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By Admin | November 5, 2009

(The following is an excerpt from the new book The History of Independent by Film Threat contributing editor Phil Hall, published by BearManor Media. This excerpt picks up from last week’s article on the genesis of U.S. non-fiction filmmaking.)

As the Great Depression reshaped America, audiences were less than enchanted with documentaries that offered tantalizing glimpses of far-away lands. Problems at home demanded attention, and a new wave of documentary filmmakers fixed their cameras on American socio-economic issues.

Part of the new impetus for U.S. documentary production came from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration. Roosevelt and his advisers were clearly aware of the impact that film had on shaping perceptions and opinions – the Soviet Union successfully defended its existence through the groundbreaking cinema of Sergei Eisenstein and his peers, while the Nazi regime in Germany was using film to propagandize the rise of the Third Reich.

For Roosevelt, however, the controversial nature of his New Deal policies required persuasive selling to both a public impatient for an end to the Great Depression and to a Washington establishment that viewed the president’s policies as borderline socialism. This cinematic effort got off to a thunderous start with Pare Lorentz’s 1936 “The Plow That Broke the Plains,” a documentary short on the Dust Bowl conditions that plagued the American farmers and the efforts of the U.S. government to correct the situation. Other films followed: “The River” (1937), “The Fight for Life” (1939), “The Power and the Land” (1940) and Robert Flaherty’s “The Land” (1941) were all produced under the aegis of the U.S. government, which operated a department called the U.S. Film Service from 1938 to 1940. In the 1940s, the U.S. government expanded its filmmaking capacity by churning out documentaries highlighting the roots of the American war effort and the challenges facing the military in the European and Asian battlegrounds.

On the periphery of this, however, was a small but tenacious group that sought to create its own politically-tinged documentaries. Created in 1931 as the New York Film and Photo League, it morphed into Frontier Films in 1937. Its short documentaries touched on both U.S. crises – “People of the Cumberland” (1937) – and foreign conflicts – the Asian-based “China Strikes Back” (1937) and the Spanish-based “Return to Life” (1938). Frontier Films’ most ambitious film was its 1942 feature “Native Land,” which looked within the U.S. to promote its message of corporations engaged in anti-union tactics during the 1930s, and much of its content was from testimony delivered before the Senate Civil Liberties Committee in 1938. The film, directed by Leo Hurwitz and Paul Strand, provided a mix of archival news footage and staged re-enactments (featuring unknown actors including Howard Da Silva and Robert Strauss) that indicted goons on the corporate payroll, corrupt law enforcement and even the Ku Klux Klan as wrecking the American right to organized labor. Paul Robeson provided the narration to the film and performed a song written by Marc Blitzstein, who also wrote the film’s music score.

Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called the film “one of the most powerful and disturbing documentary films ever made, and certainly it will provoke much thought and controversy.” Well, he was half-right: the film provoked a lot of controversy, as it hit theaters after Pearl Harbor. At a time when the nation was trying to come together as a united front, the harsh criticism of “Native Land” (while well-intended) seemed terribly out of step with the rapidly shifting times. The film barely played in theaters during its initial run, and the postwar years found it impossible to arrange for any screenings when the reign of the McCarthyist Red Scare put many of the people associated with its creation on the Hollywood Blacklist.

Then there was the case of Rey Scott, a St. Louis native who covered China for London’s Daily Telegraph. Scott sought to alert Americans to the dangerous situation facing the Chinese people who were attempting to repel Japanese aggression. Although he had no experience as a filmmaker, Scott took it upon himself to create a documentary to highlight the Chinese struggle.

The problem, however, as that most Americans had a negative (if no downright hostile) view of Asia in general and China in particular. Scott needed to create a film that would win the hearts and minds of Americans over to the Chinese side.

In 1940, Scott arrived in Hong Kong with a 16mm camera and rolls of Technicolor film. Working as his own cinematographer, he set out on a journey through war-torn China. He stopped in Chongqing, the wartime capital (Beijing was under Japanese occupation), then he took the Burma Road to Lanzhou. From there, he went further East to Tibet, and then he circled back to Chongqing. As luck would have it, Scott was in Chongqing during the August 19-20, 1940 aerial attack by Japanese bombers. An estimated 200 tons of explosives were dropped on the defenseless city. Scott, standing on the roof of the U.S. Embassy, captured the footage in color.

