A fascinating 1934 report on the activities and challenges of the Workers Film and Photo League by Leo Hurwitz on the creation of class struggle newsreel films. Eight of those priceless films mentioned, mainly dealing with the Hunger and Bonus Marches as well as Communist Party activity in Detroit, are embedded in the story and offer a rare look at Party in the first years of the Great Depression. Hurwitz would be blacklisted in the McCarthy era, but remained a life-long radical film-maker, and later teacher at NYU’s film school, until his death in 1991.
‘Survey of Workers Films: A Report to the National Film Conference’ by Leo T. Hurwitz from New Theatre. Vol. 1 No. 9. October, 1934.
FOR the sake of clarity in evaluating the past production of the Film and Photo League and in taking steps to improve our films, it is wise to begin with a restatement of the aims of revolutionary movie production. In a report submitted to the N.Y. Film and Photo League on completion of Hunger 1932, I said:
“Film is the most direct, the most vivid medium ·for documentation and propagandizing in the class struggle. It can maintain direct, day by day contact with the activities of workers and social conditions, dramatize them and vitalize workers for greater activity. Its need and problems have immediate correlation with revolutionary political problems.
“The most important task of the revolutionary movement today is to lead the immediate battles of workers for better working conditions, against the rising fascism, for unemployment insurance, against cuts in relief, against wage-cuts, speed-up, etc., and in so doing to direct the upsurge of the working class toward the overthrow of capitalism…
“In its own field this is exactly the task of the revolutionary movie, to document the daily struggle of the masses and to dramatize these events so that their ideological and political meaning is conveyed, and the effect is persuasive. We must think of our films as having the same capacity as union organizers. We must make our movies in such a way that nonrevolutionary workers will realize the necessity of working class militancy and solidarity. We are handling a very important political weapon, more effective at this time than carloads of bullets and machine guns.”
With little change, I think, this can serve as an adequate general statement of the task of Film and Photo League production today, as well as a basis for judging the work of the past two years.
It is our responsibility to the revolutionary movement and to the potential power of the films in the workers’ struggle, to face critically the condition of our work, to analyze our shortcomings and thereby to advance and bring the revolutionary film to its proper stature in the workers’ cultural movement, a position commensurate with revolutionary literature, theatre and graphic art.
From the point of view of quantity we have produced but a handful of films in this past period: a few newsreels in the America Today series, composed of material shot by League cameramen and clips secured from the newsreel companies; a two-reel document of the Bonus March; several May Day films; a four-reel document of the 1932 Hunger March; a reel on the Scottsboro Case including the Decatur 1933 trial; the unfinished Child Misery and Unemployment Council films, the as yet incompleted Waste and Want, executed by the students of the Potamkin film school, and several films made independently by our members (Sweet Land of Liberty, Sheriffed, Ernst Thaelmann).
There can be little doubt that the number of pictures listed above have been entirely inadequate to the need. Considering only the active demand for films in class-conscious organizations, we have had insufficient films, witnessed by the fact that our distribution agency has had no resort to Westerns, Chaplin comedies and miscellaneous features to supplement its programs of Russian films, and by the fact that the N.Y. League itself has not been able to meet the calls for films placed directly with it. If one further considers our responsibility in producing films for agitational work among non-revolutionary workers, the dearth of films seems even greater. For we have not even touched this field, by far the most important work we can do.
Our production has been insufficient, also, from the point of view of (1) making adequate comment on and expose of the oppressive measures of the government during this period, the Hoover whitewash of all suffering unemployment, wage-cuts, etc.; the New Deal demagogy, slave-codes, war preparations, crop destruction, fascist development, standardization of starvation under C.C.C., C.W.A., etc.; (2) carrying forward the campaigns of the revolutionary movement to win workers to it: for the Unemployment Insurance Bill, the farm bill, strike relief, union organization, the Mooney, Herndon and Scottsboro defense and so forth.
