Notes on
U.S. radical film, 1967-80

by John Hess

from Jump Cut, no. 21, Nov. 1979, pp. 31-35
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1979, 2005

The following article is a combination, expansion, and reworking of two articles I wrote this spring for publication in France. "Radical Filmmaking in the USA Since 1967" will appear as a chapter of an anthology edited by Guy Hennebelle on radical filmmaking around the world and "The Contribution of U.S. Women's Movement to Radical Filmmaking" will appear in a special issue of CinemAction on women and film.


In order to understand where radical filmmaking is today, we must first understand the political and material context in which that filmmaking developed. In the early 1960s when a radical cinema began to emerge out of the shadows of cold war United States, there were no visible revolutionary working-class movement and no left parties in a position to contest for ideological or political power or to influence and guide young people. Both were crushed during the 1940s and disappeared seemingly without a trace in the 1950s.

Most young people who came to radical and left politics in the 1960s, especially the filmmakers, were from bourgeois and petty bourgeois families. They had little knowledge of or connection to the working class, its history, or its parties. (1) In fact, white working-class people had often opposed, sometimes violently, these young people's early political work in the civil rights movement, in community organizing among blacks and poor whites, and in the peace movement. As a result there was not a broad base of support (especially in the early and mid-1960s) for a politics based on the working class. Many campus and rural radicals not in the small left parties tended to be actively anti-working class. Those in the industrial cities and in the SWP (a Trotskyist party dating back to the 1930s) or the Progressive Labor Party (a split-off from the Communist Party, 1964 to present) were more involved in the labor movement and saw business unionism as an important barrier to working-class development. (2)

Many of these young people were also deeply influenced by the nearly pathological anti-communism of the cold war period. The Korean War, the revolt in Hungary, and the revelations about Stalin were played for all they were worth in the press and on TV. The Soviet Union's development made it easy to identify socialism with totalitarianism. Those who had some knowledge of the old left usually rejected it for its passivity, dogmatism, ties to the USSR, and self-defeating policies. Thus there was almost a complete break between the labor and left activism of the 1930s and the student/left/antiwar movement of the 1960s. It's only recently that we have begun to fill that gap in our knowledge.

The absence of a left tradition, the lack of contact with the working class (or even much of a sense of class), anti-communism, the relative underdevelopment of Marxist thought here, and the class background of the participants help explain the politics of the new left (I use the term broadly) and the films they made. Their politics were very eclectic, containing elements of Marxism, U.S. populism, Maoism (later in the 60s), existentialism, anarchism, the counterculture, and a very moralistic sense of justice and humanitarianism. They saw themselves as defending the interests of blacks, the poor, the Vietnamese, and themselves as students and youth against the white U.S. establishment (of all classes). Their anti-racism was particularly important. They often looked to various oppressed groups to be the vanguard that would lead the revolution to create a free society in which everyone would have a voice in the decisions that affected their lives.

Naturally these politics grew and deepened during the struggles of the 1960s. The New Left developed an analysis of capitalism that was very sophisticated, much more so than that developed by the old left which was dependent on a dogmatic and economist Soviet Marxism. Their eclecticism and their concern for the individual and private life created a context in which analyses of racism, sexism, sexuality, and family life could develop, thus adding significantly to Marxist thought. As a result of the black struggles during the 1960s, the work of Martin Luther King, Malcom X, SNCC, the Black Panthers, and the New Left, people developed a very sophisticated analysis of racism in the USA and how it served to divide the working class. Anti-racism, and especially the struggles of the Black Panthers, were an important element in Newsreel's films in the 1960s and continued in the work of Third World Newsreel in the 1970s.

An understanding of imperialism grew out of the experience of the anti-war movement and from contact with Cuba (which was very important for U.S. radicals, black and white, in this period, both as an example of socialism in action and as a source of encouragement and support for their work). As the war dragged on, as the brutality of the U.S. war effort and the venality and corruption of the South Vietnamese leaders the U.S. government was supporting were revealed on the evening news and elsewhere, it became harder and harder to see the war in any other way than as an effort by a capitalist superpower to dominate a third-world country. The idea that Johnson and Nixon were fighting for freedom and democracy was patently absurd. People also began to see the connection between racism at home and imperialism abroad. Thus a Marxist approach, which could explain such interconnections, became more and more acceptable.

During the last years of the 1960s, there was a rethinking of the idea of class. The increasing use of state power — the police, army, FBI, CIA, the draft boards and universities, lending institutions and the courts — against the antiwar movement, students, blacks, and anyone else who disagreed with the government, the growing anti-war sentiment of the working class (whose children were doing the fighting and dying), and the growth and influence of the Marxist groups led more and more to a Marxist understanding of the central role of the working class in any meaningful social change, and especially in any revolution.

