An armed American soldier, cigarette dangling from his smiling mouth, strikes a playful, victorious pose next to a battered enemy’s body while a fellow G.I. snaps a photo. The image is eerily familiar, but this isn’t from Abu Ghraib, or anywhere else in Iraq. Rather, it’s one of the many chillingly déjà vu moments in the appropriately titled program “History Repeats Itself,” a three-part retro of Vietnam-era 16mm films from the era’s anti-war Newsreel collectives, unspooling as part of the Howl Festival’s copious cinematic offerings. Less a tightly curated event than an umbrella pretext for artsy hoedowns of various persuasions, Howl nevertheless gains a serendipitous cohesion to its film programming this year, largely by dint of its proximity to the RNC, the subsequent election, and ongoing war. Thus the grainy, battered Newsreel shorts serve as both primitive ancestor and uncanny mirror to the numerous agit-docs, activist television shows, and politically themed features running during this East Village counterculture carnivale.
Founded in 1967 as a cooperative distribution and production network, Newsreel provided an early form of alternative media to a growing protest movement. Viewed today, the Newsreel shorts seem to strain at their own technological limits, disregarding cinematic conventions in the service of political urgency. Some engage with avant-garde traditions—for example, the superlatively poetic post-Soviet montages of Cuban filmmaker Santiago Álvarez, here represented by his 1967 documentary Hanoi, Tuesday the 13th and biographical kino-essay 79 Springtimes of Ho Chi Minh. But most strive for a gritty you-are-there reportage, a verité variant with an overtly leftist bent.
Many of Howl’s contemporary offerings similarly attempt to energize audiences, now addressed with digital video and televisual aesthetics. Deep Dish TV’s series “Shocking and Awful” works as a direct Newsreel descendant, collecting a powerful—but often vaguely contextualized—volley of clips that depict daily life in Iraq as near-endless misery and death. Conversely, A Night of Ferocious Joy, David Zeiger’s serviceable document of a spirited 2002 hip-hop protest concert in L.A., seeks to provide hope to the already converted.
Unprecedented advances a more targeted anti-Republican thesis. Produced by Robert Greenwald (the muckraker behind Outfoxed), this earlier work likewise deploys found clips to re-spin headlines, in this case to argue how the 2000 election was stolen right from under our noses. True, it’s hardly a new concept to most East Villagers, but this grippingly dramatic film at the very least provides a space where the pre-RNC crowd can be pissed off in solidarity.