Review of Native Land from 1942.
Invoking patriotism with images and allusions to the Plymouth Rock, the Declaration of Independence, the Civil War, and the movement West, Native Land, a film started in 1938 (tentatively entitled Labor Spy) but not released until 1942, urges ordinary citizens not to take their freedom for granted. A Michigan farmer is attacked, sharecroppers demanding a living wage are hunted down and killed by local sheriff deputies, the Ku Klux Klan tar and feather three trade union supporters, and a union representative is found murdered. Combining actual footage of such events and creative re-enactments by professional actors, Strand and Hurwitz call for a social revolution--to fight the conspiracy against labor unions and the plot to destroy every American's right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
This left-wing documentary was launched to subvert the right-wing newsreel March of Time. During the McCarthy witch-hunts, the original negatives were to be destroyed. However, the film remained, returning to circulation in 1974 and attaining the status of a legendary film of America's struggle for human rights.
Native Land is divided into four separate parts each with superb music, narration, and photography: the Midwest farm, the big city, the Southern village, and the industrial town. It is also "dialectical" in that it alternates "sequences of light and dark, advance and setback; and of documentary (the general) and drama (the specific)." 1 Campbell breaks down the structure of the film into even smaller parts: by subject, subdivisions, and mode. 2
Section one of the film is a bracket syntagma of liberty themes that lasts about seven minutes long. The sections that follow are a mixture of scenes and ordinary sequences in which past events are staged by actors, with bracket syntagmas mixed in to separate the drama from the documentary. The dialectical nature of the overall film is also an example of parallel syntagma where two themes are interwoven in a pattern of alternation. The film fluctuates between staged re-enactments and montages of the symbols of freedom and the American's struggle to maintain life, liberty, and happiness.
Hurwitz writes that the intercut dramatic episodes/documentary structure "added up in practice the years of study and experiment in film....This combined the enactment and the document, the lyrical and the statistical, the overall social pattern and real story episodes" in reaction against the Hollywood form. 3 The purpose was to combine individual scenes that evoke an emotional response with intellectual sequences of images and narration to promote a closer look at community problems on a scale larger than single instances of violence, injustice, and blackmail.
1 Waugh, Thomas. Ed. Show Us Life: Toward a History and Aesthetics of the Committed Documentary. Metuschen, New Jersey: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1984. (82).
2 Campbell, Russell. Cinema Strikes Back: Radical Filmmaking in The United States 1930-1942. Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1978. (250).
3 Campbell. Cinema. (259).