At the same time, from the mid-1960s on, many women broke away from the male-dominated movement in order to deal directly with their specific oppression as women in a patriarchal society. As the black movement, which always had a very strong nationalist character, contributed greatly to an analysis of racism and how it served capitalism, the autonomous women's movement developed, and continues to develop an analysis of sexism. Clearly, had women not created their own autonomous movement, they would not have been able to develop this important analysis. (3)

The 1970s have been very different. Whereas the 1960s were dominated by an aggressive mass movement and intense struggle, by the rapid expansion of Marxist thinking, and the development of analyses of racism and sexism, the 1970s have been characterized by fragmentation of the movement and an aggressive capitalist attack on the gains workers, blacks, and women made in the 1960s. The economic downturn, the end of the war, the brutal crushing of the Black Panthers and the cooptation of most of the black movement weakened the left to the point that its internal contradictions surfaced and led to fragmentation. Without a cohesive social movement to be part of and to make films for, filmmakers drifted off in many directions. Most Newsreels ceased to exist and the rest split and split again. Only the ongoing strength of the women's movement (in spite of the fragmentation of most of its institutions) provided a base for filmmakers, and women's films have dominated the decade.

The political cinema (or any other kind) of blacks, latinos, and other third world peoples in the USA had for obvious class and material reasons had not gotten off the ground by the end of the 1960s. Some third world people have worked within Newsreel, especially Third World Newsreel, in the 1970s, but otherwise the development of distinctive national cinemas has been slow going. For economic reasons most of this development has taken place within highly institutionalized settings, especially TV stations and universities, which has meant a strict limitation on what kind of films could be made. Nonetheless, the Alternative Cinema Conference in June 1979 and the Chicano Film Festival in August demonstrate that a great deal has been accomplished in the last several years. Finally, the Gay Liberation movement, growing out of the Stonewall Rebellion (June 1969), has in the last few years begun to produce significant films by lesbians and gay men, designed to contribute to that movement. A more detailed history of radical cinema would have to treat these minority cinemas in great detail.

The opportunity to make films which go beyond the liberal and social democratic hope of reforming capitalism to explain capitalism as a class system and to advocate socialism was in the 1960s and remains today impossible within the U.S. film industry (i.e., Hollywood). From time to time because of changing material conditions in the country — the 1930s and just recently are good examples — liberal and left-liberal critiques of the evils of capitalism (the effects of the system, never the system itself) can be found in some Hollywood films (BLUE COLLAR, F.I.S.T., NORMA RAE). But these films remain comfortably within the realm of bourgeois ideology by focusing on the struggles of individuals, leaving systematic oppression and change out of the picture. Also these liberal films are a small minority of a yearly production of films which are primarily racist, sexist, national chauvinist and appeal to the worst instincts of the filmgoing audience. Until there is an aggressive left-wing labor movement and a genuinely revolutionary left party with roots in the working class, Hollywood will never make films which support and encourage the class consciousness of the working class. It is important to note here that Hollywood not only controls the production of commercial feature films but also their distribution. As I will discuss below, distribution is the primary problem for radical filmmaking in the USA.

The same situation exists in the commercial television networks. And even the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), which is supported financially by the national government and by large corporations, is quite conservative politically. Nonetheless, in the last 20 years it has sponsored a small number of progressive documentaries, which have exposed especially gross examples of how U.S. capitalism really works at home and abroad. Even though PBS' audience is small and primarily composed of white, college-educated people, it has managed to make some money available to radical filmmakers, especially third world filmmakers. But since its support comes from capitalists, it is not likely to become a reliable sponsor of left-wing filmmaking. The medium with the greatest access to the working class, commercial TV, is the least accessible to critical ideas of any kind.

Since the end of World War II the physical and technical requirements for an extensive left film distribution network have existed. There was a tremendous expansion of production of 16mm cameras and projection equipment during the war. In the pre-TV era, the government turned to 16mm film as one important way to deliver propaganda. By the early 1950s most schools, colleges, churches, unions, community groups, and other similar organizations had or had access to a 16mm projector, which was portable and easy to use. In the same period there was a tremendous growth in the production, distribution, and use of educational films. Everyone who went to school in the 1950s remembers the anti-communist and fallout shelter films.

