The Revolutionary Film--Next Step

By Leo Hurwitz

New Theatre, May 1934.

The film movement in America has for some time been faced with the problem of what film forms are its true concern. The Film and Photo Leagues have up to now produced mainly newsreels. They are necessary because of the rigid censorship and the malicious distortion that the capitalist film companies use in their treatment of events relative to labor and labor's struggles. These newsreels serve an agitational and revelational function to arouse the working class, and as a corrective for the lies of the capitalist agencies. A strike, demonstration, or hunger march is shown with the full brutalities of the police, with the full heroism and militancy of the workers, without the distractive mocking comment of the bourgeois announcer.

Because newsreels are fractional, atomic, and incomplete, the revolutionary movement has required a more synoptic form to present a fuller picture of the conditions and struggles of the working class. And so the synthetic documentary film has become an important form for film workers in the revolutionary movement--a form which allows for more inclusive and implicative comment on our class world than the discursive newsreel. For this great and rich medium the bourgeois filmers have had little use, since they cannot face the truths that the documentary camera can report. Their lies are better served by a more closely supervised camera in a shadowed studio under the kind sun of California. Aside from a few reels on sports, some shorts of believe-it-or-nots, and the half-truth-half-lies of industrial and "educational" films, Hollywood has ignored the vast possibilities of the synthetic film document.

Another factor, besides its great effectiveness, has determined the preoccupation of the radical moviemakers with the documentary film. At this time, with the radicalized working class as small as it is, it is almost impossible for economic and technical reasons to undertake the vast task of producing and distributing revolutionary dramatic films, which, in some ways, are capable of going beyond the document (as the synthetic document transcends the newsreel) in width of scope, synoptic approach, and ability to recreate events and emotions not revealable to the camera in the document.

The problems of documentary montage are very different from that of the dramatic film. The former may be called external montage, the creative comparison, contrast, and opposition of shots, externally related to each other, to produce an effect not contained in any of the shots--or, as Samuel Brody has well described it, "reality recorded on film strips and built up into wholes embodying our revolutionary interpretation of events." For this type of cutting, The Man With the Movie Camera is the textbook of technical possibilities. The dramatic film presents the problem of what may be called internal montage, which is essentially a recreative analysis and reconstruction of an internally related visual event in terms of shots of film, to reveal best the meaning of the event. The documentary film embodies the reporting on film of actual events and the creative addition of these bits of cinematographed reality to render an interpretation of that reality. The dramatic film involves in its cinematography the interpretive breaking-up of the recreated reality, and, in its montage, the synthesis of these analyzed elements to recreate the event on film from a given point of view.

Any acted sequence in an ordinary film will serve as an illustration of internal montage--any direct succession of acts to render u dramatic event. An example of external montage may be taken from a recent newsreel compilation by the New York Film and Photo League. The newsreel shots are sure: President Roosevelt signing a state paper and looking up at the camera with his inimitable self-satisfied smile, and a shot of fleet maneuvers--two shots taken in widely separated times and places and not essentially (but externally) related to each other. By virtue of splicing the shot of the warships just after Roosevelt signs the paper, and following the threatening ships of war with the rest of the first shot (Roosevelt looks up and smiles), a new meaning not contained in either shot, but a product of their new relation on film, is achieved--the meaning of the huge war preparation program of the demagogic Roosevelt government.

External and internal montage, as described here, are by no means mutually exclusive. Both may be used, and in fact have been used frequently to complement each other---sometimes with emphasis on the document, as in Ten Days That Shook the World, sometimes with the emphasis on the recreated drama, as in The End of Saint Petersburg.

A mixed form of the synthetic document and the dramatic is the next proper concern of the revolutionary film movement: to widen the scope of the document, to add to the document the recreated events necessary to it but resistant to the documentary camera eye--a synthetic documentary film which allows for material which recreates and fortifies the actuality recorded in the document, and makes it clearer and more powerful.