Feb 19, 2018

Filmmaker Mila Turajlic with Yugoslav films from the Non-Aligned Movement

Filmmaker (and scholar) Mila Turajlic is on a roll. Her 2017 documentary, The Other Side of Everything, has been garnering wide praise since its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival and acclaim as Best Feature-Length Documentary at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam. (Or as Variety, which always boils the takeaway down to telegraphic declarations, put it: "Serbian Doc Wins Big at IDFA.") Meanwhile Turajlic is making another documentary about the career of Stevan Labudovic, succinctly identified as "Tito's cameraman." Labudovic, who died in November 2017, accompanied the president of Yugoslavia on his world tours after Tito co-led the establishment of the international Non-Aligned Movement in 1956. Turajlic befriended the veteran filmmaker and worked with him on the forthcoming project for several years.

On April 13, the 2018 Orphan Film Symposium in New York gets the privilege of having Mila Turajlic share a large sampling of archival newsfilm and documentaries made by Labudović and others in the Non-Aligned Movement in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Little of this footage has been circulated in the last half century. Her presentation of a small sampling of it at the Cinémathèque française "Orphelins de Paris" portion of last year's Toute la mémoire du monde International Festival of Film Restoration, prompted calls for more. Turajlic's Orphan Film Symposium screening (8pm, Museum of the Moving Image, Friday, April 13, 2018) will provide a more in-depth look at films shot by Labudović and others. 

A sample of the titles, dates, and points of origin indicates what an intriguing program it will be: Ho Chi Minh: A Friend Has Arrived (1957);  Djazairouna: Our Algeria (1960) made for screening at the General Assembly of the United Nations; Venceremos: We Will Win (1968), the first documentary about Mozambique’s fight against colonial rule; and Blood and Tears (1971), on the Palestine liberation movement.

Based in both her hometown of Belgrade and Paris, Mila Turajlic studied political science at the London School of Economics, filmmaking at the French state film school La Fémis, and cinema studies at the University of Westminster, from which she received a PhD. Her breakthrough film was Cinema Komunisto (2010), documenting the history of Yugoslavia's film industry. (Her own website is www.dissimila.rs.)

Here's the filmmaker/scholar's description of what we will see at "Orphans 11" and why it matters.

Films by the cameramen of the Yugoslav newsreels for the liberation movements of Algeria, Angola, and Mozambique remain an unwritten chapter in the story of Yugoslavia’s role in the non-aligned world. Sent on missions by President Tito, and supported by Yugoslav embassies and news correspondents in Africa and Asia, the cameramen established close relationships with anticolonial movement leaders. The state archives of the former Yugoslavia reveal how cinema played a central role in diplomacy, but also its value in the information battle playing out in the United Nations and the court of world opinion.
As a result of this period of transnational solidarity, the Non-Aligned collection of the Yugoslav Newsreels is an unexplored trove of documentation of Algeria's National Liberation Front (FLN), Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO), and the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). It also holds newsreels made for newly independent countries including Mali, Chad, and Guinea Bissau, as support for the establishment of national film centers.

Stevan Labudović’s life and films offer a window into the political and diplomatic role played by cinema in this period of decolonialisation. As Tito’s cameraman, he followed the president on a series of historic voyages in the mid-1950s. Travelling as far afield as India, Indonesia, Burma, Ceylon, Ethiopia, Sudan, Ghana, Togo, and Mali, Labudović made films documenting these newly-liberated countries. As the Non-Aligned Movement was forged, its support for countries fighting against colonialism became more vocal. In 1959 Tito sent Labudović to film the FLN and to counter official French propaganda about ‘events’ taking place in Algeria. For three years Labudović shot more than 50 hours (18 kilometers) of film, becoming the cinematic eye of the Algerian war. His diaries reveal how strategically crafted his films were.

Seel also 
* Mila Turajlić, “Re-aligning Yugoslavia: The Construction of Alterity in the Yugoslav Newsreels,” On_Culture 4 (2017):<www.on-culture.org/journal/issue-4/turajilic-re-aligning-yugoslavia>.
* Interview with Mila Turajlic, director of the winning film The Other Side of Everything, IDFA website, Nov. 26, 2017. 

Turajlic's trailer for her doc-in-progress begins with Leonard Cohen's 1969 recording "The Partisan," his version of a 1943 song (“La complainte du partisan") of the French resistance to Nazi occupation. Tito came to prominence as leader of the anti-Nazi Yugoslav Partisans during World War II. Labudović too led the life of a partisan, becoming a national hero in Algeria. His death in 2017 was covered on Algerian television -- with this prelude assembled by Mila Turajlic. 

