The Worker's Film and Photo League (later known as The Film and Photo League) was founded in 1930 and sponsored by the Communist International. It was a section of the Worker's International Relief (WIR), the American chapter of the Internationale Arbeiterhilfe (IAH). The IAH's purpose at first was to provide support for labor strikers and their families, but its influence extended throughout the twenties to organize drama groups, dance troupes, and a WIR film group, "Friends of Soviet Russia," that distributed film documentaries demonstrating the non-Hollywood version of the Soviet Union. WIR also produced documentaries on the Communist-led strikes in New Jersey and North Carolina, in 1926 and 1929 respectively.
As the Great Depression began to rear its ugly head, the necessity of a permanent film crew that would capture the struggles of American workers became apparent. The Worker's Camera Club of New York had been in existence in the twenties and in the spring of 1930 combined with the International Labor Defense to form the Labor Defender Photo Group. It's purpose was "to get pictures of the class struggle for use in working-class papers and magazines," including the ILD's Labor Defender 1. In December of 1930, the Worker's Camera Club and the Labor Defender Photo Group were reorganized under WIR to form the Film and Photo League. The FPL's intention was to "awaken the working class, to support its political activities through meetings and boycotts, and to establish a film and photo school that would produce and exhibit politically committed photographs, newsreels, and films." 2 The Harry Alan Potamkin Film School, named after the poet and film critic, was established and several first-class film makers were instructors, but it ultimately failed to survive. The FPL was determined to continue with its efforts, believing as did Samuel Brody, a founding member of FPL:
the news-film is the important thing; that the capitalist class knows that there are certain things that it cannot afford to have shown. It is afraid of some pictures....we will equip our own cameramen and make our own films. 3The New York FPL group started with Brody, Lester Balog, Robert Del Duca, and Leo Seltzer. Membership grew, at one point reaching a hundred, to include progressive artists such as Lewis Jacobs, Leo Hurwitz, David Platt, Irving Lerner, Ralph Steiner, and others who held Hollywood productions in contempt. The FPL set about obtaining real-life footage for use in newsreels. The bulk of its productions were quickly edited news footage, which was shown by League members at union halls, worker's clubs, and during strikes.
Later this footage was cut and compiled to produce serious documentaries on American labor issues and struggling working families. The National Hunger March displayed footage of the March 7, 1932 march in Detroit where police open fired and killed four demonstrators. Hunger 1932 presented live footage of the march from New York to the nation's capital. Brody stresses the importance of the camera presence:
Our cameramen were class-conscious workers who understood the historical significance of this epic march for bread and the right to live. As a matter of face, we "shot" the march not as "disinterested" news-gatherers but as actual participants in the march itself. Therein lies the importance of our finished film. It is in the viewpoint of the marchers themselves...our worker cameramen, working with small hand-cameras that permit unrestricted mobility, succeeded in recording incidents that show the fiendish brutality of the police towards the marchers. 4
Other FPL films presented additional shocking displays of hunger, oppression, violations of civil rights, and struggles to survive. These include Bonus March, The Scottsboro Boys, Marine (1934), Taxi (1935), and Sheriffed. The latter three films are lost, and as Russell Campbell rightly stresses, "reviews provide only frustrating hints as to their content and technique." 5
By 1936, the FPL was dissipating. Support from WIR faded as the IAH was annihilated by the Nazis. Without funding the group struggled to produce its final film, Getting Your Money's Worth, in 1937. A section of the FPL, the Photo League, remained to produce still photography and another arm, the Associated Film Audiences, continued to post reactions to Hollywood right-wing productions. Three members of the FPL split from the group in 1934 to create their own radical productions. This league was known as "Nykino."