Although an extensive non-theatrical distribution network was available in 1960, it was almost completely closed to radical films of any kind. The distribution of educational films was controlled by large corporations and the school systems who used the films. The films in this system have been until very recently uncompromisingly backward. The few independent distributors who had formed to distribute European art films and 16mm versions of Hollywood classics were unwilling to distribute all but the most innocuous radical films of the 1960s. Even Tom Brandon, one of the founders of the Film and Photo League in the 1930s, was unwilling to have his company, Audio-Brandon, distribute New Left films. The American Friends Service Committee (the social action arm of the Quaker Church), the "Teach-In" network (of anti-war groups on college campuses), SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), and similar groups used left films in their work but were not really film distributors.

Conscious of this problem, filmmakers saw the need to distribute as well as produce films. It is possible to discuss U.S. radical films in terms of the companies and organizations which were formed to distribute them. American Documentary Films (1966-1972) was founded to produce and distribute anti-war films and films from Cuba, Europe, and Southeast Asia. Newsreel (1967-present) always saw distribution of its own and of other films as one of its most important functions. New Day Films (1971-present) was formed as a cooperative to distribute feminist films. Women Make Movies, Iris Films, Odeon Films, Third World Films (later Tricontinental Film Center), and similar groups have all been formed to distribute and usually also to produce films.

Although the distribution situation is much better now than in 1965, it is still very primitive, inefficient, and incomplete compared to the commercial distribution network. The great number of small distributors and their lack of sufficient capital to advertise their films and service their customers properly confuses and irritates film users. The truth of the matter is that it is still difficult to get adequate information promptly and to receive well-cleaned and maintained prints when you want them. Even though most of these distributors take into account that many potential users don't have much money, it is still relatively expensive to rent most films. It's still a business in a capitalist economy and there are real conflicts between distributors and users as well as between filmmakers and distributors.

So far, most radical films have been documentaries, which has severely limited their audience in two important ways. On the one hand, although documentaries are shown extensively in educational institutions and on "educational" and news shows on TV, these institutions are closed to radical films. On the other hand, with few exceptions, documentaries have never done well in theaters — in part, perhaps, because of the educational context in which we come to know them in the first place. Thus radical films in the last 20 years have had access only to the fringes of the potential market. In the last decade some films, such as GROWING UP FEMALE, MEN'S LIVES, HARLAN COUNTY (especially because of its Oscar), UNION MAIDS, and CONTROLLING INTEREST, have made strong inroads into the educational film market. Recently political filmmakers have been attempting to make feature fiction films in order to overcome the limitation of the documentary format and reach a larger audience (OVER-UNDER SIDEWAYS-DOWN, 1977, and NORTHERN LIGHTS, 1978, have been made by a group called Cinemanifest). But they have painfully learned that a distribution network set up to handle documentaries is not equipped to distribute features to theaters. And since none of the politically oriented distributors has any access to regular film theaters, Cinemanifest has had to start from scratch distributing their films.

If distribution were not so weak, it would probably be much easier to raise money for politically progressive films. Throughout the period we are discussing — with the possible exception of Newsreel — raising money takes more effort, time, energy, creativity, perseverance, patience, and strength than making the film. Although some few politically progressive films in the last 10 years have been very successful (MEN'S LIVES, 1974; UNION MAIDS, 1976; HARLAN COUNTY, 1976), to my knowledge none has earned the filmmakers enough money to pay off debts, buy needed equipment, and then finance the next film. This means that for each project a filmmaker must go out and raise money. And the sources for these funds are very limited: a few dozen national and local foundations, state and city arts councils, institutions such as churches and unions, and private funds from interested individuals, relatives, and friends. Usually a filmmaker will go through several cycles of fundraising and filmmaking. She or he will raise enough money to get started and then will take some portion of that unfinished film around to show it to people who might contribute money. Later more will have to be raised to finish the film and get started on distribution. In most cases filmmakers must spend a year or so distributing their film before they entrust it to or can even find a distributor. Many films, especially women's and third-world people's films, never find any sort of distribution.

Recently the Film Fund was organized to try to centralize the money available to filmmakers from different foundations and to simplify the fundraising effort. The hope was that the Film Fund would be able to get the foundations to give more money to filmmaking than they previously had. So far this has not happened. The Film Fund has raised only several hundred thousand dollars since it started and a large portion of that has gone to their very high overhead. Furthermore, the Film Fund seems less interested in raising funds from foundations and other sources than in getting involved in other projects (i.e., ways of spending its money) which seem designed to further the interests of a few, already fairly successful filmmakers whose social-democratic politics (a vague amalgam of sentimental socialism and the liberal desire to reform capitalism, a vision of revolution that includes no pain, suffering, or sacrifice and threatens no vested interests) correspond to those of the Fund's leaders. I'm referring to a very expensive survey of radical film distribution that could have just as easily been accomplished by calling up the primary distributors of such films and to an expensive conference for feature "social change" filmmakers in New York this fall.