Scott returned to the U.S. and pieced together his footage into “Kukan.” Remarkably, he was able to get the film into theaters – no mean feat for a film of rather limited commercial viability by an unknown and untrained filmmaker. Carrying the subtitle “The Battle Cry of China” and narrated by Scott, the film offered an extraordinarily progressive view of the Chinese culture. Actually, make that Chinese “cultures,” as Scott went to great lengths to explain how China was not a vast homogenous land, but was a multi-ethnic and multi-religious melting pot. In the film, he included segments relating to the Miao people from the mountains of Guizhou, the Islamic faithful of Lanzhou, Tibet’s Buddist lamas, the nomadic tribes that roamed the Gobi Desert, and the people of Han and Manchu heritage. This was the first U.S. to clearly identify these distinctive populations.

But what moved most viewers was the film’s final 20 minutes, when Chongqing was blasted into smithereens. Bosley Crowther, in his review for the New York Times, called the sequence one of the most awesome bits of motion picture yet seen in this day of frightful news events.” Cognizant of the attention being given to the wartime bombings across the Atlantic, Crowther looked to “Kukan” and added that “this wanton violence appears even more horrible than the scenes we have witnessed of London’s destruction.”

Time Magazine’s review, which did not carry a critic’s byline, was even more succinct, praising the footage as offering “the most awesome bombing sequence yet filmed of World War II.”

“Kukan” received a great deal of attention. Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was interested, and Scott arranged at a private White House screening. Hollywood paid attention, too, and Scott received an Honorary Academy Award for “Kukan.” Although Scott received a certificate rather than the official Oscar statuette, his efforts were duly noted with glowing praise: “For his extraordinary achievement in producing ‘Kukan,’ the film record of China’s struggle, including its photography with a 16mm camera under the most difficult and dangerous conditions.” Kukan was one of two non-fiction features from the distant wartime fronts that the Academy honored – the other was the British Ministry of Information’s “Target for Tonight.”

One would like to think that Scott and “Kukan” would be more celebrated today. Alas, the filmmaker and his production barely rate footnote status in today’s film history. Scott never made another film – his only other known cinematic endeavor was working as an uncredited camera operator on the 1943 documentary “Report from the Aleutians.” As for “Kukan,” no print of the film is known to exist. The Oscar-honored film that rallied the American people to the Chinese cause has slipped away and is considered to be lost.

Independent documentary production virtually halted during World War II. In the postwar world, the focus of non-fiction films took a decidedly animalistic shift. Documentary filmmakers discovered the possibilities of aiming their cameras at nature. The person responsible for this was Walt Disney, of all people, and the result of his efforts had a profound effect on film distribution.

In 1948, Disney produced a two-reel documentary called “Seal Island” as part of a new series he envisioned called “True-Life Adventures.” At this time, Disney’s films were being released by RKO, but the studio balked at putting this title into theaters. The problem, according to the studio, was the film’s lack of perceived commercial viability – who wanted to see a movie about a bunch of Alaskan seals? This marked the first time the studio refused to release a Disney title.

Disney then four-walled a theater in Pasadena for “Seal Island” to have a one-week run that would qualify it for the Academy Award. The film was well-received and the strategy paid off with Disney snagging the Oscar for Best Two-Reel Short Subject. RKO reluctantly agreed that Disney was right and gave the film a wide theatrical release.

Buoyed by the success of “Seal Island,” Disney sought to create a feature length documentary focusing on wildlife. Three years in the making, the 1953 production “The Living Desert” offered a unique glimpse at the flora and fauna of the American Southwest, with particular attention paid to the battles between various animals – hawk and rattlesnake, kangaroo rat and sidewinder, wasp and tarantula.

Incredibly, RKO balked again at releasing “The Living Desert.” This was very strange, considering the studio successfully released another feature length nature documentary, Irwin Allen’s adaptation of Rachel Carson’s marine biology classic “The Sea Around Us,” and that film won the Oscar.

Fed up with his dealings with the studio, Disney took the uncommon step of creating his own distribution company, Buena Vista Releasing. This marked the first time that an independent producer was also his own distributor. “The Living Desert” created a sensation with audiences and won the Best Documentary Oscar. Due to the success of “The Living Desert,” Disney ascended from independent producer to full-blown studio mogul.

The True-Life Adventures have provoked great controversy over the years. Many film critics and zoologists complained that Disney trivialized its presentation of nature through selective editing, inappropriate sound effects and artificially staged sequences. The most egregious example here involved the 1958 documentary “White Wilderness,” which presented the notion that lemmings were suicidal. Nothing was further from the truth, but in making the film the Disney camera crew purchased captive lemmings in Manitoba and brought them to Alberta, where the poor animals were herded in a “migration” sequence that has no equivalent in reality (lemmings don’t live in Alberta and they don’t migrate in herds). The suicidal plunge by the lemmings was actually created by the camera crew forcing the captive animals to the edge of a cliff – their deaths were not an act of free will, by any definition. The film also won an Oscar and gave rise to the continued misperception of a lemming as being an emotionally unstable animal.

