by Bill Nichols
Cut, no. 17, April 1978, pp. 10-13
Since spring 1973 various members and former members of California Newsreel (previously called San Francisco Newsreel) have produced four films. A close look at these films will offer a better understanding of the group's dynamic as well as a view of some of the problems and successes of political filmmaking within the post-New-Left American movement. These films have their greatest value in ongoing political struggles to organize and mobilize working class and Third World peoples. It is important to bear this in mind as a fundamental quality for it places them in a different context than left-liberal films that circulate predominantly in a middle class, educational context (colleges, high schools, public libraries), such as IN THE YEAR OF THE PIG (Emile de Antonio, 1968), GROWING UP FEMALE (Julia Reichert/Jim Klein, 1970), and I.F. STONE'S WEEKLY (Jerry Bruck, Jr., 1976). In contrast, the Newsreel films are more direct organizing tools, and the three I've seen all have useful roles to play.
This is crucial. For whatever formal or stylistic flaws they have, they nonetheless work politically. Many of the problems I raise about them are problems that the films' intended audiences also raise. Other problems relate to theoretical questions about political films in general. As I discuss the films, I will be concerned with the broader question of the aesthetics of political cinema, and the attempt to build a revolutionary culture grounded in Marxist theory and dedicated to a radical transformation of the status quo. Despite their flaws, these Newsreel films play a role in this struggle.
The four films are 38 FAMILIES, REVOLUTION UNTIL VICTORY, THE BEGINNING OF OUR VICTORY, and REDEVELOPMENT.  Newsreel began work on 38 FAMILIES and REVOLUTION UNTIL VICTORY prior to spring, 1973, but political upheaval in the group delayed both films. The issues were very complex, but the net result was that the majority of the members (mostly Third World) voted in February, 1973, to purge four members of the leadership (all white), who had moved close to or already joined the Revolutionary Communist Party (a Maoist group, formerly the Revolutionary Union).  The purged members formed Single Spark Films, allied themselves formally with the RCP, completed REVOLUTION UNTIL VICTORY on their own, and went on to make THE BEGINNING OF OUR VICTORY, a film I have not yet been able to see.
Members of the remaining Newsreel majority had already completed 38 FAMILIES, but then fell inactive as members drifted away. In 1975, Resolution Films, a group of five filmmakers, made REDEVELOPMENT and began to distribute it in association with Newsreel. Several people from Resolution and some people who had been recruited to Newsreel after the 1973 split now run California Newsreel in San Francisco and have recently expanded both production and distribution. They have also established a branch in Los Angeles.
In many ways, 38 FAMILIES and REVOLUTION UNTIL VICTORY reflect the enormous gap in filmmaking skills between leadership and membership at the time of purge. The membership had little filmmaking experience and little training inside Newsreel. Therefore 38 FAMILIES has a number of flaws that limit its political value. Basically, the film recounts the story of 38 families in Salinas, California who were evicted from a trailer court when they joined a strike against the farm company that also owned the court. All the families were Chicano and they banded together, refusing to leave their homes. When the company called in the police to evict the families, many of them set up a tent camp in an abandoned lot across the street. After a period of continual pressure on the city government, local officials allowed the families to move into an abandoned Army camp where they were told the city would provide decent housing within 90 days.
Although this series of events is relatively straightforward, it is actually difficult to reconstruct accurately from the film. The participants themselves tell much of the story in interviews (in Spanish, translated voice-over). The film jumps back and forth in time from speakers describing events to more cinema-verité-like coverage of actual events. But the film does so without clarifying the relation of description to events, sometimes alluding to central points such as the onset of the strike in a passing phrase. The film resembles those of Emile de Antonio or Cinda Firestone's ATTICA (1974) in its attempt to construct an overview from sync interview material. But 38 FAMILIES is less successful. The interviewees are all participants with similar points of view, and this prevents the use of counterpoint and contrast such as Firestone employs when she cuts from the McKay Commission hearings to the Atttica inmates' testimony. The similar viewpoints in 38 FAMILIES compel the filmmakers to duplicate the omissions, repetitions, emphases, and contextual understanding of the participants rather than to formulate a broader interpretation of their own, as Firestone and De Antonio consistently do. The result is a high degree of confusion rather than clarification of issues.
Although the film doesn't draw more general conclusions from these particular events, its greatest value lies in its explicit treatment of a people and their struggle on levels that the mass media consistently neglect. Because it is the direct address of the people involved in the struggle, the interview material yields a strong sense of "being there." To show how people who are living in the midst of a situation perceive and articulate it can teach us how to communicate with other people in similar situations. Yet a film needs a clearer political analysis in addition to this basic rapport.
