Looking Back and Turning Inward: American Documentary Films of the Seventies
Looking Back and Turning Inward: American Documentary Films of the Seventies
Theatrical and Nontheatrical Distribution
Colleges and Universities
Cinema verité's "Old Masters"
Looking Back and Turning Inward
Family Portrait Films
In the revised and expanded version of his invaluable history of nonfiction film, Richard Barsam sees the sixties as a high-water mark for the American documentary cinema. It was a decade in which the politically committed social documentary flourished even as a new and experimental form of documentary, cinema verité or direct cinema, emerged. Barsam sums up the seventies, by contrast, as a decade in which few filmmakers were interested "either in the identification of social abuses or in the cinematic experimentation that, a decade earlier, had created direct cinema. Thus, much of their output, mired in tradition, seemed bland."1
In the seventies, filmmakers like Richard Leacock, D. A. Pennebaker, Albert and David Maysles, and Frederick Wiseman adhered to the strict cinema verité discipline they had mastered in the sixties, which calls upon filmmakers to wait silently for their human subjects to reveal themselves and to edit out signs of people's self-consciousness in the presence of the camera. A number of younger filmmakers, such as Alan and Susan Raymond, came to master that discipline, too. Nonetheless, Barsam is correct in suggesting that there was a general tendency in the seventies for documentary filmmakers to turn away from cinema verité as the "old masters" had practiced it (and continued to practice it).
Concurring with this suggestion, Michael Renov characterizes the seventies as the beginning of the "post-verité" period.2 Rather than taking documentary film's turning away from cinema verité as signaling a retreat to blander and more traditional forms, however, Renov sees it as liberating. He praises a number of works of the seventies, which broke with the strict cinema verité discipline, for anticipating the profusion of films of the eighties and nineties that affirm their subjects' subjectivity, and especially the diaries, journals, and autobiographies that affirm the filmmaker's own subjectivity.3
In asserting that the seventies marked the beginning of the "post-verité" age, Renov consigns cinema verité to the past. He assumes that verité was not flexible or resourceful enough to accommodate the affirmations of subjectivity that began to emerge in the seventies. He assumes that such films were repudiating cinema verité, although it is more fruitful as well as more accurate to view them as extending cinema verité, as, indeed, transforming it from within. Although Renov understands cinema verité (as exemplified by the Drew Associates productions and the early films of Leacock, Pennebaker, and the Maysles) to be fundamentally opposed to subjectivity, in fact, those films affirmed subjectivity no less than the films he champions. (How could one possibly view Leacock's A Happy Mother's Day [Richard Leacock and Joyce Chopra, 1963] or Pennebaker's Don't Look Back , for example, as opposed to subjectivity?) The impulse to scrutinize people "scientifically," as if they were insects under a microscope, was characteristic of ethnographic film in the sixties and seventies, not cinema verité. From the outset, cinema verité in America, like the "classical" Hollywood cinema it took itself to be rebelling against, allied itself with the Emersonian view that the range of the human cannot be fixed in advance, that the human subject is always in the process of becoming.4 To suppose that subjectivity first enters the documentary picture in a few forward-looking films of the seventies, and to view those films as repudiating cinema verité, is to deny the continuities between pre-seventies and post-seventies documentaries, hence to miss the importance of the seventies, both as a period of transition within the American documentary cinema and as a period of great vitality and achievement in its own right.
The task of assessing the American documentary cinema of the seventies is complicated both by the sheer number of documentaries made during the decade and by the sheer obscurity of so many of them.
For an all too brief period, coinciding with the Kennedy presidency, the earliest American cinema verité films, the Drew Associates productions (Primary ; On the Pole ; the four films the Drew team made in 1960 and 1961 for the ABCTV Close-Up series; the eleven films it made for the Living Camera series, including The Chair  and CRISIS: Behind a Presidential Commitment ), were broadcast in prime-time on network television. That was an event of national importance. But no less important was cinema verité's expulsion from network television. A Happy Mother's Day (1963) marks this moment.5 When a South Dakota woman gave birth to quintuplets, ABC commissioned Richard Leacock to film the hoopla. The network edited his footage but never broadcast it, so Leacock made his own version. No longer assured a national audience of millions for his work, but no longer obligated to mask his point of view behind a facade of journalistic objectivity, he was free to think of what he was creating simply as a film, his film. At that moment, cinema verité in America was reborn, disempowered but free, as a movement of independent film. The Drew team broke up, and Leacock, Pennebaker, and the Maysles brothers struck out on their own, their ranks soon joined by the likes of Frederick Wiseman, Edward Pincus, Les Blank, Alan and Susan Raymond, and, by the end of the seventies, literally thousands of documentary filmmakers who were incorporating into their work the adventure of filming "real people" going about their lives in the world.
In the seventies, a handful of documentaries enjoyed relatively significant theatrical runs, and a larger handful reached audiences nationwide through public television. On rare occasions, even commercial television still showed serious documentaries (for example, the 1976 Westinghouse-Group W series Six American Families, for which such distinguished documentary filmmakers as the Maysles brothers, Bill Jersey, Susan Fanshel, Arthur Barron, and Marc Obenhaus filmed the everyday life of six very different American families). But audiences for documentary films were usually small, and sometimes quite specialized. Except on the occasions in which they were screened at the venues in major cities and college campuses around the country that were open to the work of contemporary independent filmmakers, most documentaries received little or no public notice.
No individual or organization put money into documentaries in the hope of reaping profits. A crucial factor that made it possible for so many documentaries nonetheless to be made was the relatively ready availability of funds from public and private grant-giving entities. The National Endowment for the Arts, the American Film Institute, and the National Endowment for the Humanities provided funding for numerous documentary projects. State arts councils provided support, as did private foundations, ranging from the giant Rockefeller, Ford, and Guggenheim Foundations to small foundations such as The Film Fund created by Barbara Kopple, Obie Benz, and David Crocker, among others. To finance films meant to stimulate social change. A filmmaker like Amalie Rothschild, for example, was able to receive production grants from the American Film Institute Independent Filmmaker Program (1973), the National Endowment for the Arts (1977, 1978), the New York State Council on the Arts (1978), the Pinewood Foundation (1978), and the John Hay Whitney Foundation (1978) to help support her work in the seventies.6 (In the late sixties and early seventies, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, funded by the federal government, gave more grants to filmmakers than any other organization.7 However, after Richard Nixon vetoed the 1972 CPB budget, public television stations were generally forced to turn to corporate funding to underwrite individual programs. Although in the late seventies an Independent Documentary Fund was established for public television, the imperative of not offending potential corporate underwriters led public television stations to gravitate increasingly to relatively conventional styles and non-controversial subject matter.)
A glance at the final credits of any major documentary of the seventies suggests the ingenuity and persistence required for independent filmmakers to gather the resources to get their films in the can. Harlan County, USA (Barbara Kopple, 1977), for example, thanks "individuals and organizations who have provided valuable support and assistance." The long list of individuals cited, added to the extensive list of people who are credited for technical work they did for the production, comprises a virtual Who's Who of New York's independent film community in the seventies. The almost equally long list of organizations includes, among others, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, the American Film Institute, the Abelard Foundation, the Menil Foundation, the Southern Regional Council, the United Methodist Church, and Duart Film Laboratories. (A disproportionate number of independently produced films in the seventies carry a "Color by Duart" because Irwin Young, brother of director Robert Young and owner of Duart Film Laboratories, was so committed to independent film, especially documentary, that he often made special deals with independent filmmakers that allowed them to defer post-production expenses.)
In addition to unsung heroes like Young, a diversity of other factors helped make it possible for so many documentary filmmakers to prevail in their struggles to finance their films. For example, the nonprofit Media Equipment Resource Center in New York pioneered in making equipment available to independent filmmakers, providing a model for similar organizations in other cities. Last, but unfortunately not least, explosive growth in the credit card industry made it possible, if undesirable (by the late seventies, after all, interest rates had risen to all-time highs), for filmmakers to go into debt to make their films.
In most cases, getting a completed documentary seen by its potential audience took even more ingenuity and persistence than getting it made in the first place. Numerous commercial distributors specialized in the 16mm nontheatrical market, ranging from relative giants, such as Films Incorporated, to the more filmmaker-friendly Serious Business Company (run by artist/filmmaker Freude Bartlett) and Direct Cinema, Ltd. (run by filmmaker/distributor/gadfly Mitchell Block).8 Whether by choice or by necessity, many filmmakers distributed their films themselves. Their efforts at self-distribution were facilitated by distribution cooperatives, such as the Film-Makers' Cooperative, Canyon Cinema Cooperative, the Philadelphia Filmmakers' Co-op, and New Day Films.9 (New Day was founded in 1971 by Amalie Rothschild, Julia Reichert, James Klein, and Liane Brandon to facilitate the distribution of films by and about women at an historical moment when a thriving feminist movement was engendering a proliferation of women's groups interested in screening and discussing such films.) There also were university distributors (for example, the University of California Extension Media Center; the NYU Film Library; Iowa Films, run by the University of Iowa; and the Audio-Visual Library Service of the University of Minnesota) and other nonprofit distributors, such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Donnell Library in New York.10 Under the stewardship of Kitty Morgan, Independent Artists and Producers (ICAP), subsidized by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, and the private Markle Foundation and thus able to return most of the rental revenues to the filmmakers, distributed independently produced films and videos to the then fledgling HBO and Showtime, to other cable systems, and to television stations abroad.11 (German television, in particular, acquired numerous American documentaries, gravitating to those which exposed the dark underbelly of American life.)
Even for documentary filmmakers who were relatively successful in marketing their films, however, it remained a dream to be able to earn enough profits in rentals and sales to make a decent living, to pay off the debts they incurred making the films, and to finance their next films without having to depend on the whims of grant-giving agencies. Few documentary filmmakers in the seventies were able to support their expensive filmmaking habits solely by sales and rentals. (One exception was Pennebaker, whose sixties film Don't Look Back continued to reap dividends. Another was Wiseman, whose films were virtually guaranteed of being bought by almost every public television station in the country, and who distributed his films through his own production company, Zipporah Films, and supplemented his income by personal appearances.)
One reason so many documentary filmmakers gravitated to New York in the seventies was the opportunities the city provided to supplement their incomes—that is, pay off their debts—by working in various capacities within a film and television industry that, given New York's liberal tradition, was less rigid and more open to scruffy independent filmmakers, many of them women who were not about to let themselves be pushed around, than that of Los Angeles. Another was the generosity of the New York State Council on the Arts. Yet another was New York's plethora of educational institutions where documentary filmmakers could teach, as adjuncts or as regular faculty members, in environments conducive to filmmaking.