But in fairness, the True-Life Adventures introduced a generation of moviegoers to an appreciation of wildlife – many of today’s nature documentary creators were clearly inspired by these films. Unlike documentaries from earlier decades that viewed wildlife strictly as strange and savage, Disney tried to present its subject in a manner that would appeal to basic human emotions. The films detailed the animals’ struggle for survival in hostile environments, the deep maternal bonds between mother and children in the animal kingdom, and the indefatigable spirit that ensured nature’s resiliency despite the unpredictable forces of nature or man-made intrusions.

And Disney can claim some credit for planting the seeds of ecological awareness in the national mindframe: the 1954 documentary “The Vanishing Prairie” (also an Oscar winner) was prescient in addressing issues of environmental protection during an age of obnoxious over-consumption.

Furthermore, the Disney True-Life Adventures were beautifully filmed. Technicolor documentaries were not common during this time, and seeing nature in its fullest vibrancy was a wonder for 1950s-era moviegoers. In many ways, the films are at a disadvantage when seen on the small screen, since they were clearly meant to be viewed and appreciated on the big screen.

Disney was clearly the leader in cinematic nature documentaries, but by the 1960s his studio’s focus was shifting elsewhere and the True-Life Adventures series was retired. However, the films continued to be shown Disney’s TV shows in the 1960s and 1970s, and have since been presented on DVD.

In Disney’s absence, few American producers were willing to invest in theatrical releases celebrating wildlife. But the big screen’s loss was the small screen’s gain, as television producers took up the challenge. While most made-for-television nature documentaries run considerably shorter than the average theatrical feature, their appeal has never diminished and they have staple of TV viewing for decades. More recently, the genre made a comeback of sorts via the theatrical release of the 2005 French-made “March of the Penguins” and Al Gore’s 2006 global warming treatise “An Inconvenient Truth” – back-to-back Oscar winners and box office hits.

But beyond the Disney nature documentaries, the cause of non-fiction filmmaking suffered a setback in the years following World War II. The pre-war travelogue documentaries seemed badly dated to post-war audiences. And few filmmakers (either in Hollywood or within the independent filmmaking world) saw the commercial viability in documenting real life.

During the post-war period, the concept of the filmmaking took a radically different approach following the import of Italian films such as “Open City” (1945), “Paisan” (1946) and “Shoeshine” (1947). Falling into a new category that was dubbed “neorealism,” these films had a gritty and earthy tone that was radically different from the polished product coming from Hollywood. The Italian films were shot on the streets and often featured non-professional actors who were cast in rough, raw dramatic stories that emphasized the harsh side of the human condition.

Of course, the neorealist films were not documentaries. They were carefully scripted and meticulously directed by artists who were breaking new style ground. But to many independent filmmakers in the U.S., the neorealist approach suggested documentary productions. In the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, many narrative feature films were created and promoted under the banner of being documentaries.

Ironically, the films were, on the whole, quite good. They explored racial, social and economic subject matter that the Hollywood system was uncomfortable in pursuing. Even by contemporary standards, they still present the viewer with a jolt from their unapologetic and non-sentimental approach. But, nonetheless, they are not documentaries.

The first of these genre-blurring efforts was Robert Flaherty’s “Louisiana Story” (1948). The film was sponsored by Standard Oil as a vehicle for promoting the concept of drilling in the Louisiana bayou (to its credit, the company did not insist on being identified in the film). Flaherty, who was no stranger to staging scenes for his earlier work, created a genuine work of fiction with “Louisiana Story” – non-professional actors were cast in an invented story that was shot on location across the bayou. Incredibly, the film was successfully marketed as a documentary. Even today, many film scholars mistake “Louisiana Story” for non-fiction filmmaking.

“The Quiet One” (1949), directed by Sidney Meyers, followed the same path. The story of an emotionally unstable, maladjusted boy, the film was shot on location in New York’s Harlem neighborhood. In many ways, “The Quiet One” outdid the Italian imports for driving home the power of neorealist filmmaking. Even the Academy Award voters were impressed – “The Quiet One” received an Oscar nomination as Best Documentary, even though it was a work of fiction.