Because the original idea of such a fund was a good one and because radical filmmaking has so little access to money, the founding of the Film Fund has created a great many expectations that no such organization could fulfill. But because the Film Fund has combined very progressive rhetoric with a practice based on no clearly articulated political principles and because it has not made itself in any way accountable to the left, it has created many more enemies than it needed to. The Film Fund was severely trashed at the Alternative Cinema Conference and now the Organizing Committee of that conference is trying to find a way in which the Film Fund could make itself accountable to the left. How the Film Fund responds to that effort will determine its credibility with the left for a long time to come.

I've tried to briefly lay out the political and material conditions of radical filmmaking in the USA in the last 20 years. Now I will try to follow the main lines of development of this filmmaking. In what follows, the left wing of avant-garde filmmaking, various left-liberal documentaries made for TV, and the work of third world people have not been given their due.


In October, 1967 there was a massive demonstration against the Vietnam War in Washington, D.C., right in front of the Pentagon. This demonstration was a turning point in the anti-war movement because it represented an abandonment of non-violent tactics by many parts of the antiwar movement and the beginning of active resistance to the state. It was also the first time that federal troops were used against demonstrators. Many of the mostly student demonstrators not only refused to disperse but aggressively fought back when army troops advanced on them. Many people involved in the movement knew that this demonstration at the Pentagon would be important. Many filmmakers, photographers, and artists from New York went to Washington prepared to document what would happen.

Informal contacts were made at the demonstration and, once back in New York, people began to discuss the possibility of using all the footage they shot in a collective film. Jonas Mekas, spokesperson for the New American Cinema, editor of Film Culture, and critic for the Village Voice, called a meeting to discuss this possibility as well as the possibility of forming some sort of production and distribution organization. After several mass meetings, those who were still interested (excluding Mekas, who, however, continued to give support to Newsreel) founded Newsreel in December 1967. In the meantime, much of the footage shot in Washington was given to Marvin Fishman, who soon completed NO GAME (1968), which was distributed by Newsreel.

A great number of the people who formed New York Newsreel (NYN) in the winter of 1967-1968 were between 25 and 30 years old, were university graduates in the humanities or social sciences, and were mostly from middle-class professional families. Many of them had some prior training and experience in filmmaking. Peter Gessner had already made TIME OF THE LOCUST (1966), an antiwar compilation film. Norm Fruchter, Robert Kramer, and Bob Machover had made TROUBLEMAKERS (1965), about an SDS organizing project in Newark, New Jersey, and several other films and had formed Blue Van Films to produce and distribute films. Lynn Phillips had learned filmmaking at a Boston TV station. Allen Siegel and Marvin Fishman had made experimental films. Stu Bird, Eric Breitbart, and Barbara and David Stone had also worked on films. Many other early members were practicing artists: photographers, painters, writers, actors and actresses. In the early years 40-70 people attended weekly meetings. It was a very intelligent and creative group of people who had a profound effect on US left filmmaking and still do: Newsreel continues to function in New York and San Francisco; early Newsreel films continue to circulate; many current political filmmakers got started in or passed through Newsreel.

By the late spring of 1968, Newsreel had spread to Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Boston made many of the draft resistance films; San Francisco made the Black Panther films and Newsreel's first film about a labor struggle (OIL STRIKE, 1969); Chicago completed only one film on its own (APRIL 27TH) in 1968 but contributed footage to several Newsreel films on activities in Chicago. Although these other Newsreels were usually started by organizers traveling out from New York, they were all very different. They were mostly composed of people who were younger and had little filmmaking training or experience but who came out of political organizations. Thus these other Newsreels were also better organized and more politically developed than New York. The terrible tension in New York between the individualism of the artists and the need for group discipline expressed by the political activists (and this tension often took place within the same person) was generally absent from these other groups. They were heavily involved in distribution and functioned more as political collectives than as a group of political filmmakers whose individual needs were usually as important as their allegiance to the group.


The main impression you get seeing Newsreel films today are both their great excitement and energy and their poor technical quality. Most of the films are short — 6 to 25 minutes — and dynamic. The rock music on the soundtrack directs the editing and because few of the usual editing rules are followed, the films jerk the audience around a lot. Most of the films mix interview/speech material with confrontations with authorities, usually the police. One film, PIG POWER (1969), contains only street fighting between demonstrators and the police, edited to the beat of a rock-and-roll soundtrack. Newsreel filmmakers clearly assumed that viewing these confrontations would drive people out into the streets to join in. And there is much evidence that in the highly politicized atmosphere of the late 1960s, their assumption was correct. A showing of COLUMBIA REVOLT (1968), about the occupation by students of Columbia University in New York City, often contributed to demonstrations and to building occupations. It is very important to remember that these films were made at the height of the student and anti-war movements. Hundreds of thousands of people were involved in massive, often violent, demonstrations against the authorities. Almost any film depicting and encouraging this activity would have been effective.