New York was not the only major hub for documentary filmmakers in the seventies. The Boston area, for example, home to Harvard and MIT, was also home to the Harvard-based anthropological filmmaker Robert Gardner (whose major film of the seventies was Rivers of Sand  and who also hosted a local television show dedicated to the work of independent filmmakers, especially documentarians); Alfred Guzzetti, also based at Harvard, whose major seventies film was Family Portrait Sittings (1976); Richard Leacock, who jointly presided over the faculty of the Graduate Film Section at MIT with his younger colleague Edward Pincus, an important if relatively little-known figure in documentary film of the seventies; Frederick Wiseman, whose work in the seventies was more widely seen than that of any other American documentary filmmaker; and John Marshall, who collaborated with Gardner on The Hunters (1958), shot Wiseman's first film, Titicut Follies (1967), and in the seventies made a series of films about the !Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari as well as cinema verité films closer to home. WGBH, one of the flagship PBS stations that was especially active in producing and acquiring documentaries, was also located in the Boston area.
In the seventies, filmmaking and film study programs sprang up in thousands of colleges and universities. More and more documentary filmmakers found themselves with university affiliations that freed them from the need to make a living by selling their services as hired hands to commercial production companies. It also gave them access to expensive camera, sound, and editing equipment they would otherwise have had to rent or purchase; it facilitated their efforts to secure grants; and the imperative of earning tenure in a "publish or perish" era provided a strong incentive to remain productive. Most university-based documentary filmmakers wanted their work to reach as wide an audience as possible, of course, but they were free to push the exigencies of the marketplace aside, if they wished, to pursue difficult subjects and challenging formal experiments without being unduly constrained by commercial considerations. (The academy may equal the marketplace in imposing its own conformities, but that is another story.)
The presence on so many college campuses of documentary filmmakers passionately committed to their work meant that the torch was passed to students all over the country. Increasingly, when documentaries were screened on or off college campuses, a sizable part of the audience was made up of film students, film teachers, and independent filmmakers, many of them documentary filmmakers, and many of them women. The establishment in the early seventies of the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers (AIVF), New York-based but with a national membership, was indicative of the fact that a community of independent filmmakers had emerged, and had become conscious of itself as a community. As its name (and the name of its newsletter/journal, The Independent) suggests, the organization's goal was to help filmmakers secure their independence, financially as well as creatively. For the AIVF, furthering its members' independence was itself a political crusade. For most AIVF members, "independence" primarily meant independence from Hollywood studios, the networks, and the corporate world in general. The nonprofit AIVF, itself subsidized by grants, did not strive to wean filmmakers from dependence on grants. In the seventies, the major grant-awarding entities allowed decisions to be determined primarily by peer review panels—an NEA grant program for independent filmmakers was administered through the American Film Institute, for example—and were quite catholic in their choices. But American society has always been ambivalent about public support for the arts, and the more restrictive Reagan era was just around the corner.
By the end of the sixties, the hard-hitting network investigative documentary of the kind CBS pioneered in the fifties had already become an endangered species, with one of the last being The Selling of the Pentagon (Peter Davis, 1971), made for CBS, an exposé of the ways the Defense Department was manipulating public opinion to bolster support for the Vietnam War. And by the end of the sixties, the networks had already for some years closed their doors to prime-time cinema verité documentaries of the kind Drew Associates had produced early in the decade. Although there were occasional exceptions, such as Six American Families, and although Sixty Minutes occasionally bought documentary footage from independent filmmakers (as did such syndicated shows as That's Incredible! and Ripley's Believe It or Not), network television in the seventies remained all but completely closed to documentaries.12 Most of the documentaries broadcast nationwide were aired on public television.
In the mid-seventies, there were about 270 public television stations in the country. Approximately a third were licensed to colleges and universities, a third to public school systems, and a third to nonprofit organizations that mingled the social, cultural, religious, and educational interests of urban areas. Some stations were part of state networks—licensed, in fact, to the states themselves.13 A number of individual PBS stations produced, and distributed to other stations, ongoing documentary series, such as Nova; multi-part series, such as the six-part 1977 series on female artists, The Originals: Women in Art; and individual documentaries, such as the National Geographic specials. Individual stations also acquired as many as fifteen hour-long documentaries a year, paying independent filmmakers, in the mid-seventies, up to $1,000 per hour for multiple screenings.14 However, local stations were so far-flung and diverse that it was difficult, especially before videocassette recorders became universally available late in the decade, to establish relationships with more than a few of them. Filmmakers were also able to negotiate with consortia of stations, such as the Eastern Educational Network, which had about fifty member stations and bought perhaps ten or twelve single documentaries each year for about $100 per minute.15 It was also possible for filmmakers to sell directly to PBS itself. (After the early seventies, CPB did not fund individual programs, but it did have funds for film acquisition. Decisions concerning which films to buy were made jointly by CPB and PBS.16)
It must be said, however, that public television, which after the early seventies was heavily dependent on corporate underwriting to fund its programming, failed to furnish a national audience to more than a few documentary filmmakers. For the vast majority of documentary filmmakers in the seventies (or the eighties and nineties, for that matter), PBS was of little or no use in helping their films to reach audiences. For virtually none did it solve the problem of how to make documentary filmmaking self-supporting.
As detailed elsewhere in this volume, a general crisis in the film industry in the early seventies created a product shortage for exhibitors and thus a window of opportunity for independent producers, including documentary producers. In the seventies, several independently produced documentaries enjoyed considerable theatrical releases. Among them were Woodstock (Michael Wadleigh, 1970), Gimme Shelter (Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, 1970), Marjoe (Howard Smith and Sarah Kernochan, 1972), Milhouse (Emile De Antonio, 1973), Hearts and Minds (Peter Davis, 1974), I. F. Stone's Weekly (Jerry Bruck, Jr., 1973), Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman (Jill Godmilow and Judy Collins, 1974), General Idi Amin Dada (Barbet Schroeder, 1975), Harlan County, USA, (1977), Pumping Iron (Robert Fiore and George Butler, 1977), and Best Boy (Ira Wohl, 1979).
The usual pattern, pioneered by Jerry Bruck, Jr. with I. F. Stone's Weekly, was to open the film at a "showcase," preferably in New York. Frequently, the filmmakers appeared at these showcase screenings to introduce their works and answer questions. New York venues suitable for showcasing feature-length documentaries included the Whitney Museums New American Filmmakers series, the Museum of Modern Art's Cineprobe series, Karen Cooper's Film Forum, or the Donnell Library, whose screenings were programmed by William Sloan (who also edited Film Library Quarterly, a journal that featured reviews and other coverage of contemporary documentaries). Outside New York, suitable venues included the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, run by Tom Luddy, which offered minimal press coverage but meant an important connection to other screenings and to distributors and festivals on the West Coast; the Vanguard Theater in Los Angeles, which ran a weekly "Contemporary Film" series; the Northwest Film Study Center at Portland; the Rocky Mountain Film Center at Boulder; the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis; the American Film Institute theater in Washington, programmed by Michael Webb, which offered good press coverage and solid connections to other outlets and festivals; the Film Center at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; the Walnut Street Film Theater in Philadelphia; and Center Screen in Cambridge.17 Technically "nontheatrical," these all operated under nonprofit umbrellas and thus were eligible to receive grants from government agencies and private foundations. An alternative strategy was to open the film at a major film festival. For providing exposure to a documentary film that had a chance for a theatrical run, the top American film festivals included the New York Film Festival, FILMEX (Los Angeles International Film Exposition), and the fledgling Telluride Film Festival.
Favorable reviews attending the showcase opening increased a film's chance of securing first runs in commercial art theaters in major urban centers. Art-theater runs were followed by bookings on college campuses for quasi-theatrical one-night screenings, then by educational classroom rentals and sales of prints to schools and public libraries.
Jill Godmilow released Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman (1974) in accordance with this pattern. First was a screening in the Whitney Museum "New American Filmmakers" series. The Whitney, which had an advertising budget, ran two major press screenings and individual screenings for critics who couldn't make the scheduled ones. As Godmilow describes it, "We provoked, and we prodded, and we pushed our materials to every radio, TV, newspaper, and magazine film critic in the city—from Time Magazine and The Today Show all the way down to the forty or fifty college newspapers and radio stations in the New York area."18 Thanks to the reviews and media appearances (and, it must be added, thanks to the celebrity of the singer Judy Collins, then riding a crest of popularity), the Whitney sold out three and four shows a day for two weeks. With only a week's interruption in the run, Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman and I. F. Stone's Weekly (1973) opened as a double bill at the Quad Theater in Greenwich Village. "We did six pretty decent weeks at the Quad, trailed off badly through two more terrible ones, but managed to convince Larry Jackson at the Orson Welles Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to give us a try, where Antonia eventually ran fifteen weeks."19 In the ensuing twelve months, Antonia played in theaters in about twenty cities, mostly on the East and West Coasts. The length of the run and the degree of financial success varied, but the film did not lose money in any city.20
Even for documentary films, like Antonia, which enjoyed the luxury of theatrical openings, it was the nontheatrical market that provided the bulk of the revenues. For the vast majority of documentaries, the sole financial returns came from nontheatrical sales and rentals to schools, colleges, libraries, museums government agencies, hospitals, churches, and, for films by or about women, the women's groups that were springing up all over the country. In 1974, public school systems spent a total of $276 million on non-print media, with the largest share ($62.3 million) going to 16mm films (64 percent of this was spent at the grade school level, 28 percent at the high school level).21 The totality of nontheatrical rentals and sales of 16mm prints in the mid-seventies was about $140 million per year—not a trivial figure by any means, but obviously a drop in the bucket within the film industry as a whole.22 The most important film festival in the seventies, for the nontheatrical market, was the American Film Festival, put on annually in New York by the Educational Film Library Association (EFLA).
Commenting in the mid-seventies on the nontheatrical market in an EFLA volume on 16mm distribution, Mitchell Block, whose distribution company, Direct Cinema, Ltd., continues to distribute many classic and contemporary documentary films, wrote, rather disconsolately:
[T]his business is underwritten by the government at all levels, including distribution. The buyers are public institutions, for the most part—libraries, schools, etc.; the markets are funded by grants and contracts; the only ones who don't really get a subsidy break are the for-profit distributors who must compete with state university film libraries. If the government provides a major share of the venture capital for filmmaking in a free market situation, then this distorts the entire market. Filmmakers find it difficult to raise money in the private sector because the selling price does not reflect the films' costs. This situation could be improved if the government simply funded the buyers at a level where the school systems and libraries could pay filmmakers and distributors a price that would reflect production costs. I believe that this would require that budgets be increased across the board 250 percent—just to maintain the present buying level. Unfortunately, this prospect seems unlikely in the near future and, in the meantime, filmmakers must cope with the present system.23
In college and university film programs in the seventies it was quite typical for there to be a wall of mutual hostility, or at least mutual indifference, between those who taught production and those who taught history, criticism, and theory. But the documentary filmmaker's situation within the academy was especially anomalous. The original impulse to establish film on college campuses came largely from a post-Bazinian vision of film as a great art uniquely rooted in reality. Those who embraced such a vision were inclined to accord special importance to the great works of the documentary tradition. The new field of film study increasingly based its claim to legitimacy, though, on its embrace of the radical new theoretical frameworks and methodologies (poststructuralism, deconstruction, Althusserian Marxism, Lacanian psychoanalysis) that were revolutionizing the study of literature. The theories that came to dominate academic film study viewed films as discursive constructs, not as windows onto reality. Prior to the eighties, few if any critiques of documentary were published within film study. But the new theories made documentary films, or at least the claim sometimes made on their behalf that they were capable of revealing reality directly, seem philosophically naive, or worse, unfashionable. Even as the presence of documentary filmmakers was becoming a fact of life within the academy, documentaries were becoming more and more marginalized within academic film study. Shamefully, this was the case even though feminist theory was making ever greater inroads on film study in the late seventies, and so many contemporary documentaries were made by women and explicitly addressed feminist issues and themes.