The theme of the symposium is "Love" -- in all its forms, including love of country, patriotism, and political passions. 

Registration for the Orphan Film Symposium, April 11-13, is open to all. (Tickets for the April 13 screening at 8pm can be purchased without symposium registration.)  Visit www.nyu.edu/orphanfilm or write to orphanfilmsymposium [@] Gmail.com.  

The 11th Orphan Film Symposium is also the culminating event in the 50th anniversary celebration of the NYU Tisch School of the Arts Department of Cinema Studies.

Feb 12, 2018

Hotels near Museum of the Moving Image

For the 11th Orphan Film Symposium, April 11-14, 2018, all events are at Museum of the Moving Image: 36-01 35th Avenue, Astoria, Queens, NYC. Wednesday, April 11, the opening screening is at 8:00 pm, with a reception in the lobby at 7:00 pm. The final screening is at 8:00 pm Saturday, after a dinner reception. 

Local transportation, directions, and logistics are well described at the Museum of the Moving Image website. Closest subway stations are the R/M at Steinway Street and N/W at Broadway.

Looking for accommodations?  

Hotels near Museum of the Moving Image (MoMI)

MoMI is in the historic Astoria neighborhood in Queens NYC. These hotels are within walking distance, in the neighborhood called Long Island City. Discounted rates available at two hotels during the Orphan Film Symposium.

* Holiday Inn Manhattan View
39-05 29th Street, Long Island City, Queens, NYC
0.9 mile from MoMI
Directions: Online
Phone 718-707-3700. Special rate code: OFS.
Book online here using code: OFS. Book by Feb. 24 for discounted rate.

* Aloft Long Island City - Manhattan View
27-45 Jackson Avenue , Long Island City, Queens, NYC
1.1 miles from MoMI
Directions: Online.
Phone 718-433-9305. Discount code: OFS.
Book online here. Group rate available until March 10, 2018. 

* Paper Factory Hotel is nearest MoMI.
37-06 36th Street, Long Island City, Queens, NYC
.4 mile from MoMI.
Directions: Walking map.
Phone: 718-392-7200 (No discount code.)
Book online here.

The borough of Queens being largely residential, affordable rooms, apartments, and houses near the museum are also findable via AirBnB and other services. 

Jan 10, 2018

Preliminary Program for the 11th Orphan Film Symposium

Here's part of the lineup for the 11th Orphan Film Symposium, April 11-14, 2018. It's about LOVE. A few more presenters and films will be added soon.

Registration is open!  And open to all.
Join us at Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, NYC.  Click here to register.


Frontispiece:  Fox Movietone News outtakes [Dr. Fritz] Wittels on This Thing Called Love (1929) from U of South Carolina Moving Image Research Collections

Carolina Cappa (Museo del Cine de Buenos Aires) Films from La Pampa, Argentina: Domingo Filippini’s 
Galería Cinematográfica Infantil  (1927)  

Keynote  Jennifer Peterson (Woodbury U) Love, Loss, and Climate Change: Watching the Historical Nature Film Today (with newly scanned 16mm films from the David Shepard Collection, Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive, University of Southern California)

Roni Grosz Albert Einstein Archive, Hebrew U) & Becca Bender (Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts / NYU MIAP) Elsa and Albert Einstein in Hollywood (1931) and the Leopold Godowsky Jr. Collection
Karen Falk (The Jim Henson Company) & Craig Shemin (The Jim Henson Legacy) The Early Films of Jim Henson

An Amateur League of Nations, A Database 
Charles Tepperman (University of Calgary) Příběh vojáka (A Soldier’s Story; Čeněk Zahradníček & Vladimír Šmejkal, 1934) and the 1938 International Amateur Movie Show
Alexander Stark (Philipps University, Marburg) “Help us help!”: German Postwar Charity Films by Elisabeth Wilms. Schaffende in Not (Working People in Trouble, 1948)
Eva Näripea (National Archives of Estonia) Forbidden[?] Love Behind the Iron Curtain: Peeter Tooming’s Sentimentaalne novell (A Sentimental Short Story1966)
Tzutzumatzin Soto (Cineteca Nacional México) Love at the (Permanent) Time of Political Repression in Mexico: Hare Krishna (Alfredo Gurrola, 1973)

Something Good 

Allyson Nadia Field (U of Chicago) & Dino Everett (U of Southern California) Something Good: A Rediscovered “Negro Kiss” (1898-99)
Terri Francis (Indiana U Black Film Center/Archive), Charlene Regester (UNC), & Lina Accurso (Alice B. Russell Micheaux Headstone Project) Looking for Alice: Love as Film Studies Methodology
Ina Archer (National Museum of African American History and Culture) "Someone to Watch Over Me": Newly Preserved Films, Discs, and Tapes from the NMAAHC Collection and the Great Migration Public Digitization Initiative (See and hear Cab Calloway, Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux, Ella Fitzgerald, and Kreisler's Bandstand.)

