by Sherry Millner
Cut, no. 27, July 1982, pp. 21-22
Choy: In the early 70s Newsreel was making films like THE BLACK PANTHER PARTY, and THE YOUNG LORDS. The majority of Newsreel people felt they should work at recruiting more nonwhites into the organization. Two third world men began working with the organization and I, a Chinese woman, began about the same time. In 1972 we called a National Third World meeting of all Newsreels (we had national chapters up until about 1973). Five people came — four from New York and one from Boston. At that conference we five decided to struggle for films relating to third world people, made by third world people. We could accomplish that by recruiting more third world people.
In New York, we started a Third World Caucus within the Newsreel chapter, recruiting twelve people. (No one got paid with the exception of the one person who worked in distribution for $50.00 per week.) At this time, most people in Newsreel — called the White Caucus — were going through tremendous turmoil as they split into two groups — the haves and the have-nots, and everyone wanted to be a have-not instead of a have. The have-nots felt sympathy with the third world people’s oppression. Six months later the haves all left Newsreel. The have-nots debated working-class issues; working class filmmaking; definitions of and strategies for cultural work, filmmaking, and organizing work. Many joined October League and the Revolutionary Union and women's groups. Newsreel began to change.
Meantime the Third World Caucus began to work on a film called TEACH YOUR CHILDREN. The white section was going through such chaos that they decided to dissolve themselves, leaving the organization with the twelve third world members but no money or equipment. We had a lot of films and debts but no catalogue. At the same time, among the minority members, people didn't know how to produce but everybody wanted to get paid. Internally we faced rip-offs and stealing.
Then, in 1973, we were evicted because we couldn't pay the rent, so we decided to move the organization. When only three people showed up to help move — Sue Robeson, Robert Zelner and myself — we moved the entire organization to Sixth Ave. and 23rd St. and told the rest of the people goodbye. Newsreel was left with three people.
I went away for about two weeks and came back to find that the organization had been robbed, with only one camera left. Some outside people took all the projectors and most other equipment. Fortunately, at that time Allan Siegal, an early Newsreel member, came around to help us reorganize, which sparked debate because he was white and we were operating with nationalist tendencies. But he came in; and we were able to raise the money for a down payment on another office on 20th Street.
When we began demanding training and skills from former members, only one or two were sincere enough to teach us how to use the camera. The rest wouldn't have anything to do with us. So it was out of anger that we called ourselves "Third World Newsreel." More and more as we define the term, we find it's not appropriate to our situation. The term Third World in the international sense is more applicable to an underdeveloped country. Domestically speaking, it applies to a national minority struggling for equality. When we use the term Third World, we use it superficially, since we distribute films from Latin America, Africa and Asia. But the production we do does not relate to Third World issues but to conditions in the United States, especially among minorities and working-class people as a whole. So the term has to be revised. But we haven't gotten around to it yet, and it's become an established trademark for our market.
JUMP CUT: Were you able to start making films right away, teaching each other skills?
Choy: We were mostly self-taught, which is reflected in our films. In our first film, TEACH YOUR CHILDREN, a film about Attica, we eliminated everything that had to do with whites. This film, made by two women all about men, contains only images of Blacks and Latinos. It represented our gut feelings about what had happened in that prison revolt. When first shown at UCLA, it had a tremendous impact because there was a struggle going on there around minority students' entering film school; and then it was shown in a black film festival. Later on we began concentrating on prison issues. We started making IN THE EVENT ANYONE DISAPPEARS, on men's prisons in New Jersey. And the following year, 1974, a New York Arts Council grant enabled us to start filming INSIDE WOMEN INSIDE.
With all the films about men's prisons, we thought one should deal with women in prison. We didn't even know how much film cost, so we applied for a $4000 grant. Then, operating from an ultra-democratic approach, we called for a citywide meeting, where fifty women showed up to work on this film but could not agree. Everyone wanted to do the cinematography and direct, all with conflicting approaches and ideologies. From fifty the number fell to twelve, and from twelve to five. Then Sue Robeson left the organization, and I was left with the film. I believe that once a film is started, it should be finished — both for the people who worked on it and for those filmed. The film may not be perfect but it should be finished, because you cannot just take advantage of people.
When we recruited more minority women in 1974, problems arose because of a lack of class analysis and class definition in most of the women who started to work with us. They either came from a very petit bourgeois or lumpen background. The same thing applied to the women's movement in general, so the same contradictions would arise among the Newsreel women. Also I think sexism has always existed in our organization, so women have a hard time sticking through. Often in filmmaking a woman feels more comfortable working with other women. This problem was never worked out very well on the production teams. And then we began to realize we couldn't afford to train people on the job, because of the very little amount of money we got. In 1974 we received $10,000 for three films: INSIDE WOMEN INSIDE, FRESH SEEDS IN THE BIG APPLE, and SPIKES TO SPINDLES. It was ridiculously low, but we've made them all.
