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Political Film

Film as an ideological weapon

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Film and politics were entangled almost from the time of the first projections. As a promising new business, the movies became the subject of intense commercial struggles, while as an impressive new medium they were quickly perceived as a potential ideological influence.

In Britain, an overt politics of cinema emerged in the interwar years, influenced by the experience of propaganda films during World War I, the increasing sophistication and popularity of cinema, the postwar domination of British screens by American films, the early flowering of the Soviet film industry and the blatantly political character of censorship.

Censorship was imposed by local authorities under the Cinematograph Act of 1909, but decisions as to which films to licence were nearly always based on the certificates issued by the British Board of Film Censors, a national trade body. The BBFC banned as subversive most Soviet films, including Eisenstein's Strike (1924) and Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Pudovkin's Mother (1926), films which some critics considered groundbreaking works of art. This proved a catalysing issue and encouraged the formation in 1925 of the Film Society, which could show films banned for public screenings. The conflict set a pattern, linking workers' struggles with the cause of film as art.

In 1929 a Federation of Workers Film Societies was founded, associated with the Minority Movement, the Communist led trade union organisation. The Labour Party set up the Masses Stage and Film Guild in the same year. These societies had more clashes with the censors than the predominantly middle-class London Film Society, but they partially overcame the problem by projecting on 16mm film stock. 'Substandard' film, as it was called then, was not covered by the regulations for 35mm exhibition and had other advantages in terms of cost and the relative ease of transporting prints and projectors.

The step from showing to producing films was a logical one, and in 1930 the Atlas Film Company, associated with the Federation of Workers Film Societies, made three issues of a newsreel called Workers Topical News. These were 35mm productions, but 16mm became the basis of a Labour Movement film practice which developed during the 1930s. The organisations were divided according to affiliations with either the Labour or Communist Party but the split was minimised at the time because of the anti-fascist movement and the politics of the Popular Front. Kino, a distributor formed in 1933, and an associated production group, the Workers' Film and Photo League, had Communist affiliations. The Labour-affiliated Socialist Film Council made its first film in 1933, and a more organised producer/distributor, the Workers' Film Association was launched in 1938. Individual Left filmmakers also formed production companies, including Ivor Montagu's Progressive Film Institute, best known for its films on the Spanish Civil War, and Ralph Bond's Realist Film Unit.

The Second World War brought to an end the attempt to develop a cinema for the Labour Movement and most of the organisations were wound up. After the war the Labour landslide and the advent of public service television held out the promise that the mainstream media would start to give fair coverage to the Labour Movement. Communists were sceptical, but were soon isolated by the politics of the Cold War. A few Left-minded film workers continued through the 1940s and 1950s to chronicle struggles like the squatters' movement, the May Day demonstrations, and the closure of nurseries, but they lacked networks to show the work. Two new distributors were set up by Communists at the beginning of the 1950s, but they were self-supporting enterprises whose business was not explicitly political. Stanley Forman's companies Plato and ETV distributed educational films and preserved for the future many of the Left productions of the 1930s. Charles Cooper's Contemporary Films distributed cinema features, especially, but not exclusively, films from the Soviet block or by socialist directors, and became a central support of art cinema from the '50s to the '80s.

The late 1960s saw a new flowering of Left political film, linked with a resurgence of Left politics. The activism of this period differed from that of the 1930s in being less rooted in the Labour Movement and more concerned with gender and race. Political parties had a much smaller role and organisation was provided by single issue campaigns like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (VSC), and by informal networks like the Women's Movement.

CND inspired films about its activities, of which the best known is March to Aldermaston (1959), but the most politicising media event connected with CND occurred later: the refusal by the BBC to show Peter Watkins' The War Game (1966). By this time, opposition to the Vietnam War was growing and the VSC was associated with a developing critique of mainstream media which questioned not only its content but its aesthetic and methods of production. A search for alternatives was driven by influences including community politics from Canada and the United States, the work of the New York Film Co-op, the 1968 political upheaval in France and associated cultural theory. A new self-consciously oppositional film culture began to take shape, characterised by filmmakers working in groups, soon to be called 'workshops', each with a distinctive practice.

The London Film-makers Co-op was founded in 1966 to support artists' film, but many of its founders were active on the Left and the organisation interacted with more conventional political filmmakers. It was an influence because of its complete independence from the film business, its democratic and co-operative structure, its promotion of a do-it-yourself multi-skilled approach to technical processes and its culture of regular screenings and debate.

In 1968 two of the most influential collectives were formed, Amber in Newcastle and Cinema Action in London. Both engaged simultaneously in exhibition, distribution and production, both aimed to develop a cinema by and for the working-class and were formed by people who were not at the time film professionals. In other respects they differed. Cinema Action remained a fluid group throughout its early years, when its core members lived together as a commune; Amber very quickly adopted an agreed organisational structure and was not a commune; Cinema Action worked with radical organisations like the shop stewards movement, students', squatters', and tenants' organisations, filming and showing films as part of their campaigns wherever the Cinema Action team had good contacts; Amber's work was and is rooted in local communities and, although it does some topical, campaign-linked productions, the emphasis is on portraying working-class lives. Cinema Action made one cinema feature, Rocinante (1986); Amber has been making low budget cinema features since Sea Coal (1985).

Other early workshops were Berwick Street and Liberation Films, founded in 1970, Four Corners founded in Bethnal Green in 1973 and Newsreel founded in 1974. Liberation Films grew out of Angry Arts, a film society run by VSC activists, and its core work was as a 16mm distributor, although it also produced films and ran screenings. There was a growing demand for political films of all kinds and two more distributors were also formed in 1970, the Other Cinema and Politkino. The former absorbed the latter in 1973 and developed into an important distributor of cinema features.

The Women's Movement was a major influence by the early 1970s and inspired the formation of women-only workshops, including the London Women's Film Co-op in 1972, Sheffield Film Co-op in 1975 and Leeds Animation Workshop in 1978. Two distributors specialising in women's films were established: Cow in 1977, Circles in 1979.

In the 1980s, black and Asian workshops began to play an important role, the most prominent being the black groups Ceddo, Black Audio Collective and Sankofa, and the Asian group Retake.

Workshops aimed to develop structures radically different from those of the film and broadcasting mainstream. Principles widely shared were collective management, integration of production, distribution and exhibition, flexible division of labour as opposed to rigid specialisms, continuity of employment as opposed to freelance working and non-hierarchical working relations, including relations between filmmakers, their subjects and audiences. Workshops and like-thinking individual filmmakers formed the Independent Filmmakers' Association (IFA) in 1975 to promote those principles and campaign for appropriate forms of funding. The Association had some success in influencing the BFI, local authorities and local arts associations to fund workshops and negotiated an agreement with the trade union ACTT for workshops. With the advent of Channel Four Television, the association pressed for the formation of the Independent Film and Video Department which initially commissioned workshops under the special agreement.

Margaret Dickinson

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