The commercial and critical success earned by “The Quiet One” help bring more socially relevant quasi-documentaries to the screen. Jack Arnold’s “With These Hands” (1951) recreated the tragic 1915 fire at New York’s Triangle Shirt Factory with a cast that included Sam Levene, Joseph Wiseman and Arlene Francis. The film received a Best Documentary Oscar nomination. Norman Foster’s “Navajo” (1952) focused on an American Indian boy who flees into the Arizona wilderness after an unsuccessful attempt to take him off the reservation and into a predominantly white school. That film also received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary.

Lionel Rogosin’s “On the Bowery” (1956) used the residents of New York’s skid row district to play themselves in an examination of destitute men who lived on the streets. Not only did that film get an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, but one of the destitute men in the production, Ray Sayler, was offered a Hollywood contract (he declined it, preferring to be left alone in his alcohol-fueled poverty).

Not every acclaimed docudrama was pegged by the Academy voters. Fred Pressburger’s “Crowded Paradise” (1956) used a mix of professional players (Hume Cronyn and Nancy Kelly) and non-professionals to tell its story of the prejudice and struggle facing Puerto Rican residents of New York City. Rogosin’s “Come Back, Africa” (1959), which detailed the rigid cruelty of apartheid, was shot secretly when it was obvious the Pretoria government would not allow an independent American filmmaker to create a film about that nation’s racist policies. But not only did Rogosin use non-professionals actors in scripted scenes to get his story across, but he also created a club scene that allowed him to bring in the popular South African singer Miriam Makeba to perform two songs in the middle of the film. (The popularity of the film helped launch Makeba’s career outside of her country.)

“The Savage Eye” (1959), with three directors (Ben Maddow, Joseph Meyers, Sidney Strick), took an acidic view of a divorced woman’s trajectory. Kent Mackenzie recruited American Indians living in Los Angeles to dramatize their life stories for “The Exiles” (1961).

Curiously, the Hollywood studios chose not to emulate this independent film trends. Outside of Warner Bros.’s red-baiting “I Was a Communist for the FBI” (1951 – which also received an Oscar nomination as Best Documentary), the studios saw no need to create docudramas – or genuine documentaries, for that matter.

Nonetheless, a few genuine non-fiction films managed to get produced during this period. “Helen Keller in Her Story” (1955) provided a moving and inspiring celebration of its eponymous icon’s life and accomplishments. Elwood Price’s “Mau Mau” (1955) attempted to document the violent uprising in British colonial Kenya – however, the original concept of the film was hijacked by the insertion of patently fake exploitation sequences shot in a Los Angeles studio.

If genuine non-fiction filmmaking was somewhat spotty in the U.S. during the postwar years, it flourished in Europe. Ironically, many wonderful documentaries were imported to the U.S. and released theatrically – albeit with new English-language narrative soundtracks. Some of these offerings won the Academy Award for Best Documentary: “Kon-Tiki” (1951, released by RKO), the Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Louis Malle collaboration “The Silent World” (1956), “Albert Schweitzer” (1957), “Serengeti Shall Not Die” (1959), “The Sky Above, The Mud Below” (1961) and another Cousteau-lensed non-fiction feature called “World Without Sun” (1964). These films were prestige productions that enjoyed supportive reviews and did a nice bit of business in art house release.

But one imported documentary literally rewrote the rules of documentary distribution: the 1962 Italian production “Mondo Cane.” For starters, the film broke a significant taboo by keeping its original non-English title for U.S. release (perhaps “A Dog’s World” wasn’t considered commercial enough?). It then went further by ignoring the concept of documentaries as a tool for educational advancement. “Mondo Cane” was pure no-holds-barred exploitation that juxtaposed the wildest excesses of the so-called civilized and primitive cultures of the world. In Europe, the film was nominated for the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival. In the U.S., a small art house distributor called Times Film Corp. dubbed “Mondo Cane” into English and put it into mainstream release.

Thanks largely to aggressive marketing that played up the shock values of its contents and the good fortune of having the lovely ballad “More” as its theme music (that snagged an Oscar nomination for Best Song), “Mondo Cane” was a phenomenal box office success. A sequel was quickly cranked out, but that offering found itself competing for screen space with a new flurry of so-called “mondo” movies (today called “shockumentaries”) coming out of Europe and the U.S. In retrospect, none of these films were particularly jolting and all of them seem terribly tame by contemporary standards. Nonetheless, the promise of non-fiction filmmaking that rivaled Hollywood for audacity and imagination recast the genre into a very different perspective.