The makers of the film are aware of most of these shortcomings, which they argue are symptomatic of their relationships with the purged minority. During this time the more experienced members of Newsreel, including those later purged, devoted themselves exclusively to work on REVOLUTION UNTIL VICTORY to the neglect of other projects or training others. Therefore the makers of 38 FAMILIES lacked guidance. Furthermore they had no overall advance strategy. Consequently, the film did not raise the political questions relevant to the Chicano movement as a whole. The Third World members, some of whom were Chicano, undertook the project in order to do something, to feel useful, and because they thought their own Third World heritage would afford them some measure of rapport with the people they filmed. How many of the film's problems are directly attributable to the leadership at the time is difficult to determine, but the political context of its making certainly limited the film's political impact.
In contrast to 38 FAMILIES, REVOLUTION UNTIL VICTORY is one of Newsreel's most ambitious and provocative films. Designed as a compilation film in the tradition of the WHY WE FIGHT series overseen by Frank Capra during World War II, REVOLUTION UNTIL VICTORY has received appreciable attention and considerable use, especially by Arab student groups.  It is also the last Newsreel effort by the purged members, terminating a line of filmmaking continuity that extended back to the group's first film, OFF THE PIG (retitled BLACK PANTHER, 20 min., B&W, l968).
REVOLUTION UNTIL VICTORY sets out to provide an historical account of the origins and goals of Zionism and to present the alternative claims of the Palestinian refugees for access to their homeland and their rights to self-determination. The film becomes very complex. There is the relation between re-occupying a homeland and establishing a socialist nation in the face of imperialism. There is the tension between the Palestinian liberation movement and the Arab governments themselves, which are often feudalistic and conservative. There are the conflicting claims and strategies of different Palestinian organizations. There is the diversity of organizational functions of which military operations are but one. And there is the need to draw a clear distinction between anti-semitism and anti-Zionism, a distinction which Lenny Rubenstein argues in his review of the film, "may be impossible to make without political rebellion in Israel."  (The film identifies Zionism as a movement built upon class privilege, which has not benefited all Jews equally by any means.)
The most distinctive feature of the film is undoubtedly its historical orientation. This is rare in Newsreel films, which have generally centered on contemporary events or processes with minimal attention to historical background. Even in THE WOMAN'S FILM (40 min., B&W, 1971) on which some of the same people participated, historical background appears in a brief montage sequence in the middle of the film. Newsreel seems to have carried this concern with historical background over into THE BEGINNING OF OUR VICTORY (on the Farah strike), and this represents an invaluable addition to Newsreel's approach.
In broad outline, REVOLUTION UNTIL VICTORY argues that Zionism has been solely preoccupied with the creation of a Jewish homeland, with the result that it has played into the hands of other nations' imperialistic or unscrupulous counter-revolutionary interests. Zionist activity, the film argues, involved collaboration with the Nazi regime and aid to a relatively small number of German Jews who immigrated to Palestine, at the expense of those without the means for such an escape. Earlier Zionism involved appeals for British support, which played into British desires indirectly to control this strategic area and displace Turkish domination. More recently, Zionism has meant dependence upon the United States, helping maintain an American middle-eastern presence and providing U.S. investment with a lucrative internal market.
The film makes these points by means of a voice-over narration. Several different voices, male and female, narrate, effectively undercutting the omniscient voice-of-God narrator and giving the impression that a number of ordinary people have all arrived at the same conclusions. The image track consists primarily of archival footage arranged to illustrate the argument, which is clear and emotionally compelling. In fact, viewing the film can be a very rousing experience, in much the same way as viewing the WHY WE FIGHT films once was. REVOLUTION UNTIL VICTORY provides an invaluable alternative to the mass media's coverage of the Palestinian question and serves as an excellent introduction to discussion and debate.
That at least some of that debate centers around the film itself and the tactics it employs to achieve an emotional effect, namely its Manichean sense of good (Palestinians) and evil (Zionists), is the film's main drawback. This kind of melodramatic stereotyping seems more acceptable in propaganda films than elsewhere (especially if you start out agreeing with the basic premise). But it nonetheless seems at odds with Marxism, which insists that morality does not determine social conditions but vice versa. It isn't the unalterably cruel-hearted Zionists who have brought misery to the Palestinians, but history and the clash of hostile social formations that have produced the current situation in the Middle East. We may wish to make value judgments about people's responses to this historical situation, and, indeed, it would be hard not to, but it is another thing to imply that morality, or immorality, created it. This choice represents an idealist, religious view of the world, which does indeed run the risk of confusing Zionism with Judaism, the "contagion" with all potential carriers. It is only a short remove from the classically right-wing propaganda tactic of guilt by association.
