02. The Popular Front: United States/France/Spain (1930s-40s)

“Nearly all the films that emerged from the radical cinema movement in the United States were documentaries…Why has documentary been the characteristic mode of left-wing expression in the cinema, to the exclusion of other alternatives?” Russell Campbell

To answer this question, we must focus upon key similarities and dissimilarities between montage and social realist documentaries particularly in regards to understandings of or commitment to four fundamental themes: realism/authenticity/truth (or subjectivity/objectivity); utility; ethics; cognition vs. emotion.

In the 1930s, international anti-fascists, with a particular eye towards the civil war in Spain, and the World War it anticipated, formulated a situated political filmmaking where formal and practical choices came from worldly interactions and because of specific goals. Joris Ivans writes, “We were in a hurry…our job was not to make the best of all films, but to make a good film for exhibition in the US, in order to collect money to send ambulances to Spain.” While the soviets (and many others following) engage in a film theory that conjures ideas about the cinema and world, referring back to previous ideas, only then to put these ideas into practice but with little consideration of the theory’s application for human beings, social realists incorporate an ethics of political media praxis into their theory. Ivans explains, “one could not possibly ask people who were engaged in a life and death struggle to be interested in anything outside that struggle.” Further, soviet montagists utilized a perhaps elitist and modernist repudiation of time, space, and representation to construct reality while social realists evidenced a more comfortable and comprehensible reliance upon material coherence, using their camera to reveal it. Montagists used cinema to alter humans’ cognitive capacities, to understand the world anew, in a way impossible without the act of mediation. Social realists, evidencing a more humanist approach to cinema, included the psychological and emotional, “a human focus,” as one cinematic tactic that might contribute to audience participation. This more utilitarian approach, built from “empathetic cutting,” demands a flexibility within theory and practice. “You couldn’t stay neutral in Madrid.”

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