Although many were increasingly isolated within their own film programs, campus-based documentary filmmakers began to have a major impact on documentary filmmaking itself. In the seventies, the foremost training ground for cinema verité filmmakers was the MIT Film Section. This graduate program, which awarded MFA degrees, was founded in 1969 by Edward Pincus, and quickly added the already legendary Richard Leacock to its faculty. The Film Section numbers among its alumni Ross McElwee, Joel DeMott, Jeff Kreines, Ann Schaetzel, Robb Moss, Steven Ascher, Michel Negroponte, and other filmmakers who went on to make major contributions to the American documentary in the eighties and nineties.
Documentary film's vexed relationship with academic film study was further complicated by the claims made by ethnographic filmmakers and their supporters that they were founding an academic discipline that was not a branch of film study (whose intellectual roots were in criticism and the humanities), but rather a visual branch of anthropology (whose roots were in the social sciences). In the early seventies, before its funding was cut, UCLA's Ethnographic Film Program, which was founded in the late sixties by Colin Young and Walter Goldschmidt and whose alumni included such filmmakers as David and Judith MacDougall, David Hancock, and Herb DiGioia, was the main university program in the United States for training ethnographic filmmakers.
In his 1968 campaign, Nixon had appealed to a "silent majority" who wished to put the turbulence of the sixties behind them. After Watergate, conservatives did not assume power until Reagan's election in 1980. But in the seventies a conservative mood was beginning to settle in. In this climate, Richard Barsam argues, "many American nonfiction filmmakers were more inclined to observe society than to confront it. However, some of them made social documentaries that were committed to principles of social justice."24
The exceptions Barsam cites include The Selling of the Pentagon (1971), On the Battlefield (Peter Biskind, 1972), Attica (Cinda Firestone, 1973), Hurry Tomorrow (Richard Cohen, 1974), Hearts and Minds (Peter Davis, 1974), Harlan County, U.S.A. (Barbara Kopple, 1977), Union Maids (Julia Reichert, James Klein, and Miles Mogulescu, 1976), and Youth Terror (Helen Whitney, 1978). Many others could be added to this list. To name just a few: Interviews with My Lai Veterans (Joseph Strick, 1971), The Murder of Fred Hampton (Michael Gray and Howard Alk, 1971), Chicago Maternity Center (Kartemquin Films, 1976), and The War at Home (Glenn Silber and Barry Brown, 1979).
It should also be observed in this context that in the seventies numerous organizations as well as individual filmmakers were committed to using film and video as instruments of social change. The oldest of these was Newsreel, established in 1967 as a network of activist collectives centered in New York and San Francisco, with Norman Fruchter and Robert Kramer among its prime movers. In the early seventies, Newsreel produced and distributed such films as Lincoln Hospital (Newsreel, 1970), about a strike at a city-run health clinic in the South Bronx; Wilmington (Newsreel, 1970), which portrays Wilmington, Delaware, as a company town run by the Dupont family as if it were a private kingdom; Only the Beginning (Newsreel, 1971), which documents the arrival of thousands of G.I.s in Washington to protest the Vietnam War; and The Women's Film (Newsreel USA, 1971), a militant feminist manifesto. In the course of the seventies Newsreel underwent structural changes, splitting into New York Newsreel and San Francisco Newsreel, and, in the mid-seventies, transforming itself from Newsreel, the militant collective, into Third World Newsreel, a nonprofit alternative media arts organization subsidized by public funds from government agencies as well as foundations and individual contributors. In its new incarnation, the organization specifically dedicated itself to fostering the creation, appreciation, and dissemination of independent film and video by and about people of color. In the seventies, Third World Newsreel produced and distributed such films as In the Event Anyone Disappears (Third World Newsreel; Alan Siege, 1974), an examination of conditions faced by prisoners inside men's maximum security prisons in New Jersey; Inside Women Inside (Third World Newsreel; Christine Choy and Canthi Maoris, 1978), containing firsthand accounts of inmates at North Carolina correctional centers; and Percussion, Impressions and Reality (Third World Newsreel; Alan Siege, 1978), about the social and political origins of traditional Puerto Rican music.
In the seventies there was also a proliferation of organizations and collectives, of varying degrees of militancy, committed to using film as an instrument for furthering specifically feminist causes and/or gay rights. These included the Twin Cities Women's Film Collective, the Berkeley Lesbian Feminist Film Collective, and the International Woman's Film Project.
Still other organizations attempted to utilize public access cable channels, which the cable industry was required by a 1972 law to provide to citizens in its hundred biggest markets, and to utilize other strategies as well, to develop community-oriented alternatives to conventional television. A key figure in this development was the filmmaker George Stoney, whose reputation had been established with such classic documentaries as All My Babies (1953). Stoney had directed the National Film Board of Canada's "Challenge for Change" project, which pioneered the idea of providing citizens access to the media to create a dialogue with agencies of government involved in social programs, before returning to the United States in 1970 to head the undergraduate film production program at NYU. (Through no fault of his own, Stoney did not last long in that position; NYU, whose Cinema Studies Department gravitated to the avant-garde and downplayed documentaries, was an exemplary instance of a university film program with little rapport between the filmmakers and the academics on its faculty. Nonetheless, Stoney has remained one of NYU's most distinguished professors. Over the years, he has become the "grand old man" of documentary at NYU and a towering figure within New York's independent film community. His films of the seventies include In China Family Planning is no Private Matter  and Acupuncture and Herbal Medicine .)
One of Stoney's first actions at NYU was to set up, with colleague Red Burns, an Alternate Media Center to promote and support the use of public access cable.25 The Alternate Media Center, with funding from the Markle Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, trained organizers to work with interested community groups, cable companies, and city governments to develop public access to cable TV around the country. It was soon joined by such New York City organizations as Downtown Community Television, Global Village, and WNET-13's TV Lab; by Urban Planning Aid in Boston, and Communication for Change in Chicago; and by community video organizations in such places as Port Washington and Woodstock, New York. Two acclaimed productions to come out of this movement were the Police Tapes (Alan and Susan Raymond, 1976), a cinema verité slice of life shot at a South Bronx police station, which was funded by the TV Lab and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ford Foundation, and Giving Birth (Julie Gustafson and John Reilly, 1976), produced by Global Village in association with the TV Lab, which advocated the techniques of natural childbirth.26
Despite all of this political activity, however, Barsam is not wrong in suggesting that documentary filmmakers in the seventies tended to pull back from protesting social or political injustices in the manner of so many documentaries of the sixties. However, his implication—that most documentaries of the seventies opted for observing rather than confronting society and hence were not committed to principles of social justice, that they were on Nixon's side, as it were—is highly misleading. Most documentary filmmakers in the seventies kept faith with their (generally leftist) political principles, but they were responding to a changed political situation. The assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., the election of Richard Nixon, the deaths of rock icons Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, the withdrawal of Bob Dylan from the public stage (or, at least, from the role of prophet), and the killing at Altamont (simultaneous with the much-hyped Woodstock festival, touted in Michael Wadleigh's Woodstock as the beginning of the revolution whose ending it really marked) all meant that the sixties were over. The political protests of the sixties were history, and by the mid-seventies the Vietnam War and the Nixon presidency had become history, too.
By exposing the gulf between the sanctimonious public Nixon and the coarse and mendacious private Nixon, the events history calls "Watergate," largely played out on television, brought down the Nixon presidency. Watergate was inextricably intertwined with Nixon's efforts to stop or discredit the ongoing public disclosures of the official lies, deceptions, and betrayals that were inseparable from the history of America's calamitous involvement in Vietnam. And Watergate coincided, as well, with the emergence of a new awareness, spearheaded by the women's movement, that America's "official" histories, as well as its media of mass entertainment, systematically suppress the roles played by women and minorities, and underwrite America's continuing unwillingness or inability to acknowledge painful truths about itself. Jimmy Carter was elected with the pledge that he would never lie to the American people. The 1976 election, coinciding with the Bicentennial of the American republic, promised to inaugurate a new era of honesty and freedom. At such a moment, many documentary filmmakers felt vindicated in their belief—were they wrong?—that there was no better way to express their commitment to principles of social justice than by making films that observed Americans living their private lives and reflected on who Americans have been, who they are, and who they are capable of becoming.
Organizations like the Kentucky-based Appalshop and the Memphis-based Center for Southern Folklore, whose agenda or mission was (and is) to document and affirm regional folk cultures, took quite seriously the principle, which the women's movement never tired of repeating, that the personal is the political.
Appalshop began in 1969 as a War on Poverty program to offer training in media production to young men and women of the Southern Appalachian mountains. They soon created their own nonprofit community-based media company and began making films about the culture and lives of the region's people, who "are shown pursuing that which is important to all of us—the chance to work, to live in health and peace, to share our lives with those we love, and to create and sustain that which is beautiful."27 The goal was "to bring the voices of those who still work with their hands, those who see taking care of the land and water as something more than a passing trend, those who still believe in the power of people to take care of each other, into the discussion of what is important in the world."28 Appalshop films of the seventies include Judge Wooten and Coon-on-a-Log (Herb E. Smith, 1971), a portrait of a local judge whose comments on recreation, retirement, and the mountaineer's relationship with the land are mixed with scenes of spectators on the banks of the Kentucky River applauding as someone's favorite coon dog plunges into the water and hustles a raccoon off a log; Coal Miner: Frank Jackson (Ben Zickafoose, 1971), which juxtaposes a miner's personal recollections of union organizing and mining with scenes of him in the mines; In the Good, Old-Fashioned Way (Herb E. Smith, 1973), about the Old Regular Baptist Church, a unique product of Appalachian culture; Strip Mining in Appalachia (Gene DuBey, 1973), an examination of the desecration of land and communities brought about by surface mining of coal; Tradition (Bill Hatton and Anthony Slone, 1973), a dual portrait of a moonshiner and a federal revenue agent; Nature's Way (John Long and Elizabeth Barret, 1974), which profiles people who cure their own ailments using herbs, Native American folklore, and home remedies; Chairmaker (Rick DiClemente, 1975), in which a rough-hewn rocking chair takes form under the experienced hands and well-worn knife of eighty-year-old Dewey Thompson from Sugarloaf Hollow, Kentucky; Quilting Women (Elizabeth Barret, 1976), which traces the process of traditional Appalachian quilting, from cutting out and piecing together the patterns to the quilting bee; and Oaksie (Anthony Slone, 1979), a portrait of basket maker, fiddler, and harp player Oaksie Caudill.