The Subject Is Sex

Barbara Miller (MoMI) The Variety Photo Plays Theater Collection of Posters for X-rated Movies, 1965-1983
Allison Whalen (UCLA Library) Releasing The Ids (1974) Love and Duality in Synanon
Oliver Gaycken (U of Maryland) & Sarah Eilers (National Library of Medicine) Love Doctors and Medical Media: Training Films for Physicians and Psychologists Providing Counseling for Sexual Dysfunction  

Hate and Love in Silent Cinema
Andrés Levinson (Museo del Cine) Premiere of the Rediscovered La Fiera Domada (Ideal Film, 1916/1923?)
Chen Biqiang (China Film Archive) & Zhang Zhen (NYU Asian Film and Media Initiative) Laogong zhi aiqing (Laborer’s Love, aka Romance of a Fruit Peddler, 1922) Restoration of Zhang Shichuan’s comedy, the oldest surviving Chinese film.
Marsha Gordon (NCSU) & Buckey Grimm (independent) A Love Letter to Herself: Camera-Woman Angela Murray Gibson Films Herself into History, 1921-1925

Matt Soar (Concordia U) Love Film Leaders, a compilation (2018)
Danielle Ash premieres her 70mm Love in Dimension 150 (2018)

Helen Hill Award presented to filmmaker Nazlı Dinçel

A 16mm film program of her works including Her Silent Seaming (2014), Solitary Acts #4, 5, & 6 (2015), Shape of a Surface (2017), Between Relating and Use (2018) and others
Susan Courtney (U of South Carolina) moderator

The Center for Home Movies presents
Rob Anen (Old Westbury Gardens, Long Island) The 35mm Home Movies of John S. Phipps, 1916-1930
Louisa Trott (U of Tennessee) Self-fascination in Walther Barth’s Home Movies, including Fee (Germany, 1929)
Matt Malzkuhn (Gallaudet U) & Ted Supalla (Georgetown U)  Sign Language in Home Movies
Dwight Swanson (CHM) moderator

John Froats (collector) Computer Rendering on 16mm: A. Michael Noll at Bell Labs, Patterns (1964-65)
Kathleen Maguire (The Exploratorium) Ivan Dryer’s Laserium and Laserimage (1972)
Simon Tarr& Evan Meaney (U of South Carolina) VRchive : Finding Archival Moving Images with Tactile Technology
Bill Brand (BB Optics) moderator

Patriotism and World Citizenship
Mila Turajlic (filmmaker, Belgrade/Paris) The Labudović Files: Tito’s Cinematographer Stevan Labudović (1926-2017), Yugoslav Newsreels, and the Non-Aligned Movement in Algeria

From Brazil with Love 
Rafael de Luna (Federal Fluminense U, Brazil) A 9.5mm film of the Rio beach resorts:  Balneario da Urca (Brazil, ca. 1933) from the Collection of LUPA-UFF
Beatriz Rodovalho (U Sorbonne Nouvelle - Paris 3) & José Quental (U Paris 8) Family Films from the Alberto Sampaio Collection (1920-1930), Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro
Paola Prestes Penney (U of São Paolo) Fifty Years of Partnership: Dance Films from the Herbert and Maria Duchesnes Collection (1943-1990)

Small-gauge Loves
Isabel Wschebor Pellegrino (U de la República, Montevideo) Rescuing the Science Film Comportamiento Sexual y Reproducción de Bothriurus Bonariensis (Plácido Añón, Uruguay, 1959)
Maria Fernanda Arias Osorio (U de Antioquia, Colombia) Excerpts from the Restored 8mm Experimental Romantic Narrative María (Enrique Grau, Colombia, 1966)
Juana Suárez  (NYU APEX) moderator

Archival Education about Orphan Works
Howard Besser (NYU MIAP) moderator
Dimitrios Latsis, Isaac Prusky (Ryerson U)

