Silent Witness: Since the 1930s, Documentary Film-Making Has Been a Powerful Platform for Political Activists. but You Won't Have Seen These Films at the Cinema. Lilian Pizzichini Traces the History of Alternative Newsreels

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Lenin once said: "For us, the most important of all the arts is the cinema." Archivists at the British Film Institute would agree. Among the miles of dusty shelves that house its collection is a corridor devoted to "non-fiction". The BFI's archivists have been hoarding industrial and educational films, documentaries and travelogues since cinema began. More recently, they have identified a category of factual film-making that has been largely overlooked in British filmography. These films, never before shown in a cinema, are being screened together at the National Film Theatre under the title "In Fact: what the newsreel de not show (film and video activism 1930-2003)".

When socialist film societies in the 1920s applied to municipal boroughs for permission to show Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin to their members, they were stonewalled. Realising it was impossible to distribute politically motivated foreign films in the UK, they set up their own distribution networks. Films were projected on to factory walls a screens set up in church halls. But the members of these militant left-wing groups were also barred from airing their views in mainstream media. Frustrated by this enforced silence, the societies clubbed together to buy the equipment to make their own films. This was the beginning of the "alternative newsreel".

Workers' Topical News No 1 is the earliest example of the films in the BFI's collection. It was shot, edited and premiered all on the same day, 6 March 1930 (International Unemployment Day), a shows a demonstration organised by the National Unemployed Workers' Movement in London. The Tower of London looms as an ominous reminder of the fate of social agitators, as thousands of marchers gather in its shadow, dressed in their Sunday best. A soup kitchen provides sustenance. The demonstrators smile self-consciously for the cameras, clutching their mugs of broth, before organising themselves into dignified ranks. Tom Mann, the greatest labour agitator and orator of his time, addresses the crowd. Although this is a silent film, and we cannot hear what he is saying, we see the ripples of applause run through his audience, creating an electrifying effect.

With the first "alternative newsreels" of the 1930s, a generation of film-makers on the left took up the fight against unemployment, poverty and fascism. They were following the example of Russian film makers of the 1920s who developed the documentary as a means of raising awareness and sent camera operators to the far corners of Soviet Russia. As cheap, non-flammable 16mm film stock became generally available in England, members of the Workers' Film and Photo League began documenting the everyday lives of Britain's industrial and agricultural labourers. On the whole, artistry was not an issue--the aim was to inspire debate and express the views of the community.

However, artistic flair in propaganda is always helpful. Advance Democracy! (1938), commissioned by the London Co-operative Societies, made by the Realist Film Unit and directed by Ralph Bond (a central figure in the socialist film-making movement), boasts music by Benjamin Britten, sung by the Norbury Co-op Choral Society. The film explores the imaginative world of its protagonist, Bert, a disaffected London dock worker, and charts his journey from apathy to activism. His wife, May, is a member of the Co-operative Women's Guild, where she buys sausages for Bert's tea. Shots of Bert hauling cargo destined for expensive stores are set against scenes of a committee meeting of Rochdale weavers in 1844. And when he listens on the wireless to a Co-operative MP extolling the Tolpuddle Martyrs as the original trade unionists, Bert imagines himself as an 18th-century agricultural worker in the dock being sentenced to transportation. The point is clear: he is part of a larger tradition of honest working men provoked into righteous revolt and civil action.

In 1939, Ivor Montague, who had worked with Eisenstein and Alfred Hitchcock, made Peace and Henry for the British Communist Party. …