The Center for Southern Folklore was founded in 1972 by Bill Ferris and Judy Peiser, who collaborated as filmmakers on a series of films such as Gravel Springs Fife and Drum (Bill Ferris, David Evans, and Judy Peiser, 1971), Ray Lum: Mule Trader (Bill Ferris, Bobby Taylor, and Judy Peiser, 1973), and Fannie Bell Chapman: Gospel Singer (Bill Ferris and Judy Peiser, 1975). Peiser's other films of the seventies include the charming Hush Hoggies Hush (1978), in which a minister-farmer calls his pigs to dinner, says "Hush, hoggies, hush" to the squealing pigs, whereupon they fall silent as he reads from the Bible before they plunge with all four hooves into the feeding trough. Other films that the prolific Ferris directed or co-directed in the seventies under the auspices of the Center for Southern Folklore include Delta Blues Singer: James 'Sonny Ford' Thomas (1970), Black Delta Religion (Bill and Josette Ferris, 1973), Mississippi Delta Blues (Bill and Josette Ferris, 1974), Give My Poor Heart Ease: Mississippi Bluesmen (1975), and Two Black Churches (1975). He also made two films for the Yale University Media Design Studio in conjunction with the Center for Southern Folklore (I Ain't Lying: Folktales from Mississippi , and Made in Mississippi: Black Folk Art and Crafts ). In 1979, Ferris moved to Mississippi, where he established the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. Peiser took over the reins of the Center for Southern Folklore.
Ferris and Peiser were key figures in the explosive growth in the seventies of films about American folklore and the ways individual Americans, and groups of Americans, maintain their ethnic and cultural identities within the multicultural American milieu. Among the many filmmakers associated with this movement are Jorge Preloran (whose films of the seventies include Valle Fertil , Cochengo Miranda , The Warao , Zerda's Children , and Luther Metke at 94 [Jorge Preloran and Steve Raymen, 1979]); Tom Davenport (whose films include The Upperville Show , The Shakers [Tom Davenport and Dan Patterson, 1970], It Ain't City Music , Hansel and Gretel , Born for Hard Luck: Sam Peg Leg Jackson [Tom Davenport and Dan Patterson, 1976], and Rapunzel, Rapunzel ); and David Hancock and Herb DiGioia (whose films include Naim and Jabar , Afghan Nomads , and An Afghan Village ).
Among the best of folkloric films of the seventies was The Popovich Brothers of South Chicago (Jill Godmilow, 1978), about the importance of traditional Serbian music and musicians to the Serbian-American community in Chicago. The film was made by Jill Godmilow, widely known for the popular Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman (1974). But the most celebrated creator of such films, and justly so, was Les Blank, who for over thirty years has been filming colorful individuals who represent ethnic and other American subcultures.
The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins (Les Blank, 1969), a portrait of the great Texas bluesman that features a generous helping of classic blues (including performances at an outdoor barbecue and a black rodeo) and a visit to Hopkins's boyhood town, set the tone for Blank's films of the seventies. These include Spend It All (1971), a rich portrayal of the lives and music Louisiana Cajuns; A Well Spent Life (1971), a glowing portrait of the legendary musicians (also lifelong husbands and sharecroppers) whom tough times made sweet, rather than bitter; Hot Pepper (1973), a musical portrait of Zydeco King Clifton Chenier, "who combines the pulsating rhythms of Cajun dance music and black R&B with African overtones, belting out his irresistible music in the sweaty juke joints of South Louisiana"; Dry Wood (1973), a look at black Creole life in French Louisiana; Chulas Fronteras (1976), a complex, insightful look at the Chicano experience as mirrored in the lives and music of the most acclaimed Norteño musicians of the Texas-Mexican border; Always For Pleasure (1978), an "intense insider's portrait of New Orleans' street celebrations and unique cultural gumbo: Second-line parades, Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest," featuring live music from Professor Longhair, the Wild Tchoupitoulas, the Neville Brothers and more; and Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1979), in which German film director Werner Herzog really does eat his shoe to fulfill a vow to fellow filmmaker Errol Morris, "boldly exemplifying his belief that people must have the guts to attempt what they dream of."29
The overarching point is that many documentary filmmakers in the seventies who opted for observing society were actually confronting society. They were not turning their backs on social justice, they were experimenting with new ways of achieving social change. In any case, as more and more documentary filmmakers were coming to recognize, the medium of film itself overcomes or transcends the opposition between observing and confronting.
All of the major histories of documentary film accept the proposition that a fundamental distinction is to be drawn between American direct cinema (as films like those of Leacock, Pennebaker, or the Maysles brothers have been dubbed), in which the camera observes but does not participate in the events being filmed, and the more sophisticated filmmaking practice that Jean Rouch had in mind when he coined the term "cinema verité" to characterize his approach in making Chronicle of a Summer (Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin, 1960) in France simultaneously with the Drew productions in America. In cinema verité, so the claim goes, the camera actively provokes the revelations it records. To be sure, Rouch understood that the camera sometimes has to provoke reality into revealing its deepest truths. And yet Rouch also understood that observation is the camera's deepest way of provoking its subjects to reveal themselves. This means that cinema verité and "direct cinema" are not really in opposition. In Rouch's films no less than those of his American colleagues, it is the very presence of the camera when it is doing its mysterious work that provokes the revelations to which cinema verité aspires. And in their films as well as his, it is not reality as it is but reality as it is provoked by the act of filming that the camera documents. The world on film is capable of revealing its own reality, a reality that would not exist apart from the act of filming. Hence the world on film is capable of revealing its own truth: Cinema truth. Cinema verité.30
The goal of the filmmakers who made folkloric films in the seventies, such as those made under the auspices of Appalshop or the Center for Southern Folklore, was to help America to acknowledge traditions internal to its own culture. Ethnographic films, by contrast, turned to other cultures, typically ones anthropologists consider primitive. The camera was used as an instrument of scientific observation, not revelation. Scientific truth, not cinema truth, was the goal. As the late Timothy Asch, perhaps the most respected American ethnographic filmmaker, put it, "The camera can be to the anthropologist what the telescope is to the astronomer or what the microscope is to the biologist."31
Asch is best known for the twenty-one films on the Yanomamo people of the Venezuelan rain forest, generally considered exemplary ethnographic films, which he made in collaboration with the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon. Previous to that project, Asch had collaborated with John Marshall to re-edit footage of the !Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari that Marshall had shot as far back as the late fifties. Hand-synching the footage with wild sound, they released several films on Bushman life, such as N/um Tchai: The Ceremonial Dance of the !Kung Bushmen (John Marshall and Timothy Asch, 1968), a film about a trance curing ceremony.
Prior to his partnership with Asch, Marshall had collaborated with Robert Gardner on The Hunters (1958), made before synch-sound had become available to documentary filmmakers. Then he had served as Frederick Wiseman's cinematographer on Titicut Follies (1967), his first experience shooting synch sound. In a series of films he made about the Pittsburgh police department, of which Three Domestics (1972) is the best known, Marshall followed Wiseman's technique of using synch sound without narration, and perfected a long take style of shooting in which the camera follows the drama as it evolves. "Emphasizing the complexities of human interaction as opposed to the earlier stress on plot coherence evidenced in The Hunters, Marshall developed the concept of 'sequence filming,'" Sharon R. Sherman writes. "Abandoning the artificial constraint of constructing a plot made up of events that may not have occurred in the proper time perspective, Marshall cut his footage into naturally occurring interactions between people that could be analyzed to indicate the importance of their behavior within their own culture or society."32
In his series of Yanomamo films, Asch adhered to Marshall's emphasis on "sequence filming" of complex social interactions. The Ax Fight (Timothy Asch and Napoleon Changnon, 1973) is typical. The film is in five parts. Part 1 is the unedited footage of a fight that suddenly erupts in a Yanomamo village. In part 2, the screen is black as the filmmakers speculate on what happened. In part 3, written titles inform us what the fight was really about. Part 4 replays the original footage with a narrator explaining what we are seeing. Part 5 re-presents the original footage, sans narration but edited for narrative continuity like a Hollywood movie.
Eliot Weinberger observes, in the context of a devastating critique of ethnographic film's claims to scientific authority, "One of the curiosities of ethnographic film, evident to any outsider, is that the strictly scientific films often provide far less information than their reviled 'artistic' cousins…. Or, more damningly, they provide the same information."33 In 1978, the Musée de L'Homme in Paris ran a festival of films about the Yanomamo, including several of the Asch-Chagnon films; a French television documentary; two films from a Yugoslavian TV series on the rain forest; a Canadian film from the television series Full Speed to Adventure, focusing on two Canadian missionaries living with the community; a Japanese television film; three videos by New York avant-gardist Juan Downey; and unedited footage shot in the early 1960s by a woman who was in Venezuela prospecting for gold. In a review of the festival written at the time for Film Library Quarterly, Jen Sloan points out that both the images and the information presented in these films were surprisingly similar.34 As Weinberger puts it, "The moment one erases the stylistic differences, the ethnographic differences between a research film and an episode of Full Speed to Adventure are less than meets the eye.35
Indeed, as Weinberger adds, the "amateurs" often turned out ethnographically richer films than those who claimed scientific authority for their work. He considers the case of The Nuer (Hilary Harris, George Breidenbach, and Robert Gardner, 1970). Karl Heider, in his influential Ethnographic Film, which attempted to set methodological standards for the scientific discipline of visual anthropology, acknowledged that The Nuer was a visually beautiful film, but treated it as the classic example of how not to make an ethnographic film.36 And yet, as Weinberger argues, The Nuer contains far more ethnographic information than The Ax Fight.