Brigitte Paulowitz (Lichtspiel / Kinemathek, Bern) The Richard Ernst Collection of 17.5mm and 35mm Family Films, 1914-1932
Brian Meacham (Yale U) The “Cynniewink” Sets Sail: The Films of S.W. and Cynthia Childs -- I’d Be Delighted To! (1932)
May Haduong Sean Savage (Academy Film Archive) Together Un/Known: Archival Ethics and the Case of Acquisition 6130 
Jacqueline Stewart & Candace Ming (South Side Home Movie Project) Robert Patton Filmed Helicopters, 1970s
Lindsay Zarwell (USHMM) Robert Gessner Films the Rise of Anti-Semitism in Europe and the Middle East, 1934-35 

Liz Czach (U of Alberta) “The Girls,” Lisa Chickering and Jeanne Porterfield: Trailblazers of Travel Lecture Filmmaking,1959-1979
Ting-Wu Cho (NYU) Screen Representations of Taiwanese Aborigines: Wild Men of Formosa (US, 1921), Going South to Taiwan (Japan, 1937), and Happenings in Ali Shan (China, 1949)
XFR Collective (Marie Lascu, Michael Grant, & Brendan Allen) New Video Rescues from the Surry (Maine) Arts at the Barn, 1986-88 (and the Leningrad Amateur Opera Company)

Comparing editions of Three American Beauties (Edison, 1906) from Museum of Modern Art, Library of Congress, National Library of Norway, and BFI National Archive, + EYE’s Buona Sera Fiori! (1909)

Closing screening Todd Wiener (UCLA) introducing recent restorations from the UCLA Film & Television Archive, including Nikolai Ursin's Behind Every Good Man . . . (ca. 1967) and a surprise screening TBA

Moderators and respondents include Alia Ayman (Zawya Cinema, Cairo), Anna McCarthy (NYU), Charles Musser (Yale), and Michael Loebenstein (Austrian Filmmuseum).

Saturday, before dinner,

A Screening in  Tribute to Stephen Parr and His Oddball Films and Videos 

Stephen Parr at the 2012 Orphan Film Symposium. 
Programmed by Skip Elsheimer, Andrew Lampert, Regina Longo, Greg Pierce, Antonella Bonfanti, Jeff Lambert, Genevieve Havemeyer-King, and friends

A few more presenters and films will be added.

Registration is open!  Join us at Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, NYC.


Jan 2, 2018

Keynote talk: Jennifer Peterson on Love, Loss, and Climate Change

The theme of the 11th Orphan Film Symposium is Love. 

In her keynote talk, film historian Jennifer Peterson will take us in a direction surprising and wondrous.

Registration is open for the April 11-14, 2018, gathering of archivists, scholars, artists, curators, preservationists, collectors, programmers, distributors, tech experts, students, and other enthusiasts.  All events for this NYU Cinema Studies symposium will be at Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, New York.

Jennifer Peterson
Love, Loss, and Climate Change: 
Watching the Historical Nature Film Today

As the scope and scale of climate change and ecological collapse become ever more apparent, old films about the environment take on new meaning. Nature films were prevalent in the classrooms of the twentieth century. Generations of children watched these simple films about ecosystems, seasons, animal and plant species. How do these films display (and attempt to foster) a love of nature? What is the cinematic form of a love for nature?  (And what do we mean by “nature” anyway?) Finally, what does it mean to love nature and watch its slow death? What happens to love when the object of our love goes away?

Nature films from the 1920s and 30s are particularly interesting today, for many of them depict natural landscapes, animals, and ecosystems that are now threatened or on the verge of obliteration. This presentation engages in a strategic ahistoricism to explore how we experience these historical images of nature today. What does it mean that historical nature films have preserved images of species or landforms that may soon no longer exist? How have these images been changed by the concept of the Anthropocene?

Anthropocene is a term for a new geological era in which human actions have altered the planet so drastically that we have exited the Holocene Era. Scientists debate whether the new era began with the advent of James Watt’s steam engine in 1784 (powered by coal), or if it began with the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Whatever the case, it is undeniable that many of the forms of ecological collapse we are currently facing (the bleaching of coral reefs, catastrophic rates of mammalian and insect extinction, glaciers melting, temperatures rising, more frequent hurricanes, and so forth) are new since the mid-twentieth century. What does it mean to feel love of nature, or more generally a love for the earth, and face this accelerating catastrophe? For those of us who are not scientists but film historians and archivists, we turn to our cinephilia, and examine our current responses to historical nature films.

