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To Tell the Truth: Working for Change

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'If you have a camera in your hand, that camera is to be used to make clear the truth.' -- Leo Hurwitz

Working for Change explores the birth of the social documentary, featuring interviews with several of the people who helped define and shape the form.

While newsreels carried novelty and feel-good stories, left-leaning filmmakers such as Leo Hurwitz and Leo Seltzer founded the Workers Film and Photo League - an organization devoted to sounding the alarm on economic conditions, and to show Americans what life was really like for both urban and rural poor. Police night-stick blows often added shakiness to their footage as they captured evictions, breadlines, and mass protests - and, on at least one occasion, were arrested themselves. While their films did not get regular distribution, the WFPL team were tireless in booking churches, halls and any other venues they could find to hold screenings - and were known to travel with a projector hooked up to a car battery.

The mood changed after Roosevelt's election and the advent of the New Deal. The administration agreed to fund Pare Lorentz's classic The Plow That Broke the Plains, about the dust bowl. But Lorentz was no filmmaker, and he called on the Film and Photo League veterans to craft the film. His crew - Hurwitz, Paul Strand and Ralph Steiner - rebelled against Lorentz. They wanted a critique of capitalism, while he was more interested in stunning visuals and music. Still, the film was a box office hit, and led to Lorentz's follow-up, The River, which highlighted problems of flooding and erosion.

Some in the US Congress were upset about government-funded documentaries, and the practice soon died out.

That wasn't the case in the UK, where Scottish pioneer John Grierson (who coined the word documentary) produced enduring and original portraits of the working class. Films such as Housing Problems, Night Mail, and Coal Face, demonstrated the importance of working people in maintaining the well-oiled, highly-functional social machine of British society. For audiences in the UK, these early documentaries showed working and poor people as human beings for the first time - and not just as comedic relief.

Despite the lack of support from the US government, Hurwitz, Seltzer and others stayed in the documentary game, forming the country's first non-profit production house. Unfortunately the release of their opus Native Land, which investigated abuse during the labor struggles of the 1930s, coincided with the attack on Pearl Harbor - after which the country focused on the war, rather than on the struggles of the recent past.

Featuring interviews with several members of the first wave of documentary filmmaking, as well as contributions from historians and critics, and a wealth of footage from the early social documentaries, Working for Change is essential viewing for anyone interested in film history, and the power of media as a voice for truth-telling.

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