We see what the Nuer look like, what they make, what they eat, what their music sounds like, their leisure activities, body art, architecture, fishing and cattle-herding, local fauna, diseases, rites of exorcism, spiritual possession, and so on. Most of all, as a study of a community based on cattle, it is a startling revelation of the cow. Even an untrained urban eye finds itself immediately differentiating the cows as individuals—much as the Nuer know the personal history of each; a history which, through bride-prices and ritual exchange, is inextricably tangled with their own histories. Moreover, it becomes evident in the course of the film how an entire aesthetic could be derived form the close observation of cattle—how the shapes and textures of the herds are recapitulated in so much of what the Nuer made.37
David and Judith MacDougall, alumni of the UCLA Ethnographic Film Program, argued for the need for ethnographic filmmakers to move beyond the strict cinema verité discipline by acknowledging their own presence in their films. Films such as To Live with Herds (David and Judith MacDougall, 1972) and their "Turkana Conversations" trilogy (The Wedding Camels , Lorang's Way , and A Wife Among Wives ) revolve around conversations—exchanges among the subjects being filmed, but also between the subjects and the filmmakers, who sometimes appear on the screen. They also employ titles written in the first person ("We put the following to Lorang…"). And when the filmmakers speak in voice-over narrations, they speak not as "Voices of God" but in their own voices ("I was sure Lorang's wives were happy together"; "It doesn't feel like we're making progress"). Although the MacDougalls had found solutions to some of the political and moral dilemmas of ethnographic filmmaking, however, it is not clear what scientific value, if any, their films can claim. Again, Weinberger's criticisms have the ring of truth:
The films focus on the family of a wealthy man…. The film rarely leaves the family compound, and for nearly six hours we watch and listen to people largely talking about money and complaining…. Lorang is an Arthur Miller character: the self-made man disgusted by his good-for-nothing sons. But, in the absence of any dramatic catalyst—this being life and not theater—he's a character who goes nowhere. After the first half-hour or so, we only get more of the same. (The wives mainly repeat everything their husbands say.) And the film gives us no way to evaluate whether Lorang is more representative of the Turkana or of the universal nouveau riche. In many ways, the trilogy is like an excruciating evening with one's least favorite relatives. There's no doubt it is a precise representation of this particular family, but can it be considered ethnographic, a representation of a people?38
The films of Timothy Asch stand or fall on their scientific value. But the films of the MacDougalls do not seem in the same way to be in earnest pursuit of scientific knowledge. They envision their subjects as playing out a familiar human comedy unaltered by being set in exotic landscapes and acted by so-called primitives. They present Lorang and his family, for example, as types we already know all too well. (What should we know that we do not already know about rich people like this who talk about money and kvetch about their relatives?) Films such as these must stand or fall on their value as films, their revelations of cinema truth.
Among the American filmmakers usually discussed in the context of visual anthropology in the seventies, Robert Gardner and John Marshall were exceptional for creating works that transcend the limitations of visual anthropology, works that call for being viewed as films, not as science. Both Gardner and Marshall view human existence in poetic, yet tragic, terms. For both, the tragedy is the failure of all human society to fulfil the human longing for acknowledgment and love; society is the mask by which we veil from ourselves the truth that we live inhuman lives.
For Gardner, culture is the system of masks and lies humans create to deny the truth of our condition, a truth that nonetheless can be recognized by anyone with eyes to see. It is the system by which we hide our cruelty and our tenderness from each other and from ourselves. Like his first film, Dead Birds (1963), and his later films, such as Deep Hearts (1981) and Forest of Bliss (1985), Gardner's most ambitious film of the seventies, Rivers of Sand (1974), is a sublime and beautiful poem. Its subject is the Hamar people near the border of Ethiopia and the Sudan. A Hamar woman is the film's central figure. "In Dead Birds, warfare was central and birds became a symbol for men," Sharon Sherman writes. "In Rivers of Sand, Gardner examines the role of pain in the relationships between men and women, and the metaphor is a set of grinding stones."39 Each society Gardner films becomes a metaphor for the tenderness and cruelty of all human existence, the tenderness and cruelty we all are capable of recognizing when we look deep into our own hearts. Gardner's films are about people he does not claim especially to love, but the human need for love, the other face of the human resistance to loving and being loved, is his great subject.
Marshall's subject is the powerlessness of love in the face of forces that are transforming the world into a place unfit for human habitation. Except as a scientist, Timothy Asch had no attachment to the Yamomamo people, or at least none that any of his twenty-one films about them acknowledged. But Marshall's films about the !Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert are no more films about "ethnographic others" than Gardner's films are. They are about people who are important to Marshall, personally. And his culminating film about the Bushmen, N!ai: Story of a Kung Woman (1978), revolves around a woman he first filmed when he was a young man and she an eight-year-old. (The young N!ai is a central figure in A Joking Relationship , which Marshall released in 1971 but shot a decade earlier.) To Marshall, N!ai is no anthropological informant, she is a woman he knows, cares about, yet feels powerless to save. Marshall's own story (son of the anthropologist Lorna Marshall, he lived among the Bushmen from his childhood) is inseparable from the story of this people and this person. And the story is a tragedy: This nomadic people is being herded into camps, dying out as a people, and what he loves about N!ai is dying out, too.
The words "dying out" suggest that this is occurring naturally, that no one is responsible, that what is happening is not murder or genocide. Marshall's films point no accusing finger, but their premise and conclusion is that this is a tragedy for which no one is completely exempt from guilt—including Marshall himself. His films inscribe his knowledge that his fate is to tell this tragic story, hence that he plays a role within this tragedy, that he, too, is a figure of tragedy, a tragic figure. His powerlessness to avert this people's fate cannot be separated from the tragedy that is their fate, and his.
Gardner's and Marshall's films bear an intimate relationship to one another. Gardner turns to a particular people to make a film that speaks an unspeakable truth about humanity, then moves on. (That humans are nomads is one of these unspeakable truths.) Gardner films others to formulate statements that are really about himself; his films unburden his own heart by creating cruel and tender poetry. But Marshall's films, too, are implicated in the cruelty, as well as the tenderness, that is an alienable part of being human.
In the seventies, the "old masters" of American cinema verité—Richard Leacock, Donn Alan Pennebaker, Albert and David Maysles, Frederick Wiseman—kept faith with their belief in "cinema truth' by continuing to adhere to the strict cinema verité discipline they had practiced in the sixties.
Leacock directed Queen of the Apollo (1970), a unique glimpse of a New Orleans debutante at a Mardi Gras ball, and Isabella Stewart Gardner (1977). He was co-cinematographer (with D. A. Pennebaker) on Norman Mailer's Maidstone (1971), and also helped shoot several other relatively major productions. He did most of his filming, however, with the experimental Super-8mm synch-sound rigs he helped to develop, and for his own pleasure and the pleasure of his friends, rather than for public consumption. Leacock's main impact on the world at large, in the seventies, was as a mentor and role model for younger filmmakers.
Pennebaker made several major films during the seventies, although none that rank among his best-known works. They include One PM (1971), a collaboration with Jean-Luc Godard about the making of Godard's One AM (an aborted film on American radicalism, in which Godard, visible only through a perpetual haze of smoke from his Gauloises, seems more like Peter Sellers playing Godard than the real thing); Town Bloody Hall (1972, released in 1979), a record of a tumultuous "Dialogue on Women's Liberation" at New York's Town Hall featuring Germaine Greer, Diana Trilling, and Norman Mailer; The Children's Theater of John Donahue (1971); Keep on Rocking (1972); Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973); Original Cast Album: Company (1978); and The Energy War (1979).
In the seventies, Albert and David Maysles were at the top of their form. Their initial film of the decade was Gimme Shelter (1970), about the Rolling Stones' ill-fated Altamont concert, at which an audience member was killed. Chirsto's Valley Curtain (Albert and David Maysles and Ellen Giffard, 1974) was the first of their several films about Christo, the visionary artist who wraps buildings and monuments, hangs curtains across landscapes, and so on. Grey Gardens (Albert and David Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer, and Susan Froemke, 1975), is a complex film about the relationship of a mother and daughter, relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis so reclusive they had not left their house in twenty years. The Burks of Georgia (1976), made for the Westinghouse-Group W Six American Families series, documents the daily life of a poverty-stricken family with thirteen children living in rural Georgia, depicting the family's pride and love for one another and their overriding concern with keeping the family together. And Running Fence (David Maysles and Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, 1978), follows the Maysles brothers' favorite subject, Christo, as he conceptualizes, builds, and presents a twenty-four-and-a-half-mile long, eighteen-foot-high fence of white fabric across Sonoma and Marin counties.
Of cinema verité's "old masters, ' however, it was Frederick Wiseman whose work in the seventies was the most widely seen and received the most critical attention. Of all documentary filmmakers, Wiseman has over the years created the body of work most widely recognized as constituting a coherent authorship. Unlike Leacock, Pennebaker, and the Maysles brothers, Wiseman was not a Drew Associates alumnus. After completing law studies at Yale and Harvard, he worked as a lawyer in Paris and taught law at Boston University. His first film, Titicut Follies (1967), was an unbearably powerful indictment of the inhumanity of the Bridgewater prison. His two other films of the sixties, High School (1968) and Law and Order (1969), achieve the more distanced tone characteristic of his later works, which allows them to be enjoyable even as they retain a sharply critical edge as they study the American institutions that are their subjects, institutions that are in theory committed to freedom yet which operate by imposing strict discipline.
Producing and distributing his films through his own production company, Zipporah Films, Wiseman has enjoyed a regular outlet on public television since the early seventies. During the seventies, he continued to add a film a year to the institutional series that has been his life's work. Hospital (1970) won an Emmy for "Outstanding Achievement in News Documentary Programming." Basic Training (1971), Essene (1972), Juvenile Court (1973), Primate (1974), Welfare (1975), and Meat (1976) received less public recognition, but are also among his most eloquent and powerful critiques of an American society whose institutions reveal it to be hypocritical and resistant to change.
Although Wiseman's idiosyncratic filmmaking method—he takes sound but does not shoot his own films, for example, and never uses a narrator—serves to an unusual degree to efface his presence from his films; at every moment the viewer is aware of his authorial point-of-view, which is established primarily in the editing, not in the shooting. In their forgoing of a linear narrative, Wiseman's films are often compared to mosaics. However, mosaics are meant to be viewed from a position that allows their pieces to blend seamlessly. Wiseman treats each sequence as a self-contained scene. For each such scene, he prepares a transcript that primarily focuses not on the ways the camera's subjects reveal themselves (or mask themselves) visually, but on what they say, on the ideas that underlie their words, on the tensions or conflicts among these ideas. In putting together successions of scenes, Wiseman edits them in such a way that the transitions bring out the inner logic of each scene, the conflicts of ideas at play within it, and the logical connection between the scenes, the dialectical relationships between their conflicts. For every shot of every sequence, his editing by this means fixes a specific set of logical relationships that define its place and meaning within the work as a whole.
Wiseman has said that as an editor he takes it to be his task to give the viewer enough information to think the film through. And yet thinking the film through means following the film's thinking. Wiseman's filmmaking method respects the viewer's freedom, as it respects the freedom of the people being filmed. But it also locks us and them into rigid structures. Wiseman's films, like the American institutions they study, impose strict discipline even as they affirm freedom. His early films were powerful protests against American institutions, and by the late seventies his authorship had become an American institution. This threw it into a state of crisis. Every year saw a new Wiseman film, but works like Canal Zone (1977), Sinai Field Mission (1978), and Manoeuvre (1979) seemed to have a less sharply critical edge than his earlier films. After Model (1980), a study of a modeling agency, Wiseman made Seraphita's Diary (1982), his only fiction film, which sank without a trace. There was a hiatus of three years before he returned to the institutional series that has continued to occupy him. Without denying the gaps that remained between American ideals and American social realities, his films of the eighties and nineties emphasize the remarkable fact that, for all their resistance to change, American institutions do change; indeed, they are instruments of change. Even Wiseman's films have changed. They now acknowledge that the perspective from which they view America, their way of thinking about America, is not outside or above the society they study. (Have they then forfeited their right to protest? Not if America is a free country.)