It is true that these subjects are treated in some of the films mentioned above, and that several of these films are devoted to a single issue, e.g., Bonus March, Hunger 1932, Scottsboro. But even in these cases one film hardly exhausts what we have to say, and when one thinks of the mountains of literature, pamphlets, articles, books, written on these topics the inadequacy of our film-comment seems the more overwhelming.
Among these films are shots and sequences of great power and historic importance, the Detroit Massacre, the Weideman anti-Nazi demonstration, material in the Hunger and Bonus Marches; sections of important documentation of conditions among the unemployed (first reel of Hunger) ; parts of great satiric wit (the congressman in the Farmers’ March newsreel). But these excellences are fragmentary. While the photography and cutting has improved in this period there still remains a great distance to travel in the achievement of pictures which are cleanly photographed, economically cut and persuasively mounted.
Apart from the quantitative insufficiency of our work, which we must recognize and analyze for the sake of our future work, there is a basic criticism to be made of the approach and influence of our films. As much as we protest the theory that our films are a weapon in the class-struggle, and as much as we have tried to make our films an instrument of propaganda, they do not carry enough propaganda. Nor have they been good enough propaganda. Paradoxically our main weakness has been too little propaganda. The test of propaganda is persuasive power, and our films have not been persuasive. This is due largely to the fact that they have presupposed upon the part of the audience a knowledge and sympathy with our point of view. To a class-conscious worker, for example, our May First reels, which show hundreds of thousands of workers mobilized in the streets, may be a source of inspiration and a stimulus to militancy, but to a non-revolutionary worker, unless we clearly and effectively dramatize why these thousands are marching, May Day is another parade of marching, marching and marching. Certainly marching workers cannot be the only item in a one-reel film if that film is to be effective propaganda. Less blatantly this is the fault also of the rest of our films. They assume the revolutionary approach, instead of convincing the spectators of its correctness. They are neither clear nor simple enough. They do not have the cogency or the persuasion that a leaflet urging the National Guard not to shoot down their class brothers possess. And this is the type of simple eloquence our movies must have.
The lack of continuity of production is one of the most important factors in these shortcomings. Our film making has progressed by fits and starts. Intense activity. for a few weeks on Hunger, several months of inactivity before the next film is under way. Newsreels and documents are made over a long period, during evenings, Saturday and Sunday afternoons, and are sometimes dropped before completion. This inconstant production prevents an accumulation of experience and training required for the making of effective films, and introduces great waste of money and effort. (Needless to say, an organization based on Saturday and Sunday filming cannot produce a larger number of movies). Apart from the financial difficulties in making films continuously- an obstacle not insurmountable and apart from the faulty distribution of revolutionary films, the main cause for this discontinuity has been the prevalent conception that we can train worker-cameramen and filmmakers by giving them a few lessons in photography and sending them out to cover a demonstrations or make a documentary with the result that we have not yet trained a truly able corps of film workers. Our aim has been to develop as many such camera correspondents as possible. That this is a valid aim is not to be doubted, but the fact that in the past two years, the N.Y. League has not trained any new cadres in film production, and that we still have to fall back on the three or four cameramen who were with us two years ago, should be sufficient reason for us to doubt that our methods have been satisfactory, and to investigate what has held us back.
The problem of training film worker correspondents is frequently compared to the development of worker-correspondents for the revolutionary press. But the analogy is wholly false. For one thing, film costs and scarcity of equipment require centralized production-a condition which completely differentiates this case from the spontaneous reportage of workers who are in positions to reveal conditions to which newspapermen do not have access. Secondly, film making is a craft which is not an inherent part of every persons’ background as is the written and verbal language. It is a specialized work requiring similar training to that needed on the graphic arts for example. The John Reed clubs provide intensive courses for students who intend to become revolutionary artists. And it is the very rare exception that becomes a cartoonist in the workers’ press without adequate training in the craft of drawing.