Newsreel films are famous for their low technical quality. Unsteady hand-held shots, poor focus, grainy and cloudy images, sloppy framing, unconventional and often confusing editing, and indistinct soundtracks can make watching these films a real burden — if you need to see and hear everything. But clearly Newsreel wanted more of an emotional than an intellectual response. They didn't care whether you saw or heard every detail as long as you got excited and involved.

Now it is certainly true that inadequate funds, poor equipment, inexperience, improvised and often dangerous shooting situations caused much of this low quality. But that is not a complete explanation. Newsreel had at least two reasons for consciously making films this way or at least for not making polished films. In the first place, Newsreel (and the New Left generally) had a strong desire to shock bourgeois notions of taste. Many of them wanted to be sure their films were not like the slick and polished documentaries and newsreels made by the established media. This studied sloppiness and neglect of bourgeois artistic conventions are typical of much 60s countercultural activity, which had strong ties to the avant-garde. In fact a number of Newsreel filmmakers, as was true of the counterculture in general, had come to political activity from the avant-garde. As in this tradition, and especially among the Beat poets who influenced many Newsreel filmmakers, anything that outraged the businessman, the politician, and the liberal professional was seen as a blow for liberation.

Newsreel had another justification for its kind of filmmaking:

"Our films remind some people of battle footage: grainy, camera weaving around trying to get the material and still not get beaten or trapped. Well, we, and many others, are at war. We not only document that war but try to find ways to bring that war to places which have managed so far to buy themselves isolation from it." (4)

Although this statement by no means represents a consensus of New York Newsreel participants in the late 1960s (nor of the other Newsreels), it was a very strong current. (5) In retrospect it is a very strange image for privileged filmmakers living in New York to have. It reflects an identification with oppressed third world people here and abroad so strong as to hinder rational thinking about one's own situation. It leads to Weather politics which reject the white part of the U.S. working class as a possible component of any revolutionary change and puts all hope in third world people. Robert Kramer's ICE (1969) is perhaps the best-known filmic presentation of where such politics of despair lead white radicals.


All Newsreel people saw distribution of their own and others' films as a primary responsibility and everyone participated in it. And they were very successful. Members would go along with the films to showings and lead discussions of the issues raised by the films. These showings took place in schools of all different kinds, in community centers, offices during lunch, churches, street corners (from the cinemobile, a truck with projection facilities in the back). This practice greatly increased the effectiveness of the films and provided invaluable political training for the people who did it. Today many political filmmakers continue this practice. Not only does it increase the effectiveness of films but it also provides the filmmakers with important feedback about how audiences respond to their films.


Between 1970 and 1973, Newsreel went through profound changes. SDS suffered a serious split at its June 1969 convention between the Weatherman faction, which saw imperialism as the primary contradiction, and those forces which wanted to focus on our own working class. This split heralded the disintegration of the student-based radical movement of which Newsreel was primarily a part. In spite of the split, the school year 1969-1970 was a high point of student activism and of Newsreel as well. In the following few years, however, most of the Newsreel chapters disappeared. New York and San Francisco remained but went through a series of changes typical of the times. During some of this period they would get down to one or two people who would barely manage to do some distribution.

Finally, with all new people (except Allan Siegel, who had edited many of New York Newsreel's original films), Third World Newsreel began making and distributing films in New York City about third-world people living in the USA. TEACH OUR CHILDREN (1972), IN THE EVENT ANYONE DISAPPEARS (1974), WE DEMAND FREEDOM (1974), INSIDE WOMEN INSIDE (1978) explore various aspects of the prison system and racism. Other films include FROM SPIKES TO SPINDLES: A HISTORY OF THE CHINESE IN NEW YORK (1976), FRESH SEEDS IN THE BIG APPLE (1976), which looks at childcare problems, PERCUSSIONS, IMPRESSSIONS, REALITY (1978), which examines Puerto Rican life in the city through its music, MOHAWK NATION, which is about Native Americans, and A DREAM IS WHAT YOU WAKE UP FROM (1979), which deals with both middle-class and working-class black family life.