The filmmakers moralize in three considerably important ways. First, the narrators use imitation German-Jewish accents to read the words of Zionist leaders. In doing this, the film breaks down its own distinction between Zionism and Judaism and sacrifices political distinctions to emotional effect. At one point, however, the use of accents works extremely well. Individuals describe, in voice-over with Jewish accents, how the Zionists collaborated with the Nazi government whereas other Jews joined the Resistance. The use of Jewish accents here stresses the fact that not all Jews are Zionists and that Zionism followed policies detrimental to many Jews. Had the use of accents been limited to this one case, Newsreel would have made its point very effectively.
Second, the narration and supporting image track make frequent reference to Zionist military atrocities associated with the creation of the Israeli state and its subsequent expansion. For example, the film mentions massacres at Deir Yassin (254 civilians killed) and Kfar Kassim (43 civilians, including children, killed). A narrator tells us that an Israeli court fined the Army one cent for the latter massacre. At this point the only sound is the ringing clink of a penny falling on a table. Other sequences reinforce this point by likening Israeli tactics to American tactics in Vietnam.
Yet pointing out Zionist atrocities inadequately justifies the Arab cause. Neither Zionists nor Palestinians would cease to support their cause because of atrocities committed in its name. (Especially if the atrocities are not systematic — part of the implication in the film is that they are.) And since in the minds of many viewers, the most blatant atrocities have been committed in the name of the Palestinian liberation movement, the film's concentration on Zionist atrocities is disingenuous. The film does not once refer to acts of Arab terror, offer any explanation for its place within a larger strategy, or show why the mass media pay so much attention to it, compared to Zionist acts of a similar nature. With this particular approach, the film undercuts its own credibility. The tactic of condemning the side guilty of atrocities worked far more effectively against the U.S. war in Vietnam, but in the Middle East the issues of terrorism and viewers' media-influenced predispositions are very different and need to be dealt with honestly.Finally there is a strong tendency to associate the Palestinian liberation movement with its guerrilla wing and to valorize militarism as the most emblematic aspect of the liberation struggle. Without clarifying the question of military atrocities more adequately, this is a very risky tendency at best. This emphasis also occurred throughout much of Newsreel's earlier filmmaking, in their films on the Black Panthers, for example. Such an emphasis is in distinct contrast to the relative de-emphasis of militaristic values (vs. the necessity for armed struggle) in the films on Third World liberation which Newsreel distributes.  These films locate armed struggle in a concrete, historical context, where values other than militarism provide the basic direction of struggle. These films don't celebrate violence for its own sake but see it as a transitional necessity which involves much sacrifice. In many Newsreel films, violence was a personal and cathartic experience which lacked extended, historical roots or clear political rationale. Many Newsreel films tucked in an obligatory montage of armed struggle from around the world, especially in the short "turn on" films, which were designed to build morale. The message was less the role of violence in social revolution as the ecstasy of violence as personal liberation.
Although Newsreel avoids the worst of these dangers in REVOLUTION UNTIL VICTORY, the stress on armed struggle itself may be a function of Newsreel's perception of the Palestinian conflict more than the perception of the participants. The films about Third World liberation struggles which Newsreel distributes but which other people made, frequently emphasize, as dramatic highpoints, the articulation of principles by spokespeople and depictions of what revolutionary cadre do for those they liberate. This sometimes leaves the films flatter and less emotionally rousing to a white North American audience, but they are probably more indicative of the values and priorities found among the liberation fighters themselves.
Lenny Rubenstein (whose review condemns the film as simply inadequate) effectively summarizes many of the film's problems when he states that REVOLUTION UNTIL VICTORY fails to question
Indeed, the film treats the development of Zionism with far more clarity, and certitude, than the liberation movement itself. The film systematically identifies and criticizes the intentions and motivations of the Zionist leaders, whereas it allows the statements of Palestinians to stand unclarified and glosses over the relationships between different aspects of the struggle. This leads to contradictory explanations of the movement's goals as these two statements indicate:
The film doesn't confront the degree to which these statements reflect a division between national liberation and socialist revolution. The film refuses to clarify differences in Palestinian strategy, preferring instead to give a blanket, emotional endorsement to guerrilla organization and an equally sweeping condemnation to Zionist policies.
