founding in 1972, Cine Manifest has been working toward the time when they could make a dramatic, political feature film. That the achievement of that goal should produce a serious and acrimonious split poses many important questions about the kind of collectivity they had achieved. It is clear that serious personal and political contradictions (not always separable) were pasted over or ignored in the interest of moving on with the task they had set themselves. Once the moment of fruition arrived, these differences surfaced—at exactly that time when a political organization needs the strength of unity.

Even if I had all the facts, I would not see any sense in trying to judge Cine Manifest or to place blame on this or that individual. As in most such splits, there is right and wrong on both sides. Responsibility must be borne by the collective which failed to deal adequately with significant differences as part of preparing itself to make a film.

The left today is full of small groups trying to work collectively. But the pressures of life under capitalism and the strength of bourgeois ideology are so great that many of these groups fail in moments of crisis because their collectivity is idealistic instead of materialistic, based on forms and appearances, not on substance and reality. Collectivity depends on absolute equality of the members in a material sense. If one member has more real power—financial, legal, structural—than the others, then there is no collective. And the sooner the group realizes this and structures itself accordingly, the better it will function. Beyond the obviously necessary political agreement, the most important thing in any left group activity is that everyone in the group have a very clear picture of what the group’s real structure is.

The extent to which these comments apply to Cine Manifest is not clear to me. Cine Manifest’s ultimate test will be their film and their ability to make more and better films after this one. Their desire to make mass political film is a significant question for filmmakers and critics alike. I hope OVER-UNDER, SIDEWAYS-DOWN will help us answer that question. I wish both Cine Manifest and Peter Gessner, an important political filmmaker in his own right, success in their future work.