San Francisco Newsreel became California Newsreel and began distributing films and working with labor unions, churches, and community groups. They have made a film on multinational corporations: CONTROLLING INTEREST (1978). The 1970s have seen the development of other filmmaking collectives, such as Cinemanifest in San Francisco, Lucha Films in Los Angeles, Kartemquin Films in Chicago, and Pacific Street Films in New York.


Although feminist filmmaking as we know it today began in Newsreel, women such as Maya Deren have long been active in avant-garde filmmaking. It has always been easier for women to learn filmmaking skills in the liberal, anti-technology atmosphere of art schools than in the film industry-oriented film schools. This fact may explain the strong urge toward formal innovation among feminist filmmakers and the great overlap between the formalist, avant-garde, and the more directly political branches of feminist filmmaking in the USA.

Within New York Newsreel the oppression and marginalization of women was extreme: an exclusively male leadership dominated the organization. Most of the women in Newsreel had no filmmaking skills and were relegated to menial jobs, especially office work. Lynn Phillips had learned filmmaking at a Boston TV station, worked with Leacock and Pennebaker in New York, and was mainly responsible for Newsreel's most distributed film in the 1960s, COLUMBIA REVOLT (1968). Yet in spite of (or perhaps because of) her skills, she found it very difficult to do important work in Newsreel. Women with fewer skills found it almost impossible to learn them. New York Newsreel never had formalized training sessions. However, at one point Bob Machover taught several informal classes, which were very important to the women in Newsreel, who had no other way to learn these skills. A few men controlled access to money and equipment. They would let women help and support their projects, but they never shared much of it with them.

Nonetheless, women were able to work together to make several films on women's events and issues: THE JEANETTE RANKIN BRIGADE (1968), UP AGAINST THE WALL, MISS AMERICA (1968), SHE'S BEAUTIFUL WHEN SHE IS ANGRY (1969), CHILDCARE (1969), MAKEOUT (1970), and finally in San Francisco, where sexual politics were dealt with much earlier and more thoroughly and successfully than in New York, the major Newsreel film by and about women, THE WOMEN'S FILM (1970).

In the years 1970-1971 six more important women's films appeared:

  • I AM SOMEBODY by Madeline Anderson, about a strike by primarily black and female hospital workers;
  • WANDA by Barbara Loden, a cinema verité-style fiction film about the oppression of a lower-class woman;
  • WOO WHO? MAY WILSON, a short documentary about an older woman artist who begins a new life in New York City by Amalie Rothchild;
  • JANIE'S JANE, which was made by Geri Ashur and Peter Barton within New York Newsreel and portrays the evolution of a white welfare mother;
  • Julia Reichert and Jim Klein's GROWING UP FEMALE, which analyzes female socialization;
  • Kate Millet's THREE LIVES, portraits of three women.

These seven films contain most of the basic concerns which feminist filmmaking developed in the next 10 years except for lesbianism. They include portraits of individual women, who in their own words tell about their lives in a patriarchal society, where until the women's movement they did not have voices or articulated histories. These films deal with women's sexuality and how it has been shaped, defined, distorted, repressed, and abused by men. The traditional female role of wife and mother comes under scrutiny and is revealed as a kind of enforced drudgery rather than a freely chosen and embraced avocation. Great attention is paid to women's economic position as wife and as worker. Women can choose between unpaid labor in the home and low-paid labor in the service industries. Most of the films clearly show the various ways in which women have fought back and, by example, suggest a new way — organization as women.

From this point feminist filmmaking greatly expanded. Barbara Hammer, Jan Oxenberg, Iris films, and others have made films about the lesbian experience in a homophobic society. Many films have been made about rape and about women's self-defense. The area of women's health, self-examination, and medical care has produced a large number of films. Women have also made films not specifically about women, for example Cinda Firestone's ATTICA (1973). Finally, and in part a continuation of the portrait films, women have made films about activist women in the labor movement: UNION MAIDS (1976), HARLAN COUNTY (1976), and WITH BABIES AND BANNERS (1978).

As is clear from any list of feminist and political films made by women in the last 10 years, they have made a large proportion of the most influential and most often used radical films in the USA since the high point of Newsreel in the late 1960s. Women have also founded several significant distribution companies to distribute their own and others' films. How can we explain this productivity and political success within a radical movement dominated by men and a patriarchal ideology? It seems clear that the political strength and creativity of the autonomous women's movement and the interaction between that movement and women filmmakers have given them the space to make this valuable contribution to women's consciousness and to the US left in general.