On INSIDE WOMEN INSIDE, women were trained on the job, yet due to this fact, high shooting ratios increased our budget. Since our distribution could not yet support the production, it became a financial drain to the organization.
However, as an organization, when the money comes in, we decide collectively how to spend it. If we get $10,000 for two films but cannot make two films for $10,000, we decide collectively which film has priority. Still, people with skills and techniques tend to dominate the discussion, especially about style and approach.
We try to make three films a year, one major film and two shorts. Or have one major film start production and maybe finish up other films that were started before, or do a compilation film or co-production. It's a difficult goal but we do it.
JUMP CUT: Did you stop training other people since you couldn't do on-production training?
Choy: A major aim is to train people on the job as much as possible. For the television film I did in Philadelphia, LOOSE PAGES BOUND, we took on three trainees. I would get very frustrated because I'd get deadlines and quality pressures very directly from the station. It's ironic. Within the traditional family, the man gets the pressure from the job and comes home and takes it out on the wife and children. Here I felt the same, being in a producer situation and responsible to the station. I would yell at other people, and often I’d be wrong or just didn't want to do it anymore. I hated myself for being in that kind of contradictory situation. Fortunately, we had a meeting every night, and were able to discuss the problems as they arose. Political filmmakers, minority filmmakers, and women filmmakers should have more work within the system so they are able to produce. It's very important for political filmmakers to be able to have some understanding about the network and get their films shown on television.
Through working with the system I've learned about myself and found I could now provide other people with information — about who to see, etc. — which makes it easier for other filmmakers to approach television. Of course, I had to go through a year and a half of battling with them before actual production started. You can get really sucked into the idea of working in television, but they don't care about quality, just a product. We artists have to find a way to combat our dependency. As the federal and state governments organize us, grants become the base for doing work, so the product comes before the politics. This recent tendency typifies the capitalist system. Art becomes a commodity, and the artist does too.
And the more money a filmmaker has, the more it dictates point of view. Last year when I worked on that film in Philadelphia for TV, which I got a lot of money for, I began to be more cautious because someone else was putting out the money. So I got more cautious about saying anything provocative.
JUMP CUT: Did you start to worry about your audience doing that film, wanting to reach more people?
Choy: Yes. Now I look at TV very differently. At first I looked at it romantically, thinking we could make a documentary for TV that could be aesthetically and politically strong, and at the same time reach a mass audience. We also thought that after we produced it for TV, Newsreel could distribute it on a community level.
It didn't work out. First, the film was designed for commercial TV, so it was cut that way. Secondly, contractual time limitations affected the projects depth and left us with a shallow analysis. Since it is so desperately important to provide an analysis as a political filmmaker, we superficially injected one that didn't quite make it. Then, we thought that since it was a semi-political film, Newsreel should distribute it. Yet because of the money Third World Newsreel had to invest in prints, negatives, and promotions, we wound up losing money and not being able to distribute the film well.
JUMP CUT: Do you think it's possible theoretically to make a really good political film for TV, knowing what you do now?
Choy: If you go in as an independent producer for TV, you get a big chunk of money, including a big salary. Regardless of quality, you have to deliver. That's how payment comes: 50% to start up, 75% on the rough cut, and 100% on delivery. What we're doing is an experiment to see if we're able to work with TV or not. We did that show for ABC and people liked it. It was about Asian Americans in the Delaware Valley — five nationalities in 42 minutes. Every seven minutes there's a commercial break, so you cut for that. You end each section with a hype to keep people tuned in. Those are the requirements. If you have that kind of mentality you can do it, but I was not ready for it.
The censorship is tremendous. I needed to say something to tie the five nationalities together, so I had a song written by a political musician saying essentially that oppressed peoples are going to rise. This was towards the end of the film. They wanted me to cut that line out. There was a struggle about that. They said straight out it was too political. And prohibiting people's curse words immediately eliminates most people's vernacular.
Overall, they accepted the film and aired it. My personal feeling is that independent producing represents an opportunity to get into network TV without working up the ladder as a secretary, etc.. Yet you're still working within the system. And I was kidding myself about that. I was very romantic and idealistic.
What happens is the project itself becomes such a secondary issue. Within the system, first of all you write a proposal, get it accepted, get a budget, go into board meetings several times all dressed up — because they want to see what a producer-director looks like (I got myself a little blazer). And people say things they don't believe — that you're great, blah-blah — and there's a lot of backstabbing from other producers. All this affects your mentality. If I go in to do some xeroxing, a secretary says, "I'll do it for you." Wait a minute, I can do my own xeroxing! They offer you superficial status while they've got you by the neck.
