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For many Americans, "terrorism" is an anthropological term meaning dark foreigners. They might be surprised to learn that it was how a U.S. Senate committee once described corporate America's tactics to crush labor unions.
Social documentarian Leo Hurwitz reenacted findings from that official body — the La Follette Senate Civil Liberties Committee — in his 1942 feature film, Native Land. The hybrid documentary raised the specter of fascism and called exploited workers to action. Narrated by Paul Robeson and co-directed by Paul Strand, it's now seen as an early waypost of progressive filmmaking in this country, and whether you're gainfully employed or a jobless statistic, you can catch it at an Anthology Film Archives series saluting Hurwitz and his peers.
Titled "Leo Hurwitz and the New York School of Documentary Film," the retrospective will unfold March 10-19, 2010, at Anthology's shrine to indie/avant-garde filmmaking in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Following the crowd was never Hurwitz's way. Leading was, and arguably the Brooklyn-born son of a Russian socialist shook up the documentary narrative more than most. Yet he was in fine company with fellow filmmakers Strand, Willard Van Dyke, Ralph Steiner, Sidney Meyers and later pariah Elia Kazan, among others. Seeded by Robert Flaherty and Pare Lorentz, the New York School marked a second generation of American media frontiersmen who would bushwhack the way for the TV documentary and next for the flowering of non-fiction filmmaking in the 1960s and 70s.
Anthology begins its look back with modern documentary's 11-year gestation period, from 1931 to 1942. It continues on through Hurwitz’s hounded productions of the McCarthyite 1950s (when Kazan "named names") along with his contribution to cinéma vérité and the more artistically driven, less political films of his later career.
Exposing what forces spurred reactionary elements toward a taste for red meat, a collective of left-liberal photographers, filmmakers and critics came together in 1930 under the aegis of the Film and Photo League. Anthology's roundup of their shorts and newsreels includes Detroit Workers News Special 1932: Ford Massacre and two works about national hunger marches, photographed from the perspective of the marchers.
Depression breadlines, Hoovervilles and labor unrest are chronicled here not only as a social document, but also as a way of rallying audiences of workers who otherwise might not grasp the scope of the economic debacle and class tensions. "When you put your hand in your pocket and you can touch your total savings, your life is revealed as not the private thing it seemed before. It becomes connected with others who share your problem," as Hurwitz is quoted saying in William Alexander's book, Film on the Left.
Agit-prop filmmaking also united the Nykino group, which Hurwitz split from the Film and Photo League to co-found with Steiner and Irving Lerner. A segment called "Nykino and American Documentary Film in the Thirties" showcases such films as Fred Zinnemann and Strand's docudrama about a fishermen’s strike in Mexico, The Wave, and Steiner's irreverent poke at religion and poverty, Pie in the Sky (featuring loopy antics by Kazan and Group Theater colleagues).
"American Documentary Film in the Thirties" clusters some of the decade's most poetic work. It opens with Lorentz's The Plow that Broke the Plains, which laments the Dust Bowl — arable land sold out for a quick buck — and plugs the green-minded policies of the New Deal. Strand, Steiner and Hurwitz contributed cinematography alongside images by Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, and Virgil Thompson composed the score. Lorentz's next film, The River, may be better known (it's not included in the series), but Washington-funded The Plow had the distinction of being the first motion picture to enter the Congressional archives.
Valley Town, by Van Dyke shares Anthology's 30s marquee; its study of steelworker's family thrust into poverty when automation eliminates jobs holds up as one the most searing portraits of that hard knocks era.In 1936 Hurwitz joined with Strand and fellow travelers in founding Frontier Films, the first nonprofit documentary production company in the U.S. Its politically committed slate debuted with Heart of Spain, Hurwitz's half-hour film about the Spanish Civil War. Heart of Spain will be shown in part one of two Frontier Film blocs. It's followed by China Strikes Back, which marked two more firsts: footage both of Mao Tse-Tung at his Yenan base and of the Chinese Communist army; and a dialectical approach to editing that not only became emblematic of Frontier Films but also fashioned a long-lingering sensibility in the art form.Native Land was Frontier Films' swansong. In "After Frontier Films," Anthology pays tribute to a 1948 feature entitled Strange Victory, the only production of Hurwitz's subsequent shingle. The documentary, which dissected post-War racism and complacency in the U.S, won awards at the Karlovy-Vary and Venice Film Festivals.In the 50's and 60's, while blacklisted, the Harvard-educated Lefty continued to make independent films and, with Life magazine photographer Fons Iannelli as his "front," co-produced, directed and edited a number of segments for CBS's "Omnibus" magazine show. Emergency Ward gives a sampling in "The Pre-history of Cinéma Vérite."
After pocketing Emmy and Peabody awards for directing Verdict for Tomorrow about the 1961 Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, Hurwitz produced several feature-length films for National Educational Television, including Essay on Death: A Memorial to John F. Kennedy. Rather than rehash the all-too-familiar details of the President's assassination, Hurwitz took art, literature and such actors as Christopher Plummer to plumb the meaning of death. The film will unspool in one of three "Hurwitz in the Sixties" spotlights, as will his other artsy NET productions, The Sun and Richard Lippold and In Search of Hart Crane.
Anthology audiences will find mostly short works in this New York School series, however, Dialogue with a Woman Departed stands to test their bladders. A four-hour epic collage dedicated to Hurwitz's late second wife and co-worker, Peggy Lawson, it was shot over eight years in the 70s. It was his last major production, and it earned him an International Film Critics Prize in 1981.
Hurwitz's seminal short, The Scottsboro Boys, about the 1931 trial of nine black teens falsely accused of raping two white women in Alabama, is absent from the Anthology lineup. Yet for a bit of Hurwitz trivia told by Tom Hurwitz (who assisted Anthology in mounting the exhibition), his father redirected his energy to the Scottsboro project after reaching out to Charlie Chaplin to no avail.
Had the silent comic come through, the New York voice of Leo Hurwitz — and the generations he influenced — may have sounded different. The resonance it achieved fills 10 days that will shake your documentary world.Anthology Film Archives32 2nd AvenueNew York, NY 10003(212) 505-5181www.anthologyfilmarchives.org
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