An American Family
Like Wisemans films, the controversial An American Family (Craig Gilbert, 1973), whose ten million viewers per episode made it public television's highest-rated program of the seventies, was motivated by its producer's intention to confront American society with truths about itself. Believing that vast changes were occurring in American society, Craig Gilbert proposed to NET a documentary series about a representative American family that would put a truthful view of family life on prime-time television, as opposed to the unrealistic images usually shown. From May 30 to December 31, 1971, Alan and Susan Raymond, devoted followers of the strict cinema verité discipline, filmed three hundred hours of 16mm color film—about an hour and a half a day—of the lives of the members of the Loud family of Santa Barbara, California: Pat and William and their children Lance, Kevin, Grant, Delilah, and Michele.40
An American Family is a product of a singular moment in the history of public television; it could not have been made earlier, or later. When the new Public Broadcasting System was created in 1969, NET (National Educational Television) merged with New York City's educational station, WNDT-13, to become WNET-13, one of the flagship PBS stations. An American Family was produced by NET and WNET-13 during the brief period, 1970-1973, in which funds for individual PBS programs were available from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. CPB provided half of the series' $1.2-million budget. The Ford Foundation provided the other half.41
The proposal Gilbert submitted to NET and the Ford Foundation envisioned combining cinema verité passages with other types of documentary material so as to analyze this family's place in a broad historical context. As it turned out, however, An American Family dispenses with such an analytical apparatus. Although the episodes occasionally use third-person and first person voice-over narration, non-diegetic music, interviews, and home movies, they primarily focus cinema verité style on the everyday lives of its family members, which take on the qualities of a television soap opera. In the course of the series, son Lance declares his homosexuality, and parents Bill and Pat separate and decide to divorce. As Jeffrey Ruoff argues, these events, unanticipated by the filmmakers when they chose the Louds, enabled the series as a whole to seem to show life as it is for this particular family, while bringing home the point that the American family itself was in a state of crisis.42 In illustrating this theme, the series allowed for very different responses, however. Many viewers identified strongly with one or more of the family members. As Ruoff writes, "Pat Loud took up the mantel of the liberated housewife. Her son Lance became a symbol for an entire generation of openly gay men."43 For viewers who identified with the family, the series showed that the "traditional" American family no longer existed, except on television. For viewers who were harshly critical of the Louds, however, the series demonstrated the urgent need to restore traditional family values. In any case, it is no exaggeration to suggest, as Ruoff does, that in tandem with its contemporary, Norman Lear's iconoclastic network situation comedy All in the Family, An American Family did as much as any single television show to change the ways family life is represented in American television, with unfathomable effects on the ways family life in America is actually lived.44
Forgoing the confrontational politics of the sixties and yet keeping faith with their political principles, many documentary filmmakers in the seventies turned to retrospective reflections on history. Examples include I Am Somebody (Madeline Anderson, 1970), a pioneering film by one of the first African-American women to write, produce, and direct major nonfiction films, which chronicles the efforts of a group of South Carolina nurses in the struggle for civil rights in the late sixties; Union Maids (1976), which employs still photographs, found footage, and interviews, in a manner characteristic of innumerable documentaries of the seventies, to portray the role of women within the labor movement in Chicago in the thirties; With Babies and Banners: Story of the Women's Emergency Brigade (Anne Bohlen, Lyn Goldfarb, and Lorraine Gray, 1978), about the role of women in the General Motors Sit-Down Strike of 1936-1937, including interviews with several Brigade members as they met on the fortieth anniversary of the strike and archival footage of the events discussed; The Wobblies (Deborah Shaffer and Stewart Bird, 1979), which sketches the history of the Industrial Workers of the World from its founding in 1905; and The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (Connie Field, 1980), in which several women who worked in the shipyards during World War II recount their experiences at work and offer comments on society's expectations of them during and after the war, their narratives interspersed—in the manner characteristic of seventies documentaries—with War Department films, newsreels, and Hollywood movies made during the period that concerned women working outside the home.
Even hard-hitting political documentaries of the seventies tended to have a retrospective dimension. Hearts and Minds (1974) and The War At Home (1979), for example, looked back on the Vietnam War, which had already come to an end. Perhaps more typical of the seventies, though, are films that looked at history from a personal perspective, as did so many of the folkloric films discussed above. The makers of such films combined explorations of history with explorations in the realm of the personal or private, revealing their subjects' often masked feelings, capturing intimate moments in their private lives, and in some cases meditating on the filmmakers' feelings as well, and their relationships to their subjects. (In An American Family, we might note in this context, the first episode announced the parents' breakup. All the episodes that followed showed how the family arrived at their present situation, giving the entire series a retrospective dimension.)
The general tendency for documentary films of the seventies, at once to look back and turn inward, can be appreciated by comparing Don't Look Back (1967), Pennebaker's classic cinema venté chronicle of Bob Dylan's 1965 London tour, with two films about rock performers that book-ended the seventies. As edited by Charlotte Zwerin, Gimme Shelter, the Maysles brothers' 1970 film about the Rolling Stones' Altamont concert, frames its concert footage with shots of Mick Jagger and other Stones viewing, on a moviola, footage of the killing that took place only a few yards from the stage, footage that the film has just presented to us. Jagger is reflecting, as we are, on the implications of this violent event, which has already happened and which symbolizes for us now, as it already symbolized for him then, the end of the innocent optimism of the sixties. The Last Waltz (1979), Martin Scorsese's elegiac film about the Band's final tour before calling it quits after years on the road, combines diverse kinds of documentary material (live concert footage, cinema verité-style observations of the Band members offstage, interviews, archival footage) in the characteristic manner of so many documentaries of the seventies in order to engender a nostalgic meditation on the end of the era we call "the sixties," an era that kept living on, the film suggests, as long as the Band kept on touring.
Harlan County, U.S.A.
Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976), which won the Academy Award for best documentary feature of 1976, likewise has both a retrospective dimension and an inward-looking aspect. The film documents the strike against the Brookside Mine of the Eastover Mining Company in Harlan County, Kentucky, in the early 1970s. The company's refusal to recognize the miners' decision to allow the United Mine Workers of America to represent them led to the strike, which lasted more than a year and included violent battles between company "gun thugs" and the picketing miners and their "women-folk." Like a number of documentaries of the seventies, Harlan County, U.S.A. straddles the gap between two documentary traditions, cinema verité and the politically committed protest film, and thereby revises and extends the conventions of both.
Harlan County, U.S.A. employs cinema verité technique to allow events to speak for themselves scene by scene. However, although there is no narrator, the film alters the strict cinema verité discipline by employing written titles, whose authority is not to be questioned, both to inform us of events not captured on film but crucial to the story and to place the film's events in the context of larger struggles by, and within, the mineworkers union. In placing its events in historical context the film unabashedly sides with the miners, who emerge as true heroes and heroines of the working class.
In two other ways, as well, the film diverges from strict cinema verité discipline. First, folk songs or union songs, such as "Which Side Are You On?" sometimes sung on camera and sometimes not, provide a Greek Chorus-like commentary on the action. The songs are sung by Hazel Dickens, a singer of authority whose weathered face and equally weathered voice mark her as representative of the miners and their families whose faith, endurance, and courage her songs celebrate. The songs thus provide a medium through which the miners are able to speak for themselves within the film; or, rather, a medium through which the miners' wives, mothers, and daughters are able to speak for them, to express their feelings directly to us as it is not ordinarily possible for people to do within a cinema verité film. Second, although none of the filmmaking crew ever appears on screen, Barbara Kopple, the director, emerges as an important character. We never see her, but there are several crucial occasions during which others address her and we hear her responses. Among all these earthy Appalachian voices, Kopple's decidedly non-Southern voice stands out. Viewers cannot but be aware that everything on view had to have been filmed, and that in the filming the filmmakers stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the miners and their families, at times putting themselves in harm's way.
Kopple's courage and resourcefulness, manifest within the film, give credence to the credit at the end that acknowledges, before going on to name some of them, "the people of the coal fields who let us become part of their lives and participate in their struggles." These people allowed the filmmakers to participate in their struggles, and the filmmakers' work allows us, too, to participate, at least vicariously. Viewing Harlan County, USA, we know which side we are on, and we ponder whether we would be as brave as these miners, or these filmmakers, had we been in their place.
Although Harlan County, U.S.A. is in the tradition of the political protest documentary, it modifies that traditions conventions too. The film's cinema verité mode, which enables us to become absorbed in the world of the film as we become absorbed in the worlds of fiction films, transforms Harlan County, making it as much a mythical world as an out-of-the-way corner of the "real" world. The world of Harlan County, U.S.A. is and is not our world, the "real" world. In our world conflicts are complex and we cannot easily know which side is right or where we stand. These miners and their families inhabit a world that brutally victimizes those who do not stand up for their rights, but it is also a world where heroism is possible. We would not trade places with these people, but we cannot but envy them their opportunities to prove their courage and their faith. Should they ultimately prevail in their struggles they would join our world, a world in which heroism like theirs is all but impossible, and we would no longer wish to live vicariously through them. Harlan County, U.S.A. reveals a place in America but apart from America, real but mythical, where the good fight is still being fought. The pleasure we take in the film reveals that we wish for there to exist such a place. This wish sets us apart from the miners and their families within the film. Insofar as we harbor this wish, we cannot simply be on their side. Nor can Barbara Kopple.
Kopple was in her mid-twenties when she made Harlan County, U.S.A. Her youthful sincerity shines through every frame. In allowing her to make this film, the miners and their families allowed her to participate in their heroic struggles. Making the film took courage, as the film attests, but hers was not a heroic struggle in the same sense. Harlan County emerges in the film as a vestige of a simpler world, more brutal but also more romantic than our world, where it is still possible for ordinary men and women to be heroes and heroines, and where filmmaking too can be an heroic enterprise. Harlan County, U.S.A. is itself a vestige of the tradition of the political protest documentary. But in its nostalgia for the working-class heroes and heroines that tradition innocently celebrated, and its all but explicit acknowledgment that the world of clear-cut heroes and villains (if it ever really existed) is all but completely past, Harlan County, U.S.A. brings the tradition of political protest documentary into the seventies.
In looking back and turning inward, documentary filmmakers in the seventies were no more retreating from the formal experimentation of the sixties than they were retreating from their commitment to the principles of social justice. As surely as the pioneering cinema verité filmmakers of the sixties, they were experimenting with new techniques, formally as well as thematically charting new territory.