Although there are a lot of good people working in television, they're not organized. The network hires me because non-union help is cheaper. It costs them $60,000 for a 24-minute in-house film; I did it for $25,000. That's why they hire independent producers. A context like this makes TV workplace organizing all the more necessary.
THE POLITICS OF FUNDING AGENCIES
Choy: For five years we got pretty good funding from NEA and New York State Council on the Arts. Then there were cuts, as they funded experimental films more. The funding agencies want to support social and political films that will make a big splash. When we went to a foundation for funding for our violence against women film, the first thing they asked was "Will it be on PBS?" More and more multinational corporations are investing money in documentaries for PBS programming. Visibility on the largest scale — through PBS or the U.S. film festivals — is all that matters. How the film, the product, gets circulated, how it really affects people, becomes secondary. That's what hurts. And a lot of filmmakers gear to that approach in order to get grants.
JUMP CUT: That's clear. A non-political PBS mentality has come to represent alternative cinema. It tends to make what you're doing here, for example, less visible and have less credibility.
Choy: I agree with you. It affects us a lot and is depressing. There are not enough outlets for showing independent films. Yet, if your films get shown at the Whitney's American Film Series, there's pretty good chance that you'll get a grant next cycle from AFI.
JUMP CUT: This process creates an Establishment for alternative filmmakers, which makes it very much harder for everybody else.
Choy: Nowadays fewer political films are being made. Partially, within the logic of the economic situation, people just write grants for $50,000 to $100,000 before they touch a camera. They want fame overnight, and they shoot for PBS.
JUMP CUT: There's a real loss of immediacy when the most important part of the filmmaking process is raising the money. Yet one can't be an idealist. We have to deal with material reality.
Choy: Yes, there are things you should do just for money, like some TV shows. There are films that should be produced for $5,000, $10,000. There are films that should be produced for $50,000, and make a profit so you can make other films. But proposal writing takes time, and every foundation runs on different cycles. So you spend a whole year just writing proposals and circulating sample work. All of which perpetuates individual filmmakers' competitiveness. And people writing grant proposals become cautious about their political statements. At Newsreel our strategy is to get the distribution to sustain itself, to support our production. But it's very difficult.
Over the last year, on a financial level, in the state and federal government there's been an increasing centralization of funds. Fewer foundations and liberals are willing to invest money in film projects. There are also changes in the type of product the foundations want. Proposal writing has become a separate entity, rather than part of filmmaking itself. You really have to hire specialists to write proposals and to go to different foundations. Who do you know on a panel? What are their criteria? You basically gear the product to funders. As the country is going more and more toward the right, we feel it tremendously — both in terms of psyching out what they want and in terms of inflation.
What we used to be able to produce on a thousand dollars is not realistic anymore — even without paying a decent salary, even with equipment that you own, even with film stock you hustle to places other than Kodak, or with erasing old mag tape. It still costs $10,000 to $15,000 to produce 30 minutes of film. That's about two to three times what it used to be, but in line with the rate of inflation. It's very interesting to see the comparison between the film industry and the overall rate of inflation.
At the same time social films are becoming more legitimate, which means the institutionalization of women's issues, the institutionalization of racism, and the institutionalization of social change issues.
JUMP CUT: Which gives arts administrators a whole new field to start administering — cleaning films up, making them slick, and professional.
Choy: I think that has affected our whole organization. In terms of content we still manage to produce a certain level of politically oriented films. But in order to have marketability, in order to have sales, we have to be tremendously technically sophisticated. Also we have to gear into the demands of the TV market and to edit in a certain way to fit the market.
In our recent work, our style has changed. The cinematography is better, and we have a better sense of post-production work. Old Newsreel film used to be called workprint: you shoot it, cut it, and show it — basically as a workprint. Now, some of our films have ten tracks of sound. Much slicker work. But it works both ways. Most American audiences are conditioned to see slick films; sloppy films do bother them. Both aspects have their own values. The films that have the immediacy, the roughness, have a different type of emotional impact, and a different type of consciousness.
Films like INSIDE WOMEN INSIDE hit you very hard, However, films that are slicker are too comfortable to watch and content becomes secondary. The visual element is so pretty that the prettiness tends to dilute what we're really trying to say. Also from the filmmaker's viewpoint, if we have film that's really well shot and we edit it, we are more reluctant to throw any of it away.
JUMP CUT: Do you think that the establishment of the Film Fund is going to change the politics of funding political cinema?
Choy: I don't know. They are supposed to do alternative-type of funding. But politics, culture and economy all have to be integrated. When I look at these foundations, I first look at the structure. My problem with the Film Fund's structure is that while they put progressive people on the board of directors, there's no mechanism for selecting the next board because there are no membership groups. The corporation's ownership still lies in two or three people's hands. Where can struggle take place? When I have made suggestions to them, they say, "Write a letter to the board of directors." But there is no room for the filmmakers and the board of directors to confront each other face-to-face. It doesn't need to be antagonistic, but it could be helpful to both sides.