This talk will include screenings from the David Shepard Collection of educational films held by the Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive at the University of Southern California. Thanks to archivist Dino Everett for digitizing numerous films for this project.

Jennifer Peterson is associate professor and interim chair in the Department of Communication, School of Media, Culture, and Design, Woodbury University in Los Angeles. Her research and teaching interests center on cinema and media history, experimental and educational films, aesthetics, and ecocriticism. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. She previously taught in the Film Studies Program at the University of Colorado Boulder, where she earned tenure in 2013. She has also taught at UCLA, UC Riverside, the California Institute of the Arts, and the University of Southern California.

In the early 2000s she worked as an Oral Historian at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and briefly at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. She was a scholar in residence at the Getty Research Institute in fall 2012. She has served as the editor of Cinema Journal’s “Archival News” and as chair of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies Media Archives Committee.

Peterson is the author of Education in the School of Dreams: Travelogues and Early Nonfiction Film (Duke University Press, 2013). Her new book project focuses on the visualization of nature in American film history before 1960.


Dec 21, 2017

Nazlı Dinçel receives 2018 Helen Hill Award

Good news from Columbia, South Carolina, as reported below by USC faculty and Orphan Film Symposium co-founders Susan Courtney and Laura Kissel.

For the 11th Orphan Film Symposium, NYU Cinema Studies and the University of South Carolina Film and Media Studies Program present the 2018 Helen Hill Award to independent filmmaker Nazlı Dinçel. 

The award-winning filmmaker will introduce and screen a selection of her 16mm works for the Orphan Film Symposium's international audience of media artists, archivists, scholars, students, curators, collectors, producers, distributors, preservationists, tech experts, and other enthusiasts devoted to saving and screening neglected media. She will be one of dozens of presenters showcasing rare, rediscovered, and previously neglected moving images during the symposium, April 11-14, 2018. Appropriately, the theme of "Orphans 11" is Love.

The biennial award honors the legacy of artist Helen Hill and her extraordinary accomplishments as a filmmaker, educator, and animator. Named in honor of the South Carolina-born citizen of the world who inspired many, the juried award supports independent media artists of exceptional talent whose work embodies Helen Hill’s spirit of creativity and innovation, and shares her commitments to love, play, and human connection. Past recipients who showed their work at the Orphan Film Symposium are Sasha Waters Freyer, Werner Nekes, Jeanne Liotta, Jo Dery, Danielle Ash, Jodie Mack, James Kinder, and Naomi Uman.

Meeting all of the Helen Hill Award criteria, the films of Nazlı Dinçel are bold, probing, and deeply engaging. In her own words, Dinçel reminds us that “failure, miscommunication and fair representation of bodies should be a part of [our] conversation of ‘love.’” In her pursuit of these subjects, Dinçel is an experimental filmmaker in the truest sense of the word: she uses highly evocative handmade filmmaking techniques to explore challenging subject matter, including female sexuality, intimacy, and vulnerability in the lives of women as well as men. Inviting audiences to think seriously, and publicly, about some of our most private experiences, Dinçel treats her subjects with insight, generosity, and delightful humor. 

Throughout such engagements her filmmaking practice also resonates with Helen Hill’s, as Dinçel is a self-described “one-woman-crew," "animating text by hand frame-by-frame onto the film emulsion.”

Born in Ankara, Turkey, Dinçel immigrated to the United States at age 17. She received an MFA in filmmaking from the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, where she currently resides and is building an artist-run film laboratory. Her works have been exhibited at film festivals around the world, and she is the recipient of numerous awards. Recently these include the Marian McMahon Akimbo Award at the 2017 Images Festival in Toronto and Best Experimental Film (Her Silent Seaming) at the 2015 Chicago Underground Film Festival.

The NYU symposium convenes April 11-14, 2018 at Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, New York.  Registration is open to all.  Register here

Nazlı Dinçel Filmography (all 16mm)

Updown ( 2009) 3' silent
Reframe (2009) 4' silent
Free Association (2010) 5'
18 Feet (2010) 5'
Interval (2011)
Leafless (2011) 8'
Her Silent Seaming (2014) 11'
Solitary Acts #4 (2015) 8'
Solitary Acts #5 (2015) 5'
Solitary Acts #6 (2015) 11'
Void (4. INABILITY) (2016) 5' silent
7. FORGETTING  (2016) 3' 
Shape of a Surface (2017) 9'

Excerpts at vimeo.com/nazlidincel


Frames from a Helen Hill 16mm film and a Nazlı Dinçel 16mm film.

