Kramer on Newsreel
by Robert Kramer
Published in Film Quarterly, winter 1968, as part of a special feature on the Newsreel filmmaking collective. As found on Donal Foreman’s blog. Kramer’s “Vietnam Trilogy”, consisting of ‘People’s war’ (1969), ‘Point de départ’ (1993), and ‘SayKomSa’ (1998) will be shown at KASKcinema on February 21, as part of the “Figures of Dissent” series.
We began by trying to bridge the gap between the states of mind and ways of working that we were accustomed to as film-makers, and the engagement/daily involvement/commitments of our political analysis and political activity. This had immediate implications—not only for our film-making, but for interpretations of what, as film-makers, as people in a struggle against established forms of power and control, against established media of all forces, we had to do with or without cameras.
In regard to our films. I think we argue a different hierarchy of values. Not traditional canons of “what is professional,” what is “comprehensive and intelligent reportage,” what is “acceptable quality and range of material.” No. Nor do we accept a more sophisticated argument about propaganda in general: that if the product isn’t sold well, if the surface of the film (grainy, troublesome sound, soft-focus, a wide range of maladies that come up when you are filming under stress) alienates, then the subject population never even gets to your “message” about the product—they just say, “Fuck that, I’m not watching that shit.”
The subject population in this society, bombarded by and totally immersed in complex, ostensibly “free” medcia, has learned to absorb all facts/information relatively easily. Within the formats now popularised by the television documentary, you can lodge almost any material, no matter how implicitly explosive, with the confidence that it will neither haunt the subject population, nor push them to move—in the streets, in their communities, in their heads. You see Cleaver or Seale on a panel show, and they don’t scare you or impress your or make you think as they would if you met them on the street. Why? Because they can’t get their hands on you? Partly, sure. (Fear and committed thought exist in terms of the threat that power will be used against you—in terms of the absolute necessity of figuring out what has to be done—noe in terms of some vague decision to “think it through” in isolation.) But also, because their words are absorbed by the format of the “panel show,” rational (note well: ostensibly rational) discussion about issues that we all agree are important and pressing, and that we (all good liberal viewers) are committed to analysing. Well: bullshit. The illusion of the commitment to analyse. The illusion of real dissent. The illusion of even understanding the issues. Rather, the commitment to pretend that we’re engaging in reality.
OK. At the point when you have considered this argument then you start to make films with different priorities, with shapes justified in a different way. You want to make films that unnerve, that shake assumptions, that threaten, that do not soft-sell, but hopefully (an impossible ideal) explode like grenades in peoples’ faces, or open minds like a good can opener. We say: “The things you see in these films are happening at this moment, they are our ‘news,’ they are important to us and do not represent the droppings of a few freaks, but the activity of a growing wave of people, youir children who were fighting the pigs at Columbia, your brothers who deserted the army, your former slaves who will not now accept your insufficient reparations, etc., etc. You know this reality. You know enough to know that this is real—now deal with it, because soon it’s going to come to deal with you, in one way or another.” The effect of our films is more like seeing 250 Black Panthers around the Oakland Court House, or Columbia students carrying on the business of revolt at Kirk’s desk, or Free Men occupying the streets of Berkely, than listening to what some reporter tells us about what these people might have said, and how we can understand “rebellion” psychologically. We strive for confrontation, we prefer disgust/violent disagreement/painful recognition/jolts—all these to slow liberal head-nodding and general wonderment at the complexity of these times and their being out of joint.
We want a form of propaganda that polarises, angers, excites, for the purpose of discussion—a way of getting at people, not by making concessions to where they are, but by showing them where you are then forcing them to deal with that, bringing out all their assumptions, their prejudices, their imperfect perceptions.
We shoot as best we can—but we shoot what’s important to us, what meets our perceptions of our lived reality; we cut according to our priorities, our ideologies, not “to make it plain and simple to them.” Not to present a “line.” Not to present the lived reality as less complex than it really is. Not to enter into that sterile game: modulating our emotions and intensities and intelligences in some vain hope that by speaking your language your way we can persuade you. No, we know the effective outcome of that: only the acceptance of another of the subtle forms of domination and control. Now we move according to our own priorities, and we are justified in this by objective conditions. Five years ago, for example, such a decision would have been suicidal. Our movement was only emerging—few people knew anything about it—few people were involved. But now, all our audiences (and our audiences represent the full spectrum of the society) know the essence of what we’re talking about. They read it every day in every paper digested and shaped to their preconceptions. So now we present it to them in its nakedness, in our true understanding of it, not vitiated by analyses and “in-depth studies” that we do not accept, but just exactly what counts from our point of view. The established media have done the job of popularising: now we must specify and make immediate; convert our audiences or neutralise them; threaten.
Our films remind some people of battle footage: grainy, camera weaving around trying to get the material and still not get beaten/trapped. Well, we, and many others, are at war. We not only document that war, but try to find ways to bring that to places which have managed so far to buy themselves isolation from it.
So, to return to the issue of propaganda. Our propaganda is one of confrontation. Using film—using our voices with and after films—using our bodies with and without cameras—to provoke confrontation. Changing minds, altering consciousness, seems to us to come through confrontations, not out of sweet/reasonable conversations that are one of the society’s modes of absorbing and disarming dissent and movement, of giving that illusion that indeed we are dealing with “the issues.” Therefore we keep moving. We keep hacking out films, as quickly as we can, in whatever way we can.
To all film-makers who accept the limited, socially determined rules of clarity of exposition, who think that films must use the accepted vocabulary to “convince,” we say, essentially: “You only work, whatever your reasons, whatever your presumed ‘content,’ to support and bolster this society; you are part of the mechanisms which maintain stability through re–integation; your films are helping to hold it all together; and, finally, whatever your other descriptions, you have already chosen sides. Dig: Your sense of order and form is already a political choice. Don’t talk to me about “content”—but if you do, I will tell you that you cannot encompass our “content” with those legislated and approved senses, that you do not understand it if you treat it that way. There is no such thing as revolutionary content, revolutionary spirit, laid out for inspection and sale on the bargain basement counter.
(image taken from Ice, made by Robert Kramer and the Newsreel Collective in 1970)