Leo Hurwitz, Ralph Steiner, and Irving Lerner abandoned the FPL and its strict adherence to the documentary form. They wished to expand the aesthetic attributes of the documentary by adding dramatic re-enactments, creative photography, editing, and presentation, or as Hurwitz described, making "The Revolutionary Film--The Next Step." Documentary, he believed, should be a mixture of the external montage of documentary technique and the synthetic recreation of the dramatic film. Steiner agreed, stating that the plan was to develop "a production group within the Film and Photo League for the purpose of making documentary-dramatic revolutionary films--short propaganda films that will serve as flaming film-slogans, satiric films, and films exposing the brutalities of capitalist society." 6
Willard Van Dyke joined Nykino in 1935, the same year that he and Strand visited the Soviet Union. Pare Lorentz soon hired Strand, Steiner, and Hurwitz to photograph The Plow that Broke the Plains. The experience of making the film inspired the Frontier Films script and production of Hands, a work displaying close-ups of hands idle until launched into action by the WPA. In 1936, Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens came into contact with Nykino. Ivens "became a powerful influence in the group's commitment to independent, left-wing documentary production and his films...exemplified to them an aesthetic which transcended the reportage basis of Film and Photo League work, while avoiding the thematic impersonality of a government product like The Plow That Broke the Plains". 7 Although the group strove to attain this aesthetic, its productions Pie in the Sky, Sunnsyide, and Black Legion fell short. One of the most memorable works was the league's attempt to produce a March of Time from a left-wing perspective. The result was a realistic dramatic film titled World Today, released in September of 1936, that cleared the way for the emergence of Frontier Films in 1937. Nykino, as Russell Campbell describes,
was a transitional grouping...and its total output, in terms of production, was slight. But in the scope it allowed members to assess, question, and redefine their aesthetic goals it was of great significance. 8
In March of 1937, Nykino was formally converted to the non-profit organization Frontier Films. Its members were all part of the former group, including Paul Strand, Leo Hurwitz, Ralph Steiner, Lionel Berman, Willard Van Dyke, Ben Maddow, Sidney Meyers, Irving Lerner, and Jay Leyda. Joris Ivens was also listed as a member. Frontier Film's statement of intent claimed:
There are many aspects of American life ignored by the film industry. In the stirring events that overflow our newspapers...in the vivid reality of our everyday lives...in the rich and robust traditions of the American people....This is the subject matter that needs to be dramatized in America's most popular medium of entertainment. It is this America--the world we actually live in--that Frontier Films will portray. 9
The first plans of the group actually included adaptations of plays and the continuance of World Today. These projects were aborted, in addition to some other projects, due to lack of financial support. Four major productions were finally completed, including: Heart of Spain, based on Spanish Civil War footage, China Strikes Back, edited from scenes obtained by Harry Dunham in northwest China, People of the Cumberland, Frontier's first original domestic production, and Native Land, known as the group's most culminating achievement.
Dissention was present in the group, however, and in 1938 Steiner and Van Dyke left Frontier Films to form American Documentary Films, taking the half-finished documentary The City with them. Despite lack of funds and loss of members, Frontier went on to produce additional, although less well-known films, including History and Romance of Transportation, released for the 1939 World's Fair, United Action, edited by Frontier Film members, and White Flood, an aesthetic look at the last ice age.
Towards the end of the decade, Frontier Films was issuing trustee certificates to pay the bills, and despite the sympathetic support of Eleanor Roosevelt, the break-out of the war was too much for the company. The organization disbanded in 1941 and most of its members became actively engaged in war efforts. As Russell Campbell points out, "The Depression decade was over, and it would be many years before committed, left-wing filmmaking collective like Frontier Films would be seen again in America." 10 It would also be several years before the radical films from this era were again brought to life.
1 Campbell, Russell. "Radical Documentary in the United States." Thomas Waugh, Ed. Show Us Life: Toward a History and Aesthetics of the Committed Documentary. Metuschen, New Jersey: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1984. (72).
2 Barsam, Richard M. Non-Fiction Film: A Critical History. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1973. (146).
3 Campbell. "Radical" (71).
4 Campbell. "Radical" (76).
5 Campbell. "Radical." (79).
6Campbell, Russell. Cinema Strikes Back: Radical Filmmaking in The United States 1930-1942. Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1978. (118).
7Campbell. Cinema. (128).
8Campbell. Cinema. (130).
10Campbell. Cinema. (164).