For these reasons a great deal of the film's power lies in its ability to arouse strong feelings for the Palestinians and against the Zionists. This approach requires a certain amount of flattening of historical complexity in order to stress emotional factors — Zionist scheming and Palestinian resistance — that serve as the viewer's points of identification. An overly simplified account of historical events is common to propaganda films generally. We may wonder if its use here handicaps Newsreel's purpose by promoting a non-dialectical, almost moralistic concept of history. The very fact that the emotionally charged and biased argument is a convention of propaganda films, however, may indeed be recognized as precisely that. We may accept it as a convention in this context without expecting to find justification for it outside of this context. Emotionally charged and simplified accounts promote easy comprehension and identification. On the other hand, leftist propaganda using this convention is not very likely to help promote a genuinely Marxist understanding of history whatever its other virtues.
Verbal statements are of great importance to a film like REVOLUTION UNTIL VICTORY — to most political cinema in fact. Spoken language provides a vehicle for criticism and self-criticism, communication and meta-communication.
The latter, an examination of one's own assumptions or messages at another level, has become an area of considerable theoretical interest for both formal and political reasons. While a case can be made that such self-reflexiveness is important to the overall development of a political cinema, it is an activity far removed from the work of Newsreel and I cannot effectively discuss it in this article without adopting an overly speculative approach. But just the base level of criticism and communication in REVOLUTION UNTIL VICTORY (omitting reflexive operations), can serve as a focus for a few conclusions about structure in the films.
1. Newsreel's reliance upon the traditional form of voice-over commentary allows for contrapuntal interaction between word and image. This provides a valuable flexibility and one which cinema-verité emphasizing sync sound must replace — by other structures if the film is to have an overall coherence.
2. Voice-over applies a logical grid to historical events and runs the risk of oversimplification-into moral certitude, political dogmatism, and teleological determinism. Fortunately, this is a potential risk and not an absolute one. The style and content of the voice-over, leaving aside meta-communicative techniques, can do much to avoid this danger as can coupling voice-over to other forms of commentary. Multiplicity of viewpoints itself can be important. Newsreel uses this tactic to great advantage in REVOLUTION since the film's soundtrack divides itself among several speakers as well as interview material. The mixture of contemporary footage with historical analysis also subverts this risk by reaffirming the indeterminacy of the present alongside the struggle to shape a future guided by knowledge of the past.
REVOLUTION UNTIL VICTORY is one of Newsreel's most distinctive films, especially in the sense of attempting to reach an unconvinced audience rather than to reconfirm the views of the already convinced. As such it is one of the few Newsreel films that develops a comprehensive analysis and argument about a major struggle and one of the very few that attempts such an analysis from an historical perspective. The film not only shows how far and how fast Newsreel has come in its own development; it also suggests how much the left itself has developed since the days of the New Left's birth. Learning from strengths and weaknesses helps provide a context for further change among all cultural workers on the left.
Whereas REVOLUTION UNTIL VICTORY took the filmmakers far from their own backyard (an excursion they were to repeat in THE BEGINNING OF OUR VICTORY) REDEVELOPMENT, the only film to be associated in any way with the remnant of the majority side in the purge of 1973, deals very specifically with a problem centering in San Francisco — urban renewal. Its overall structure is looser than REVOLUTION UNTIL VICTORY and there is a stronger tendency to linger over specific events or situations rather than constantly move toward a more general overview. But this approach reveals both advantages and disadvantages that make the film of particular interest.
REDEVELOPMENT covers a vast range of material (usually in the words of actual participants) although it never fully resolves the problem of integrating this material into a coherent whole. Like WE DEMAND FREEDOM (55 min/B&W/ Third World Newsreel /1974), the film's final impression is a sense of confusion, which seems to be a direct function of the amount of material covered and the way in which the filmmakers relate this material. A brief summary of what seem to be the main sections of the film may help indicate both the strength of the film and its problems:
1) The current problem of redevelopment (from the point of view of a developer and a displaced resident).
2) How redevelopment of an area occurs over time in San Francisco.
3) The context for redevelopment at a non-local level.
4) Local resistance to the effects of this strategy.
5. More general traditions of class struggle in the Bay Area.
6) The issue of community control.
7) Problems of urban transit.
8) Class structure in community organizing: petty-bourgeois organizing tactics (reforms that do not prevent redevelopment) and the dissipation of energy from basic issues. Citation of concrete examples in San Francisco.
9) Overview of urban core renewal.
10) The present dilemma: Live coverage of a meeting between residents of Daly City, a suburb south of S.F., and the local government, ending with the frustrated outcry of a woman protesting the lack of community control: "What is the recourse for an oppressed majority?"
