Cinematic activism is enjoying a comeback.


This past January, a Salt Lake City audience that included several state politicians watched Invisible Revolution, a documentary film featuring images of a teen Klan wedding replete with gun-toting (and -shooting) guests, shots of racially motivated murder sites in nearby Nevada, doggerel-spouting white supremacist young men, and street showdowns between Anti-Racist Action youth members and bigoted skinheads.

The film’s director, Beverly Peterson, in Utah for the Sundance Film Festival, spoke to the assembled, drawing their attention to a recent expansion in racist skinhead activity in the area. Her goal was to inspire the politicians to rally behind a comprehensive statewide hate-crimes bill that was to be voted on later that week in the state Senate. “Sure enough, a week later the bill, which contained more protections for gays and lesbians, passed,” says Robert West, executive director of Working Films, the year-old documentary film organization that mounted the Invisible Revolution event in Utah (the bill recently faltered, however, in the Republican-controlled House). Peterson–who shot her film on Betacam for roughly $85,000 of mostly her own money, with some small grants and a research fellowship–has high hopes that her film may influence other such fights throughout the country.

Fortunately, Invisible Revolution is not the only activist film out there. “The political filmmakers are still working, it’s just that their activity doesn’t get publicity,” says Patricia Thomson, editor in chief of The Independent Film & Video Monthly, noting that the lion’s share of today’s activist films are documentaries.

This year will see the release from Cowboy Films International of On Hostile Ground, which follows three abortion providers through their daily medical routines while threats of injunctions, shootings and firebombings swirl around them, and the Sundance prize-winning documentary Southern Comfort, a low-key but eloquent defense of transgendered rights, on HBO and also in theaters. Working Films is organizing community screenings for On Hostile Ground, showing it to constituencies involved in pro-choice debates, like medical students and nonviolence and interfaith groups. Trembling Before G-d, a Working Films documentary about gay Hasidim, will be shown at gay-oriented churches and also at Christian seminaries in an effort, says West, to get “new faith leaders to examine their relationship to gay and lesbian members of their congregations.”

There are even progressive documentaries and activist events aimed at college students. The ongoing McCollege Tour, for example, screens two rough-hewn films about academic corporatization–the student-helmed University Inc. and The Subtext of a Yale Education–at universities in the South in an attempt to raise student awareness about campus privatization. At some stops, the directors speak to students about how to make and distribute films that can effect social change.

Of course, progressive filmmaking is nothing new. It draws on a long history going back to the documentaries of the New Deal and the films of the New Left film collectives Newsreel and Pacific Street Films in the mid-1960s to early 1970s. The political films of that era ranged from amateur pictures on peace marches and other activist subcultures to self-representations by blacks, women and students–groups that hadn’t had such access to the medium before. Others sought to expose the darker truths of American institutions and the Vietnam War, countering Hollywood’s legacy of mindless optimism and its marginalization of minority voices. Frederick Wiseman, Shirley Clarke and Emile de Antonio illuminated the real lives of African-Americans, poor whites and radicals. Newsreel became Third World Newsreel and continues under that name now.

As the world of independent feature filmmaking became increasingly commercialized by the mid-1990s, there was also a parallel, much more positive development: a resurgence in documentary filmmaking, thanks in part to the advent of the cheaper, lighter digital format that helped to offset the daunting costs of pursuing political aims through film. “Historically, the heightened realism of documentaries is perceived as a corrective whenever Hollywood is perceived to have become too escapist,” says Paul Arthur, a Montclair State University film professor and a specialist in nonfiction film. “We are at the neo-neo-realist point in the cycle.”

Despite all this vibrant production, distribution remains an activist filmmaker’s biggest hurdle. Recently, new distribution-oriented organizations have risen up to try to find a solution. The New York City-based year-old Media Rights, for instance, tries to match completed issue-based documentaries and advocacy films with similarly inclined nonprofits or network or cable TV stations. So far a number of documentaries listed on their site ( have been picked up by PBS, and the group hopes to place others with cable channels like HBO and Cinemax.

If all else fails, progressive independent filmmakers can always take matters into their own hands and self-distribute. David Riker, the Anglo activist director of La Ciudad, did just that with his film in 1999, after his distributor, Zeitgeist Films, decided it wasn’t equipped to distribute the Spanish-language film to Latino theaters. “We didn’t have the experience or contacts with the theater owners and were told by several people that those theaters did good business with commercial films but not with art films like La Ciudad,” says Nancy Gerstman, Zeitgeist’s co-president.