One such formal innovation, to which we have already alluded more than once, was the creation of hybrid forms that bridged the gap between the two dominant documentary forms of the sixties: the "conventional" documentary, whose visuals illustrate assertions made by a "Voice of God" narrator; and the cinema verité documentary which aspires to be as purely observational as possible and whose mode is revelation, as it is in dramatic fiction films, rather than assertion. As has been noted, innumerable documentary films of the seventies juxtaposed cinema verité sequences with interviews and sequences composed of other kinds of documentary material (archival footage, home movies, etc.). Often, in such films, filmmakers spoke their own voice-over narrations or allowed people within the films to narrate, so that the narrators speak not as authority figures but as their human selves. Their words and voices at once reveal and mask who they are, as is the case when human beings speak in the "real" world. In interview passages the people speaking (whether to an on-screen or off-screen interviewer or directly to the camera) are often presented not as authoritative experts but as human beings who have their own private motives (which they may have motives for masking) for saying what they say the way they say it in the camera's presence. And when archival footage, home movies, or photographs are employed in such films, this "found footage" tends to take on the revelatory quality of cinema verité footage. Emile De Antonio, one of the great originals of the American documentary cinema who did not shoot his films cinema verité-style but compiled them out of archival film and television clips and interviews, sometimes spoke contemptuously of cinema verité. ("Cinema verité is first of all a lie, secondly a childish assumption about the nature of film….Only people without feelings or convictions could even think of making cinema verité.")45 Yet in De Antonio's masterful films (Point of Order ; Rush to Judgment ; In the Year of the Pig ; America is Hard to See ; Milhouse: A White Comedy ; Painters Painting ; underground ; and In the King of Prussia ), the mode is revelation, as it is in cinema verité films. Clips of Senator Joseph McCarthy or Richard Nixon, originally taken by anonymous television cameramen, placed in the context in which De Antonio places them, engender revelations of character as vivid and compelling as those in any cinema verité film (or any Hollywood film, for that matter).
Films of the seventies that combined cinema verité passages with interviews and other kinds of documentary material were extending, not repudiating, cinema verité. In the best of such films the people interviewed or filmed cinema verité-style or addressing us directly in voice-over narrations reveal themselves vividly as characters. What these people say (and what they leave unsaid) matters within the film because their saying of these words here and now reveals something about who they have been, who they are, and who they are capable of becoming. They are creatures of history, as we are. If they have been written out of history, history needs to be rewritten so as to acknowledge them. That is what such films undertook to do.
If a single documentary genre epitomized the seventies, it was the film portrait. Countless documentaries of the period were portraits of individuals, or incorporated portraits or elements of portraits into their overall form.
The subjects of many film portraits of the seventies were public figures, often artists, whether contemporaneous or historical personages. Such films include Gertrude Stein: When This You See, Remember Me (Perry Miller Adato, 1971) and other films about artists that filmmakers like Perry Miller Adato also made for public television, such as Georgia O'keeffe (Perry Miller Adato, 1977), made for the PBS The Originals: Six Woman Artists series; Angela Davis: Portrait of a Revolutionary (Yolande du Luart, 1971); Itinerary of Elie Wiesel (Charles D. Jones, 1972); I. F. The Stone's Weekly (1973); Anais Nin Observed (Robert Snyder, 1974); Janis (Howard Alk and Seaton Findlay, 1974); General Idi Amin Dada (1975); Never Give Up: Imogen Cunningham (Ann Hershey, 1975); The Life and Death of Frida Kahlo (Karen and David Crommie, 1976); Elizabeth Swados: The Girl with the Incredible Feeling (Linda Feferman, 1977).
The subjects of a number of other portrait films of the seventies were people who walked the thin edge between fame and anonymity. A prominent example was Marjoe (1972), a portrait of teenage evangelist Marjoe Gortner, which gave its subject a notoriety that he was able to parlay into a moderately successful show business career. Another popular favorite was Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman (1974). The film is a touching portrait of Antonia Brico, Judy Collins's music teacher, who had once enjoyed her fifteen minutes of fame as that novelty of novelties, a world-class female conductor, but whose career had foundered in an America not yet ready to accept a woman in that role. Antonia was one of the most widely seen documentaries seventies. Its popularity led to a revival of Brico's conducting career in the years before her death. Less widely seen was Charleen (Ross McElwee, 1978), an early film by Ross McElwee, then a student at the MIT Film Section, about his outspoken friend, Charleen, a poet who had been a protege of Ezra Pound (and who would steal the show in McElwee's breakthrough film of the eighties, Sherman's March ). Several film portraits in the seventies by and about African-American women touch on the relative lack of public recognition accorded to minority and women artists, such as Valerie: A Woman, An Artist, A Philosophy of Life! (Monica Freeman, 1975), a portrait of Valerie Maynard, a New York-based printmaker and sculptor who was at one time Artist-in-Residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem; Clementine Hunter, Artist (Madeline Anderson, 1976); Syvilla: They Dance to Her Drum (Ayoka Chenzira, 1979); and varnette's World: A Study of a Young Artist (Carroll Blue, 1979), a tribute to visual artist Varnette Honeywood.
In numerous other portrait films, the subjects were anything but public figures. Most of the films produced under the auspices of Appalshop and the Center for Southern Folklore can be placed in this category. Other examples include Janie's Janie (Geri Ashur, 1971), which follows a young welfare mother as she struggles to assert her own identity; Yudie (Mirra Bank, 1974), a portrait of a woman who tells of her life and of growing up on New York's Lower East Side; Grey Gardens, the 1975 Maysles brothers film about a pair of eccentric recluses, mother and daughter; Little Boy (Danny Lyon, 1977), one of a series of films Danny Lyon made in the seventies about Chicanos and Native Americans; and chicana (Sylvia Morales, 1979).
Still other documentaries of the seventies include portraits or elements of portraits of a number of individuals, not just one. I Am Somebody (1970), It Happens to US (Amalie Rothschild, 1971), The Woman's Film (Louise Alamo, Judy Smith, Ellen Sorin, 1971), Anything You Want To Be (Liane Brandon, 1971), Chris And Bernie (Deborah Schaffer and Bonnie Friedman, 1974), Men's Lives Will Roberts and Josh Hanig, 1975), We Are Ourselves (Ann Hershey, 1976), Union Maids (1976), With Babies and Banners: Story of the Women's Emergency Brigade (1978), To Ourselves, Our Sons, Our Fathers: A Collection of Personal Statements By Men (Michael Chaire and Len Grossman, 1978), Gay Women Speak (Laird Sutton, 1979), The Other Side (Danny Lyons, 1979), and Rosie the Riveter (1980) are examples of such films, which generally had strong feminist or gay rights messages.
An important group of portrait films of the seventies comprises a genre or subgenre that can be called the "family portrait films." Examples include the films of the Six American Families television series. More typical of the period, however, are the numerous documentaries which focus on one or more members of the filmmaker's own family. The Academy Award-winning Best Boy (1979), which follows the director's retarded, middle-aged cousin Philly over a span of three years, is a prominent member of this latter category. Others include Italianamerican (Martin Scorsese, 1974), in which the directors parents talk over dinner at their New York apartment, interweaving their own experiences as Italian Americans with the history of New York itself; An Old-Fashioned Woman (Martha Coolidge, 1974), which examines the relationship between the filmmaker and her grandmother; Nana, Mom and Me (Amalie Rothschild, 1974), which revolves around interactions among the filmmaker, her artist mother, and her grandmother, and reflects on the differing motivations, philosophies, and rivalries that went into shaping their relationships with each other; and Joe and Maxi (Maxi Cohen and Joel Gold, 1977), about the filmmakers troubled relationship with her dying father.
Family portrait films such as these, which focus on members of the filmmaker's own family, exemplify a second important formal innovation characteristic of documentaries of the seventies. When the first cinema verité filmmakers ventured with their cameras into the world to film human beings going about their lives, they thought of themselves as effecting a liberating break with traditional documentary practices, and with the practices of Hollywood studio filmmaking, too, which they took to be dehumanizing. In turn, many younger documentary filmmakers in the seventies came to feel that the strict cinema verité discipline practiced by cinema verité's "old masters" was itself dehumanizing. To wait silently for the camera's subjects to reveal themselves requires filmmakers to efface themselves in ways no child of the sixties was likely to find acceptable. At the same time, it gave filmmakers the power to intrude into the private lives of their subjects without allowing their own privacy to be intruded upon. Many of these younger cinema verité filmmakers, uncomfortable filming strangers from a position of invisibility, thus began making films about family members, subjects they knew so intimately that they found it natural to put themselves and their relationship to their subjects explicitly into their films. Even as they were filming they would go about their own everyday lives, conversing with others from their place behind the camera and on occasion allowing others to film them. Who the filmmaker is, what role filming plays within his or her form of life, how the act of filming affects the filmmaker's own life and the lives of the people he or she is filming, are questions internal to family portrait films like Best Boy; Italianamerican; Nana, Mom and Me; and Joe and Maxi.
When filmmakers film members of their own families, they find themselves with opportunities (whether wished for or not) to settle old scores. Family portrait films thus pose especially acutely some of the moral issues that are unavoidable in documentary filmmaking. Increasingly, documentary filmmakers in the seventies understood it to be a moral imperative to find ways of acknowledging within their films the reality of the act of filming for both filmmaker and subjects. The challenge is to resolve the conflicts between the filmmaker's assumption of authorship of the film and the subjects' right to authorize public revelations about them. Of all the family portrait films of the seventies, Alfred Guzzetti's Family Portrait Sittings (1976) is perhaps the most forthright in confronting this challenge.46
The sound track of Family Portrait Sittings incorporates the voices of members of the filmmaker's family reminiscing and reflecting about their lives. This taped material is sometimes employed in synch-sound sequences in which the speaker is shown addressing the camera. At other times, the taped voices are accompanied by other kinds of imagery—shots taken through the windshield of a car driving down a dreary Philadelphia street; shots of Abruzzo, Italy; shots of still photographs; home movies; cinema verité footage, shot in the present, of family members at work or at family gatherings. Functioning as narrations, the voices together tell the story of the two sides of the filmmaker's family in America from before the emigration from Italy to the time the film was being made. World historical events such as the large-scale migration of Southern Europeans to America around the turn of the century, the Depression, and World War II figure crucially. The spoken material is also organized thematically. The first part of the film concerns emigration and marriage; the second, childbirth and death; the third, work and politics. This organization by themes, in turn, helps the film chart the concepts through which the family members understand themselves, their relationships, and their world. The film presents this family's place in history from the outside, considering its family as a "case." But the film also posits its own making as a moment within the family's history. The author implied by the film is an analytical investigator, but he is also a family member—Alfred, son of Susan and Felix, husband of Deborah, and father of Benjamin. Alfred has the power to decide what will be filmed and where each shot will be placed, but as a character he is subject to the camera's revelations, and as a member of this family his perspective is limited. What then gives this film the authority to speak about, and in the name of, family and filmmaking? How can Alfred Guzzetti, from his place within his family, create a film that speaks with authority on issues such as what it means to be a family member, an American, a human being, a filmmaker? How can he honor his family without allowing it to dictate to him? How can his family authorize his film without denying his authorship of it? Part of the authority of Family Portrait Sittings derives from its form, which enables its author's perspective to emerge from within the family, and to be authorized by the family, even as he claims the work as his own.