This approach to documentary filmmaking petered out by the late 1960s, degenerating into silliness along the lines of “The Wild, Wild World of Jayne Mansfield” (a hodgepodge of film clips and irrelevant sequences linked by a breathy narration by an actress pretending to be the late starlet). In the early 1970s, however, it all began anew when enterprising distributors began to heavily advertise their supposedly non-fiction films on television. These documentaries tapped into that decade’s growing obsession with subjects of cryptozoology, extra-terrestrials and conspiracy theories. The result was a wild skein of bizarre and outrageous documentaries that pushed the genre to a new limit.

The fun ramped up 1974 when a small distribution company picked up the rights to a 1970 German documentary that was nominated for the Oscar but was not previously available in the U.S. market. The film offered a strange theory that ancient civilizations were visited by aliens from outer space, and that these visitors from another galaxy gave man the knowledge and tools needed to become an advanced species. Sun International dubbed the film into English and changed the original title from “Memories of the Future” into “Chariots of the Gods?”; the original book that inspired the film, created by a hitherto-obscure Swiss writer named Erich von Däniken, was issued in the U.S. in conjunction with the film’s release. Overkill television advertising pushed the message endlessly, but it paid off – “Chariots of the Gods?” was a major box office hit.

Inspired by this happening, a Utah-based operation called Sunn Classics came into being with the mission of creating theatrical documentary releases that questioned a variety of unusual issues. Sunn Classics didn’t necessarily offer the best documentaries, but their films were certainly the noisiest: “The Outer Space Connection” (1975), “The Mysterious Monsters” (1976), “In Search of Noah’s Ark” (1976), “The Amazing World of Psychic Phenomena” (1976), “The Lincoln Conspiracy” (1977), “Beyond and Back” (1978), “Encounter with Disaster” (1979), “The Bermuda Triangle” (1979), “In Search of Historic Jesus” (1979) and “Beyond Death’s Door” (1979).

The Sunn Classic offers were variations on a similar theme: the daring attempt to reveal long-hidden secrets that disrupted some sort of status quo. Cheesy dramatizations to bolster the non-fiction elements were par for the course. The most memorable examples included “The Lincoln Conspiracy” – which insisted John Wilkes Booth escaped capture and that a man with a similar appearance was actually killed and presented as the president’s murderer – and “In Search of Historic Jesus” (where the mystery of the Shroud of Turin is wrapped around a low-rent Passion Play starring a hirsute John Rubinstein as Jesus.

Sunn Classics’s reign came to an end in 1980 when it jettisoned the non-fiction format in favor of a straight narrative feature film called “Hangar 18.” The film was meant to unmask the secrecy surrounding the U.S. military base that supposedly had direct communications with other worlds. But the film was a flop and the company switched its focus to television production.

Oddly, Sunn Classics did not pick up the rights to what may have been the most entertaining offering of this decade’s speculative documentary genre: the 1979 production “The Late, Great Planet Earth.” Featuring no less a figure than Orson Welles as its on-screen narrator, the film tapped into a hodgepodge of alleged Biblical predictions that foretold the upcoming annihilation of the world. The film insisted the Cold War arms race was the starting block for apocalyptic doom, while the anti-Christ may have been either Henry Kissinger or Jimmy Carter. There was also the warning of the so-called harmonic convergence in 1982, when all of the planets lined up in a row – that was going to spell the end of the Earth.

American Cinema Releasing, an indie distributor that specialized in low-budget action flicks, grabbed this title and enjoyed significant box office returns. But if one looks at it today, it is hard not to realize that the film was a bit off in regard to its accuracy. Even worse, today’s filmmaking styles makes the doom-and-gloom of “The Late, Great Planet Earth” painfully antiquated. Chuck Dowling, reviewing the film’s DVD debut in 1999 for the Jacksonville Film Journal, noted the less-than-thrilling denouement to this production: “There’s ten minutes of stock footage at the end of the film meant to give us an idea of what the Battle for Armageddon might be like. If it’s anything like it’s depicted as here, then it’s going to be incredibly boring.”

The shockumentary took on a new life in the early 1980s with “Faces of Death,” a crude hodgepodge of footage depicting gruesome and violent ways for life to be snuffed out. Made in 1978, the film quietly began to circulate theatrically in 1981. Despite oft-repeated reports that much of the footage was blatantly faked, the film proved popular in theatrical release and became a cult favorite on home video. Needless to say, in a repeat of what transpired with “Mondo Cane,” sequels and ripoffs followed.

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