Riker convinced Latin American theater owners in New York City to give him a cash advance, with which he bought advertising and three of his own film’s prints. Then he got a Latino politician in Harlem to support free screenings of La Ciudad for school-age children during the week, hoping that if the children saw the film for free they would tell their parents about it and they would view it over the weekend. Ultimately, Riker’s neo-neo-realist picture about new immigrants, with a cast full of nonactor seamstresses and laborers, outperformed Hollywood blockbusters for six weeks at these theaters. “There are large parts of the country that don’t fit into the Hollywood images,” says Riker. “You can market a film like La Ciudad the way I did in a dozen other American cities.”

And Jay Craven has taken Riker’s agenda even further. A veteran independent filmmaker and artistic director of the independent film nonprofit Kingdom County Productions, Craven has lobbied the New England Council on the Arts to create a nonprofit distribution company that would establish a network of theaters, libraries and labor unions where activist movies could be shown to audiences they wouldn’t otherwise reach. “With 800 alternate venues for activist and culturally diverse work, we would be building film culture,” says Craven, who has himself held outreach screenings for local farmers and workers.

In addition to sharing inventive distribution schemes, today’s activist films are far more likely to be explicitly collaborative than commercial and apolitical films are. In the forty years since auteurism became a category in American cinema, mainstream directors have learned to sell their proper names as brands. Therefore, today a more radical production model is a nonhierarchical one. In the fiction film Our Song, to be released by IFC Films this spring in New York, after the familiar “a film by” card, there’s a screen full of the actors’, crew’s and the director’s names, telegraphing the film’s collective ethos. Its stars, all teen girls of color who had never before appeared in a movie, are allowed more improvisation than actors in most films. The film’s central ensemble, moreover, is the real-life Jackie Robinson Steppers Marching Band of a Brooklyn high school. These ingredients help make Our Song a uniquely generous and unsensationalized picture of working-class urban life, in stark contrast to today’s typical independent film fare, with its flashy images and largely white, middle-class characters.

If collectivity is one measure of a filmmaker’s political commitment, the real warriors are the Independent Media Center’s filmmakers. Last year the IMC–a collective forged at the Seattle WTO rally–released, with Big Noise Films, This Is What Democracy Looks Like, which is composed of digital footage of the protests from more than 100 amateur and professional filmmakers. (The WTO rally inspired a remarkably large number of filmmakers to document it, with films including Shaya Mercer’s Trade Off and Rustin Thompson’s 30 Frames a Second.) IMC’s fifty loosely affiliated offices around the world also organized more than fifty screenings on the anniversary of the protests in fall 2000.

“The aesthetic of our films is born out of the global movement,” says Rick Rowley, one of the directors of This Is What Democracy Looks Like. “The IMC films are decentered and modular.” Indeed, the anarchic, collective feel of This Is What Democracy Looks Like mirrors the anticorporate movement, which tends to eschew spokespeople and leaders. The digital video resembles the output of the Newsreel collectives, which were similarly dispersed across the nation and brought together numerous young lensers under one umbrella. The IMC has also borrowed a page from the guerrilla TV media activists of the 1970s, who likewise did group shoots of events (for example, “video freaks” made idiosyncratic documentaries of the Democratic and Republican National Conventions for cable television, which aired in 1972).

In March Rowley’s own group, Big Noise Films, extended the boundaries of their activism, meeting with the Chiapas Media Project in Chiapas and accompanying Zapatistas from there to Mexico City, riding a bus full of video and audio equipment. Then they will ride on to Quebec, and finish shooting their collaborative film at the Free Trade Area of the Americas protests in April.

Admittedly, the films of IMC and Big Noise are not exactly masterpieces. Seemingly endless, shaky images of ominous cops and protesters being dragged along the sidewalk start to wear thin after a while, and the pulsating electronic background music, along with a sequence where a melodious voice muses abstractly on oppression by “global forces,” have a repetitive, generic feel. But the IMC and Big Noise excel at getting their anticorporate, youth activist message out there.

Our Song‘s director, Jim McKay, however, still worries about whether his film can reach the girls it depicts. “There’s no movie theater in Crown Heights, where Our Song was made,” he explains. When he recently screened the film to the Bronx Defenders, an organization that provides free legal counsel to members of the Bronx community, one teenage girl told McKay how moved she was by the film, with its images of teen girls–of young motherhood, low-wage work and classroom asbestos, but also of smoky kisses, shared jokes and ice cream. McKay believes Our Song could speak to other young adults coming up in urban areas. “How do I get to them?” he asks. He knows he has to try, because, as he sees it, it’s as much their song as it is his.

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