Many women filmmakers became active in the women's movement before they became filmmakers. Many of them were active in a feminist political project, such as abortion counseling (which was a criminal activity) and in struggles against institutions — e.g., universities and city governments — for childcare facilities and better medical care for women, against sex discrimination, for equal pay and union recognition in the service industries to which women and third-world people have been relegated. Because of this practical organizing experience, these women were able to make films based on the real needs and aspirations of other women, not on wishful thinking or abstract theories about what should be. Also because they have roots in the women's movement and make their films for this movement (if not always exclusively), they have a tremendous rapport with their audience.

These filmmakers success demonstrates the correctness and need for separatist politics within many parts of the women's movement. Many of these filmmakers were able to develop politically, intellectually, emotionally, and artistically within the context of an all-women's movement. For many, this same sort of development would probably not have been possible within the male-dominated left. The success of these films, which have radicalized more people than most other political films made in the USA in the last 20 years, also demonstrates that the issues they tend most to deal with — healthcare, rape, wife and child abuse, abortion, homosexuality and sexuality, sexism, patriarchy and the family  — are of vital interest to a great number of people. Even if many of these films seem to have been made exclusively for women, they are very important for the left both because the issues they deal with are left issues, issues any socialist revolution will have to deal with, and because they show how to move people with films. On the whole these films have not drawn women away from political activity, as some men often charge; they have, instead, drawn large numbers of U.S. women of all classes, ages, and races into direct confrontation with capitalism. Naturally the films have not done this alone. The tremendous growth of the service industries since the Second World War and the influx of women into these industries and out of the home have created material and social conditions which have made many women open to radical ideas and activity.

After 10 years of political filmmaking experience, some women are now making more and more subtle and sophisticated films for women, films which examine various aspects of women's consciousness and experience. These newer films are based on the social and psychological research that women have done in the last years and often use sophisticated formal techniques-optical printing, mixed media (film and video), and a variety of distancing devices to disrupt the linear narrative or documentary flow of the film. These formal devices are being used to deal with and clarify complex problems and to communicate a more complex message, rather than for their own sakes. JoAnn Elam's RAPE (1974) is based on a group discussion of rape which was first recorded on videotape and then transferred to film. This film also includes titles which comment on what the women are saying, and a variety of other l6mm materials: cinema-verité street scenes of men ogling women, pans of downtown buildings to represent male institutions, and a variety of art works representing conventional views of women's role. Much of the latter material is in humorous counterpoint to the seriousness of the discussion, which often continues on the soundtrack.

Michelle Citron's DAUGHTER RITE (1978) is a 50-minute color film which interweaves the stories of two nuclear families (concentrating on the relationship between mothers and daughters). The one story consists of 8mm home movie footage of the interaction of a mother and daughter, which is manipulated by optical printing and slow motion to bring out the violence and domination of very common gestures, and diary material of a daughter (the one in the movie?) on the soundtrack. The second story consists of the interactions of two sisters and their reflections on their mother shot in imitation cinema-verité style (its actually scripted and acted). Both these films have produced very intense personal and political discussions among women. Although neither film expresses much class-consciousness, they both clearly describe and analyze the domestic and social ideologies that oppress women in patriarchal society and demonstrate the physical power (men and mothers) which backs up these ideologies. Thus they both clearly demonstrate that human liberation is not simply a matter of getting one's head together. Only revolutionary social chanqe will change the power relations revealed in these films.


The relation between radical filmmakers and the labor movement has been an uneasy one in the last 20 years for the reasons given in the introduction. The various left groups which did consider labor primary and sent their members into (or had members in) factories often neglected culture, especially film, and, with very few exceptions, produced no films. Throughout the period, documentaries on labor subjects have been produced by National Education Television (NET) and the other networks (for example, Harvey Richards's THE LAND IS RICH, 1965, about agribusiness and farm workers in California, and Susan Racho's NET documentary GARMENT WORKERS IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA, 1975). Also the farm workers union has made several organizing films for themselves (for example, NOSOTROS VENCEREMOS, 1971). While these films do make people aware of certain issues and have sometimes been useful in specific organizing drives, they tend to show workers as helpless victims and to call at the very most for various reforms of capitalism. However, there were also people in Newsreel who were interested in labor issues; they were usually people from working-class backgrounds or people with connections to the old left. San Francisco Newsreel made OIL STRIKE (1969) about a strike by oil refinery workers in Richmond, California. Peter Gessner, Stu Bird, and Rene Lichtman made FINALLY GOT THE NEWS in Detroit about the Revolutionary Union Movement among black auto workers.

