The Workers' Film & Photo League movement of the 1930s gave rise to local groups of film activists across the United States. San Francisco's Film & Photo League coalesced in 1933, documenting California labor struggles and social conditions during the Depression, as well as acting as a distribution network for censored Soviet films and American newsreels. The San Francisco Film & Photo League production Century of Progress (1934) is discussed in detail.
In 1934 and 1935, Nancy Naumburg and James Guy independently produced two documentary films under the aegis of the Film & Photo League in New York, Sheriffed and Taxi. The films dealt with farm troubles in Pennsylvania and a taxi drivers' strike in New York, and were photographed by Naumburg, a Vassar graduate, on a 16mm camera she had been given by her mother. Praised for their political commitment, the style of these now lost films was critized from the left for diverging from approved Soviet documentary models.
Previous interpreters of Dziga Vertov's Three Songs of Lenin (1934; reedited in 1938 and 1970) have tended to read the film as either a drastic and regrettable break with his experimental practice of the 1920s, or (more rarely) as a grand summation of many aspects of that practice. Both readings have assumed that the figure of Joseph Stalin was essentially absent from the original 1934 version, while offering different reasons for that presumed absence. The present essay argues for a different reading of the film, one that takes into account both the continuities and discontinuities between Vertov's documentary practice in the early 1930s, and (as archival research reveals) Stalin's thoroughgoing onscreen presence in the original film. The 1934 Three Songs of Lenin was Vertov's most successful attempt to make his constructivist concerns with material change and motion cohere with the new Stalinist cultural order, specifically by recoding those concerns in terms of the value now placed on "individual experience" and "folk creativity".
This essay examines the construction of the "safari adventure" through the motion picture films of amateur, semi-professional and professional filmmakers in Africa during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. It is argued that new forms of transportation and cinematic technologies (especially color and sound) created new modes of mobility and visuality on safari that allowed for the reinvention and recycling of narrative tropes and stereotypes of Africa. The archival films considered in this essay illustrate the creation of imaginary geographies of Africa in the popular medium of film and demonstrate persistent western fascination with the exotic and cultural difference.
This essay examines two inter-related documentary projects, which were both begun in 1936: the documentary film My Song Goes Forth (1937) and the travel book African Journey (1945). Collaborating with director Joseph Best on the film, Paul Robeson ultimately created a one-reel prologue in which he sang and provided an on-camera commentary. Eslanda Robeson, who went to Africa with their son Paul, Jr., in the midst of this production, wrote an account of her travels that revealed a racial politics shared by South Africa and the Southern United States. Both works also upend too familiar views of the primitive "Dark Continent" perpetuated by Osa and Martin Johnson and others. From an African American perspective, these works challenged well-established generic conventions for the depiction of Africa, even as they operated within the book/film, husband/wife production ethos that characterized the genre in the 1920s and 1930s. Both achievements articulated an achievable utopia through their cinematic and literary forms.
This essay examines the production history and reception of Land of Liberty, a compilation film that tells "the entirety" of US history. This feature-length, epic documentary was produced by Will Hays and the MPPDA for the federal government's 1939 New York World's Fair exhibition. Assuming the modest role of editor, Cecil B. DeMille used excerpts from approximately 125 Hollywood fiction films to create a hybrid form that has since been forgotten and thus wrongly omitted from American documentary history.
For nearly eighty years, filmed images of the natural world conformed to the classic documentary aesthetic: Such images were perceived to be an expansion of human vision, a means of entering into a world that was invisible to the human eye. Today, the impulse to document nature is augmented by the much higher stakes endeavor of "preserving" animal life in a virtual world. Looking over the precipice of an earth depopulated of its wildlife, the goal of nature filmmakers becomes the capture of animals, at least in images, so that society and science have a record of what was lost.