Also, Film Fund is built around a revolving fund, meaning that after the filmmaker makes back the grant amount of $10,000, the $10,000 should go back to the Film Fund. That's great. But when it goes back, who decides how that money is going to be used? Not the people who actually made the money back by putting their thought and energy into the film. For instance, one year the Film Fund criterion may be to fund a film on black history. Black history gets $10,000 back and it goes back to Film Fund. Then, if Film Fund decides that population control is the priority, the people who worked on the black history film do not have a voice, nor a mechanism for any kind of struggle to take place.
JUMP CUT: So each filmmaker faces the Film Fund as an individual?
Choy: Right, they want to deal only with individuals. In effect, they are disorganizing those who have already organized. When they've told me, “Well, we only want to deal with individual producers," I found this no different from the way television stations treated us. And I could struggle with television stations on this issue in a way that I could not with the Film Fund (1978). Personally, I think they have played a divisive role within the film community and in particular within Newsreel. They should respect organizations' needs, too.
The Film Fund's rationale is that an individual's success contributes to their ability to raise money. We have the same problem. But by making that their only priority, and not respecting organizations' needs, the Film Fund can become very mechanistic.
JUMP CUT: What is the present structure of Newsreel?
Choy: We decided we had to have a division of labor to function: distribution, production, and theater. In production, we train in techniques and filmmaking theory. A small core of staff members works day-to-day and makes a commitment to Newsreel. We used to demand of Newsreel members a lifetime commitment, so many people left, instead of working with people on the basis of whatever they could contribute. Now we have a larger body considered part of the Newsreel network, who work only on specific projects and share in the organization's benefits.
Originally, maybe ten or twenty people would produce a Newsreel film, but nobody got a credit. This eliminated a hierarchical system between producer, director, and editor. But ten years later people felt resentful about the lack of credits.
JUMP CUT: But that's something created by material conditions. We all have to go get jobs.
Choy: And you have to have track records.
JUMP CUT: At that time, we didn't think we'd have to go out and operate in those same old ways.
Choy: We thought that would change. Resentment developed against the organization, and because a lot of people here are new, it's hard to remember who worked on what films. Our solution is that whoever has been part of Newsreel can get prints at lab cost and splice in their own credits. Now, as you say, ten years later in the film world, it's the individual that counts — the name, the track record, the whole star-building syndrome.
JUMP CUT: If you want to make films and you want to be able to finance them and have some credibility, you can't struggle on every front, so you put individual credits on the films. Now, ten years later, we understand the work it takes to keep going, making films that people will understand, finding a style that people will be receptive to. But Newsreel has survived.
Choy: Well, that's the miracle. There've been many transitions, so many new people. Sometimes all the checks bounced, and the IRS pressured us. We survived, I think, because we have political unity. People here still believe in making films independently from the system. They still have idealism, which keeps the organization moving. Second, Newsreel does provide an opportunity for people who really want to make films, because its organizational structure can offer more stability than independent individual filmmakers often have.
JUMP CUT: Last year you were teaching a film skills class to community people. Are you still?
Choy: Yes, but we've been changing our strategy. What do you teach people for? Originally we wanted to raise people's political consciousness in looking at films, and we considered politics more important than actual filmmaking. Therefore we used textbooks by John Howard Lawson or Herbert Schiller's The Mind Managers to look at the overall scope of the film industry and media in general. But the individual comes here wanting to learn camera, editing, directing — period. This runs counter to our internal organizational understanding. At first we held big beginners classes. Then we went to intermediate. Now in Spring 1981, we're using more project-oriented classes divided into groups, five in each, which would actually produce a film from beginning to end.
JUMP CUT: You want to be a stable organization that a lot of people can connect to and put their energy into. But you can't always do that. It's not realistic financially, or for the needs of the organization. You wind up being a social service agency — a political social service agency.
Choy: The only way an organization works is through the individuals themselves within the organization, who must have some kind of understanding of their needs from the organization. Everybody felt they were serving the organization, but what they were getting out of the organization was never even questioned. That became a large contradiction. We've talked about possible solutions to the lack of money.
Take myself, for instance, I have skills and can go out and get a job. Is that the way to solve the problem? Getting a job to support yourself. Then the organization doesn't have to pay anybody's salary. Another way is to bring jobs into the organization. That's what we've been doing recently. Before we were saying, “You go out and get a part-time job to make money.” But that alienated people much more. We've gotten CETA jobs here, so we did not have to rely on grants. We still write proposals, but it's not a primary thing.