Some of the difficulties in integrating these sections into a single, coherent argument may be apparent from the differences in scope and level of argument between sections and the apparent arbitrariness of their sequential arrangement. Note, for example, the similarity between sections 4 and 6a or between 7 and 9. These difficulties do not undercut the integrity of the individual sections, however. The film organizes these sections in a crisp, efficient manner. Within sections the voices of participants figure prominently. Their perceptions provide the sections with internal organization and infuse them with credibility and everyday understanding. REDEVELOPMENT resists the temptation to draw from these perceptions a common thread which a voice-over narrator could summarize, and the film thereby avoids the dangers of moralism and determinism that surface in REVOLUTION UNTIL VICTORY.
Consequently, a much of the film's line of reasoning derives from various participants' comments and their juxtaposition. Even though these comments relate most strongly to other material within the same section, they do not provide the thread for an overall argument. This strength of local reference, the commentary's rootedness in specific situations, gives a very strong sense of how issues "feel" to the participants and how they are dealt with. The choice to give priority to the local context, the situation within a given section of the film, need not lead to overall diffuseness. What seems to make the overall structure somewhat murky has more to do with the arrangement of sections in relation to each other. The film simply attempts to cover too much ground via a pattern that shifts levels and topics far more often than is necessary. (Introducing a discussion of runaway corporations in section 9b is a good example: the point is valid and well-made, but its link to urban transit does not seem to be its most distinctive feature. If anything it relates better to 3a and 6b, sections dealing with the general conditions of capitalist production that relate to urban redevelopment.)
REDEVELOPMENT lacks a singular point of view mediated by a single textual code as REVOLUTION UNTIL VICTORY does in its historical sections (via voice-over). The exact vantage point from which we observe the process of redevelopment seems to shift as though the film were trying to examine all its many facets without making any assumption about which facet is most important or determining. There is no political organization featured to provide leadership. This may well be indicative of the relative lack of leftist commitment to issues such as redevelopment during the period of the New Left. Redevelopment, like the prison issue so heavily treated by Third World Newsreel (in New York City), manifests itself most forcefully in the social fabric of the community rather than at the point of production. Left groups with a national organization have not given such issues the same degree of importance as economic exploitation and point of production organizing.
Usually, however, they do acknowledge the importance of the struggle against barriers to working class unity, such as racism and sexism. It is often left up to individuals in the community to act as best they can. For example, BREAK AND ENTER (42 min., B&W, l970) also indicates how protest against poor living conditions arises with those directly affected, and thus the film shows the Young Lords, a community-based political group, playing a secondary, support role.
REDEVELOPMENT fluctuates between an historical and a current events point of view, between a contextual overview and an in-depth examination of specific confrontations. Its greatest strength lies in the analysis of specific aspects of a crucial problem with immediate relevance for California Newsreel's local constituency. Its greatest weakness lies in its failure to integrate these aspects into a coherent, historical whole. In this case, reediting what has already been shot would greatly enhance REDEVELOPMENT which is already of considerable use. Its limitations only point to the need for ongoing struggle on a unified front of theory and practice in both film production and political action.
1. 38 FAMILIES (25 mm/color) is available in English and Spanish from California Newsreel only. REVOLUTION UNTIL VICTORY (52 min/B&W/ 1973) was originally called WE THE PALESTINIAN PEOPLE. Calif. and Third World Newsreel in New York both distribute the film in English and Spanish versions. BEGINNING OF OUR VICTORY (Single Spark. Films, 1975) was withdrawn from circulation soon after its release although it has been screened a few times since then. REDEVELOPMENT (Resolution Films, 1975/60 min/B&W) is available from both Newsreels. California Newsreel, 630 Natoma Street, San Francisco, CA 94101; Third World Newsreel, 26 W. 20th Street, New York, NY 10011.
2. I have based my information about California Newsreel's internal history on interviews with members of the majority side and access to position papers developed by both sides. I have not been able to obtain an interview with the purged minority.
3. In both New York and San Francisco the film was one of the most widely distributed in 1974. Critical response ranged from high praise to great disappointment. In a review in Cineaste, Lenny Rubenstein, incorrectly calling the film WE ARE THE PALESTINIAN PEOPLE, concluded, "Relying on the simplistic slogan of Third World struggle is no longer enough to win an audiences support" (6:3, 1974, p. 36). In more recent years, however, the film has not been widely seen or promoted.
4. Rubenstein, ibid.
5. Examples include EL PUEBLO SE LEVANTA (THE PEOPLE ARE RISING/42 min/B&W/Eng&Sp/197l), FALN (25 min/B&W/Dawn Films, 1964), NIGERIA: NIGERIA ONE (45 min/B&W/Facts Africa/n.d.), NOSSA TERRA (40 min/B&W/197l), PROCLAMATION OF THE NATION OF GUINEA-BISSAU (40 min/color l973-TW Newsreel only).
6. Rubenstein, ibid.