We must drop our notion that everyone interested in the Film and Photo League should become a producer of revolutionary films, and we must make organizational changes to rectify this situation. The League is larger than its production, and there is room for a mass membership of workers, not directly concerned with production, but interested on combatting the growing fascization of Hollywood, and supporting the revolutionary movies of this country and of the Soviet Union. There is also room for concentrated production units whose main purpose should be to produce good revolutionary films-a unit made up of the best talent and providing for the swift training of potentialities. That such a group, a shock-troupe of full time film workers would step up our production quantitatively and qualitatively can hardly be doubted. One has only to look at the development in play production in the Workers’ Laboratory Theatre since the formation of their shock troupe. During this time the sheer fact that a group of dramatic workers could devote their entire time to working out the problems of the revolutionary drama has advanced the technique and propaganda power of their repertory to such an extent that it now includes such remarkable pieces as Newsboy and Free Thaelmann.
Toreturn for a moment to the lack of persuasive propaganda in our films, an important cause, in addition to our failure to accumulate experience through continuous production, has been the mechanical, schematic and unexperimental approach in the search for the proper forms for the revolutionary movie. We have been insisting that the documentary form is the only true one. The importance of the document as expose material relating to working and living conditions, police brutality, the militancy of the insurgent proletariat, etc., cannot be overemphasized; and without doubt much can be done in mounting to make effective propaganda. (That we have not done this in the past must be put to our inability to work out these problems by continuous and effective experimentation). But to rule out other film forms in which it is easier to build up essential sequences not accessible to the documentary camera-eye is a gross error. At least, we cannot decide until we have tried these forms. Besides the newsreel and the document, other available forms are: the trailer, the enacted short, the combined enacted and documentary, animated cartoon, satiric and didactic.
A further factor contributing to our failure to produce films regularly and continuously has been the snarls of our distribution apparatus. A film as important as Hunger 1932, was seen by a few thousand people mostly in New York, despite the fact that the three thousand delegates on the march were eager to have the film shown to their organizations all over the country. Being a topical and timely film, it was necessary to distribute it quickly. This was not done, with the consequence that it has in a short time become so much celluloid. Inadequate distribution results in lack of funds for future production and discourages the makers of the film. It is essential to have widespread and efficient distribution not alone among workers’ organizations in the movement, but among workers who have yet to be won over. I am informed that efforts are being made at this time to bring this about.
In conclusion, I should like to make the following proposals for the immediate advance in revolutionary film production:
1. Production shock troupes and training groups to be established in every league tobe financed by the whole league by means of film showings, donations from sympathizers, affairs, etc.
2. A national film exchange to be set up with headquarters in New York for the interchange of completed films for showing and of newsreel material for incorporation into larger documents. For example, properly organized a large slice of the present textile strike could be covered by various member organizations nearest to the scenes, the whole built into a film in New York and sent out over the country.
3. Contact and produce trailers and other films for organizations like W.I.R., I.L.D., I.W.O., Unemployment Councils, Leagues vs. War and Fascism and Struggle for Negro Rights, etc., in connection with their campaigns, these organizations to bear most of the expense.
4. Contact revolutionary unions to use specially prepared films systematically in recruiting. This might be done by sending out a cameraman and projectionist with organizers to make films and project them to masses of workers on the scene.
5. Stimulate amateurs to produce films with “social content” by providing them with scenarios and ideas. Most amateurs get quickly tired of shooting the wife and kiddies in various poses, and with direction might yield important documentary material, and later be drawn into the league.
Workers Theatre began in New York City in 1931 as the publication of The Workers Laboratory Theater collective, an agitprop group associated with Workers International Relief, becoming the League of Workers Theaters, section of the International Union of Revolutionary Theater of the Comintern. The rough production values of the first years were replaced by a color magazine as it became primarily associated with the New Theater. It contains a wealth of left cultural history and ideas. Published roughly monthly were Workers Theater from April 1931-July/Aug 1933, New Theater from Sept/Oct 1933-November 1937, New Theater and Film from April and March of 1937, (only two issues).
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/workers-theatre/v1n09-oct-1934-New-Theatre.pdf