From family portrait films like Best Boy, Italianamerican, An Old-Fashioned Woman, Nana, Mom and Me, Joe and Maxi or Family Portrait Sittings, it is only a short step to the autobiographical or diary film.
One of the most notable of the diary films of the seventies is Joyce at 34 (Joyce Chopra and Claudia Weill, 1972), a woman filmmaker's account of her pregnancy and labor and her thoughts about negotiating the unavoidable conflicts between work and mothering. (Taking seriously the film's double authorship, the fact that it is Claudia Weill—a woman, a filmmaker, and a close friend of Joyce Chopra—who shot the film, Helene Keyssar argues persuasively that the film can also be viewed a dialogue between two women about being a woman in the society in which they live.)47 Another is the avant-garde filmmaker Jonas Mekas's Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1974). However, the most famous and influential of all diary films remains to this day David Holzman's Diary (Jim McBride, 1967), which envisions the filming of one's own life as an act of such folly or hubris that no good can possibly come of it. Ironically, this archetypal diary film is not a documentary at all, but a fiction film posing as a documentary. Undeterred by his friend Jim McBride's cautionary tale, Edward Pincus began the most ambitious of the periods experiments in autobiographical filmmaking. The project resulted in Pincus's monumental Diaries: 1971-1976 (1981), whose editing was completed ten years after the commencement of shooting, and the brilliant and eloquent Life and Other Anxieties (Edward Pincus and Steven Ascher, 1977), Diaries's sequel (although its editing was completed several years earlier).
Far less well-known than Robert Leacock, D. A. Pennebaker, the Maysles brothers, or Frederick Wiseman, Pincus is nonetheless a seminal figure by virtue of his influence as the founder of the MIT Film Section in 1969, over which he and Leacock presided in the seventies; his two books on 16mm filmmaking; his development, with engineer Stuart Cody, of a 16mm documentary rig that made it possible for the first time for the person shooting to take sound as well, dispensing with the need for a sound recordist; and, last but not least, his own films.
As a philosophy graduate student at Harvard in the early sixties, Pincus was struck by the affinity between cinema verité and the emphasis, within certain schools of contemporary philosophy, on the ordinary or the everyday. At the height of the civil rights movement, he interrupted his graduate studies and put the ordinary or everyday on hold to travel to Mississippi with his friend David Newman, who took sound, to document the activities of civil rights workers. The resulting film, Black Natchez (Edward Pincus and David Newman, 1967), was at once a committed political documentary and a classic instance of a film made in accordance with the strict cinema verité discipline.
While Pincus was filming Black Natchez, he encountered an African-American man named Panola, the town drunk, who kept hectoring the filmmaker to let him star in a film. Perhaps because he believed he could fit Panola into his larger documentary, perhaps because he thought Panola was such a poignant victim of racial injustice that he could make a separate little film about him, perhaps because liberal guilt made him unable to say no, or perhaps because it was the only way to shut Panola up, Pincus began filming this man who kept insisting that he was a movie star. Panola proved quite uncontainable within the framework of Black Natchez, however. He was too self-destructive to be cast as society's victim and too rambunctious to behave like a proper cinema verité subject. He kept mugging for the camera, addressing Pincus directly, and finally took control over the filming, telling the filmmaker what to shoot and when to stop shooting. Pincus found his experience filming Panola so disturbing that it was half a decade before he could bring himself to look back on it, to acknowledge what the resulting footage revealed about his subject and about himself. Even then, he gave it to others to edit under his general supervision. As much as any single work, the resulting film, Panola (Edward Pincus and David Newman, 1970), shot in the sixties but edited at the threshold of the new decade, at once looks back and turns inward, and can be thought of as inaugurating the American documentary cinema of the seventies. In a similar fashion, Diaries, which Pincus began shooting in 1971 and did not finish editing until 1981, when the changed filmmaker could look back on a decade of change, can be thought of as summing up the period.
In the devastating long take that culminates Panola, the protagonist-subject, obviously drunk, greets the filmmaker and invites or commands him to enter his crumbling shack. Saying "Look! Look!" he directs Pincus to train his camera on the pathetic trappings of his life of poverty, a life that, at least on the outside, could not be more different from the filmmaker's own. In exposing his despair and rage to the camera, Panola is giving a self-conscious performance. Yet he seems so driven by emotions he cannot control that we cannot help but feel that it is indecent to be viewing him like this. Surely, Pincus had no right to keep filming Panola in such a state. No less surely, though, Pincus had no right to stop filming in the middle of Panola's performance. When Panola's despair and rage are spent, his performance is complete, and he is satisfied that the camera has captured everything, he says, "Now I have shown you. Go." Covering his eyes, he adds, with great sadness, "You do not know what I am talking about." The scene fades out, and the final credits are accompanied only by the sounds of children playing, reminding us that the world is still out there, that there is still hope.
In his detailed account of this passage, James Lane suggests that Panola's volatile, self-conscious performance "unsuccessfully attempted to draw out the filmmakers from behind the gaze of their direct-cinema camera."48 Panola's repeated commands to look, Lane writes, provoke "no reaction from the filmmakers other than their continued shooting, indicating their lasting reliance on the noninterventionist principles of direct cinema. The documentarists' refusal to interact is problematized by Panola's persistent enjoining."49 And yet what Panola persistently enjoins Pincus to do is to look, that is, to film everything Panola is presenting to the camera.
Panola is calling upon this middle-class white man who has never known privation, who assumes a privileged place behind the camera as if it were his birthright, to acknowledge that he does not know who this black man he is filming really is. America's racist social system must be changed. The cinema verité filmmaker's relationship to his subjects, separate and inherently unequal, mirrors that unjust system, so Panola has taken it into his own hands to change it. What gives this passage its Shakespearean depth, however, is the sense that Panola is also talking about, and from, a metaphysical isolation that no merely political change can alter. Panola is calling upon the filmmaker to acknowledge that no one—no one black or white, rich or poor, male or female, adult or child—knows him as he is "on the inside." Every human being is unknown to every other. For Pincus to acknowledge what Panola is talking about, he must acknowledge not only how different they are, but also how they are alike. The filmmaker behind the camera is no less unknown than the camera's subject. When Panola takes off his mask to make his unknownness known, he is not only speaking to Pincus, he is speaking for him, declaring their bond. The filmmaker must find a way within his completed work to acknowledge that bond, or else he will be denying his subject's humanity, and his own.
What Pincus learned from his encounter with Panola was a new understanding of the depth of his own responsibility, as a filmmaker, to his subjects and to himself. His aspiration, when he turned from filming strangers to filming his own life in Diaries and Life and Other Anxieties, was to overcome or transcend the inhumanity of the cinema verité filmmaker's role by filming the world without withdrawing from the world. His goal was to transform filming itself into an everyday activity. He undertook to film what he was capable of knowing if he was capable of knowing anything, namely, his own everyday experience. To make his form of life knowable, he had to be willing to reveal himself as completely as Panola had, even if this meant speaking and being spoken to when he was behind the camera filming. On occasion he had to let himself be filmed by others, let himself appear on film as the mortal creature of flesh and blood he is.
In Diaries, as in David Holzman's Diary, conflicts emerge between Pincus's project and the demands of his wife, children, parents, lovers, and friends who call upon him to acknowledge them as human beings who are separate from him—and from his project. Nonetheless, by the end of the film it seems that filming his life has helped the filmmaker to become the kind of person on whom no experience is lost. Pincus's filming of his own life seems, at least provisionally, to have come to a good end.
Pincus's gifted MIT students (they were also Robert Leacock's students), such as Steven Ascher, Michel Negroponte, Mark Rance, Ann Schaetzel, Joel DeMott, Robb Moss, and Ross McElwee, went on in the eighties and nineties to make films that sustained Pincus's revisions or extensions of the strict cinema verité discipline as exemplified by the filmmaking practice of his colleague, Leacock. In their films, the problematic relationship between filming and living one's life in a fully human way is central, as it is in Diaries. In their films, too, filmmaking is a romantic quest, and there is, as in Pincus's work, the suggestion that there may be an inhuman aspect to filming one's life even if the filmmaker speaks and emerges as a character among others; even if people directly address the filmmaker behind the camera; and even if the filmmaker becomes a visible, embodied presence in the film. Nonetheless, in these students' work, too, filming comes, at least provisionally, to a good end.
Although Diaries (1081) and Life and Other Anxieties (1977) broke with the conventions of the strict cinema verité discipline, insofar as their mode was revelation, not assertion, they were transgressing its letter, not its spirit. By making filming a natural part of a human way of life, their aspiration was to make film a bridge, not a barrier, between filmmaker and subject. Yet this was a central aspiration for Leacock as well, and, indeed, for all the "old masters" of cinema verité. Leacock's A Happy Mother's Day (1963), after all, culminates emotionally when the stoical Mrs. Fischer, the mother of the film's title, gives a sly grin to the filmmaker's camera, acknowledging their secret bond, and the camera begins to pan from one to another of the good people of Aberdeen, South Dakota, who are gathered together to honor this woman they do not really know; the filmmaker and his subject authorize this silent summation of her world. And Pennebaker's Don't Look Back (1967) culminates in a gesture of the camera that likewise declares the bond between filmmaker and subject—between Pennebaker, who has embraced a filmmaking practice that makes filming itself an adventure, and the quixotic Bob Dylan, who in his life and art affirms the principle "Don't look back."50
In the seventies, documentary filmmakers no longer felt bound by the injunction to not look back. But filming remained an adventure for them. In the eighties and the nineties, that adventure continued.
In the seventies, when the women's movement was in the ascendancy, a community of documentary filmmakers, within a larger community of independent filmmakers, many of them women and many based on college campuses, emerged and became conscious of itself as a community. Within the history of documentary film in America, this was a momentous event. The works of these documentary filmmakers, in the seventies, were marked by a general tendency to take on a retrospective dimension, to take the form of reflections on history. They were also marked by a general tendency to further the explorations of the realm of the personal or private, which made cinema verité in the sixties such a dramatic departure from the mainstream documentary tradition. Often, documentary films of the seventies combined these two tendencies: reflecting on history from a personal perspective, or reflecting on history's impact on the private lives of individuals. In at once looking back and turning inward, documentaries of the seventies experimented with two key formal innovations. One was the creation of hybrid forms that juxtaposed cinema verité sequences with interviews and/or sequences composed of other kinds of documentary material (archival footage, home movies, etc.). The other was a new willingness for filmmakers to converse with others even as they were filming them, breaking the silence that strict cinema verité discipline demands and forgoing the pretense that filmmakers are "flies on the wall" whose presence has no effect on the people they are filming.
"Looking Back and Turning Inward: American Documentary Films of the Seventies." History of the American Cinema. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Nov. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.
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