So, although labor as a subject is by no means new, there has been an intensification of interest in the subject through the 1970s as many leftist filmmakers try to revive a labor and left tradition in the USA. UNION MAIDS and WITH BABIES AND BANNERS focus on past struggles of women both as workers/organizers and as wives of workers. HARLAN COUNTY, ON THE LINE (1977), and SONG OF THE CANARY (1978) all focus on current labor issues. All of these films have been valuable for educating people about past and present labor struggles. UNION MAIDS, HARLAN COUNTY, and WITH BABIES AND BANNERS have made important links between feminism and labor issues. However, these films tend to show and interpret union struggles and activities for a predominantly intellectual audience and have not, with the possible exception of HARLAN COUNTY, been used very much as part of labor struggles themselves. To meet this more agitational need, there seems to be developing a new trend in film and video making. In the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, there are now several groups of left film and video makers who are working closely with unions, rank and file dissident groups within unions, and with unorganized workers (80% in the USA!) to make films and tapes which are designed to aid the workers themselves, which are designed to raise class consciousness. Although it is too early to say very much about the usefulness of this trend, it seems very important to me because it holds out the possibility of a kind of film and video which speaks directly to the needs of the working class and takes the issue of class as a central concern.


In the last 20 years radical filmmaking in the USA has changed very much. HARLAN COUNTY won an Oscar and UNION MAIDS was nominated for one. These and several other radical films have appeared on TV. As a result radical filmmaking has received increased media attention (e.g., reviews in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal) and more access to audiences outside the metropolitan areas. Radical filmmakers are spending more money, making longer and more sophisticated films, and developing their skills. Today there is a large pool of skilled and experienced filmmakers who consider themselves "on the left."

At the same time, however, the mainstream of radical filmmaking is becoming less militant. There is no viable left or labor movement able to guide and sustain filmmakers. There is no student movement to push them to the left. The absence of a movement and a party and the structure of film funding and distribution encourage filmmakers to temper their politics in order to obtain a more secure basis on which to work. There also seems to be a success syndrome (called Hollywooditis) in which filmmakers who are successful and obtain a more secure basis seem to want larger budgets in order to make more grandiose films or to move into fiction filmmaking.

By doing this they tend to move away from their political roots and to a certain extent to betray their responsibility to the movement which, in great part, gave them their success. Without the women's movement, for example, GROWING UP FEMALE, UNION MAIDS, HARLAN COUNTY, and MEWS LIVES would never have been made. Its usually only those filmmakers working within political collectives and women who hold themselves accountable to the women's movement who have maintained a sharp political focus and who have made films which engage people politically.

Finally, in the 1970s there has been a steady development of political film and video making within the black, Latino, and Asian communities as well as in the lesbian and gay community. In the last decade a few individuals from these various oppressed groups have even been able to learn skills and work in the film and TV industries. Groups like Newsreel and Kartemquin have made films about them. But until recently they have not had the opportunity to make political films and tapes about themselves, expressing their aspirations to the fullest. Along with labor oriented film and video making, lesbian, gay, black, Latino, and Asian film and video making will become politically important in the next period.


1. This is clearly an oversimplification. There was a fairly large countercurrent of people who came out of left and progressive families — often sons and daughters of people who were in or around the CPUSA during the Popular Front period in the last half of the 1930s. Often the parents had left the Party during the persecution of leftists in the late 1940s and early 1950s and sometimes the children only found out about their parents political activity after they themselves became active. It's important to keep in mind, too, that the kinds of people who became politically active in the 1960s changed over the decade.

2. Business unionism refers to the structure and ideology of the U.S. trade union movement. The union bureaucracies are fully integrated into the state apparatus and accept the basic premises of capitalism — need for profit, a market economy, labor discipline, and productivity.

3. Other women remained within mixed organizations and fought for feminist demands there, often with the help of men who were equally disgusted with the style and content of movement leadership. The New American Movement, for example, is a socialist organization begun in 1972 which has consistently raised feminist demands internally and externally. In trade union work, feminists have tended to gravitate toward unions with a large number of women. But the basic point is that the autonomous women's movement was and still is a tremendous source of inspiration and support for women no matter where they do their political work.

4. Unpublished typescript dated December 1967, p. 4.

5. I want to emphasize this point because even though the current I am describing here dominated the early years of Newsreel and many of the films, there was a wide variety of people and tendencies in Newsreel. A yippie tendency produced such early films as GARBAGE (1968) and MILL-IN (1968). Films such as 6TH STREET MEAT CLUB (1968), about the Negro Action Group's attempt to set up a meat co-op. HERMAN B. FERGUSON, about the Peace and Freedom Party's black candidate for Senate from New York, and COMMUNITY CONTROL (1968), about a struggle for community control by black and Puerto Rican New Yorkers, show a much more sober and rational side of Newsreel's membership.