Now entering its fourth decade, Third World Newsreel has gone from a giddily utopian agitprop image bank documenting the antiwar and Civil Rights struggles of the ’60s to the celluloid-and-tape ground zero of late-20th-century identity politics. Anyone who’s attended a multiculti film festival or taken a class in x-studies (women’s, gay and lesbian, African American, Asian American…) has seen at least two of the films on view in the retrospective now being mounted at MOMA, making it almost impossible to imagine everything from ’80’s culture wars to indie, queer, and black film boomlets without the Newsreel’s archives and workshops.
The makers of the over 40 films and videos in the retro comprise a who’s who of various alternative demimondes—Christine Choy, Julie Dash, Ada Gay Griffin, Charles Burnett, Coco Fusco, Isaac Julien, newcomers like Cheryl Dunye and Chris Eyre—but many of the earliest entries, like 1969’s People’s War, sport the earnest, collectivist ”Newsreel” credit. Not so much raw as extremely eager, War’s non-sync sound, black-and-white ode to the heroic battle of the North Vietnamese against imperialism is a telling Newsreel artifact. On one hand just a voiced-over compilation of vaguely connected propaganda snapshots—peasants working, peasants meeting, peasants manning antiaircraft guns—it also hints at things to come at the Newsreel, if not necessarily in Southeast Asia. A poem by Ho Chi Minh wafts defiantly through the soundtrack untranslated, suggesting the later hyphenate discomforts about audience and language in work like Reassemblage (1982), Trinh T. Minh-ha and Jean-Paul Bourdier’s semiotics-drenched, quadrilingual, antiethnography of West Africa.
Similarly when a woman in People’s War recounts how her traveling-salesman husband disappeared during the war against the French, there are early signs of the Newsreel’s tradition of people-empowering and highly personal documentary. On one end, there’s Mississippi Triangle, where the stories of Chinese and African American workers are used to sketch the more abstract racial and political geography of the American South. On an artier tip, Roddy Bogawa’s Some Divine Wind orbits elliptically around a very Newsreel, personal-is-political conundrum: Bogawa’s American father flew on the WWII bombing run that destroyed his Japanese mother’s village.
Many of the films by higher-profile Newsreel member and graduates will be on display—Dash’s lllusions, Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, and Julien’s Looking for Langston, a Holy Trinity of alternative black filmmaking—but some of the most interesting work is by lesser-known artists. Some, like Native American director Chris Eyre’s Tenacity and Cheryl Dunye’s She Don’t Fade, are the first steps of filmmakers who would eventually get wider recognition. Other shorts—like A Refutation of Time, an oddball entry about identity and e-mail, or the more familiar Toc Storee, whose fractured 20 minutes mix traditional storytelling and a more recent gay Pacific Rim sensibility—are conjectural and experimental films that would not exist or be seen without the Newsreel and the nurturing safe haven provided by its catalogue and workshops.