Oct 27, 2017

From the LOC vaults: American Labor short MILLIONS OF US (1935)

By guest bloggers Tanya Goldman and Spencer Nachman

Millions of Us (1935) is an early example of American labor-left filmmaking that experiments with enacted forms, anticipating Frontier Films’s renowned People of the Cumberland (1938) and Native Land (1942). Produced surreptitiously in Hollywood in 1934-5, the film dramatizes the plight of millions of unemployed workers amidst the Depression. This message is filtered through the story of a single “forgotten man” who walks the streets in desperate search of a job. Driven by hunger, he contemplates becoming a scab. A union man intervenes, coaching him to recognize common interests with his brethren. He is ultimately converted to the cause of trade unionism.

--> Millions of Us: Visualizing the protagonist’s conversion to labor unionism and the power of mass action.

This ostensibly straightforward narrative belies the film’s melding of modernist visual style and social realist reportage. Co-director Jack Smith is a pseudonym for Slavko Vorkapich, a Serbian émigré who arrived in Hollywood in the early 1920s and distinguished himself as a master of montage. Working for multiple studios, he created striking, frenetic montage sequences for a number of silent and sound films, including Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe. (Several of his silent and pre-code montage works and experimental shorts are featured on the Unseen Cinema DVD collection). Vorkapich went on to chair the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts.

Like many in Hollywood at the time, Vorkapich was aligned with the Left. He served, for example, on the National Advisory Board of the Film and Photo League, a loose collective of radical filmmakers in New York, Detroit, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and several other urban centers committed to documenting the era’s labor unrest. In this context, a film like Millions of Us is an obvious extension of these activities. Yet, Vorkapich’s earlier experimental work suggests that his sympathy for the downtrodden predated the mass breadlines of the early Depression. In 1928, he co-directed The Life and Death of 9431: A Hollywood Extra, an experimental short with Robert Florey (best remembered for directing Marx Brothers film The Cocoanuts and studio B-films such as Murders in the Rue Morgue). The Life and Death of 9431 shows the rapid demise of a Hollywood hopeful in a heavily Expressionist style. Arriving at the Studios, the wide-eyed extra enters the casting system, the number 9413 stamped on his forehead. He soon begins his hopeless job hunt amidst an inhospitable landscape of “no casting today” signs. Dreams dashed, his humanity is only restored in death. In its dour story and disorienting visual design, The Life and Death of 9431 presents a California nightmare.

 The Life and Death of 9431: The Hollywood hopeful is just a number.

The California in Millions of Us is also a nightmare of unemployment signs. The film opens in an alleyway on a woman in rags before cutting to newspaper headlines of mass unemployment. The camera then moves to the unnamed man sleeping outside on a brick ledge with a newspaper as his pillow. He is our protagonist. As he sleeps, he dreams of food—a roast, an egg on a frying pan, coffee, and loaves of bread are all superimposed over his face. His dream continues as he sits at a table ready to eat but, in a terrifying turn, his plate slides across the table to the waiting hands of a man in fancy dress. Of this opening sequence, Charles Wolfe observes that the “impressionistic montage establishes a transient’s hallucinatory state of mind.” In creating this opening scene, Vorkapich’s singular touch is particularly evident.

 Millions of Us: Dreams of Food

The man awakens and proceeds to drag himself through the gritty urban streets in a quest for work. “No help needed” signs pepper his journey. As he walks, he encounters another homeless vagrant sitting in the sidewalk, social realist imagery that anticipates the downtrodden men depicted in Lionel Rogosin’s On The Bowery (1956). Our protagonist stares longingly into the window of diner. A kindly old woman from a Catholic mission eventually offers him assistance. But he arrives only to discover the shelter is closed for the night. Yet another institution unable to help in his time of need.

Millions of Us: California's gritty streets and empty promises

The next segment begins as our threadbare protagonist stumbles upon a group of men sitting idly in a park. Up until this point, about five and half minutes into the film, the only sound has come by way of an orchestral score. But here, for the first time, words are spoken—though not by our protagonist, nor the scores of forgotten men around him in the park. Instead, it is a radio broadcast of a speech delivered by a capitalist, whose stentorian voice espouses platitudes of American rugged individualism that are entirely at odds with the reality of the millions of unemployed:

“America has been called the land of opportunity and justly so. Where else in the world does the great opportunity for honest work exist in such a boundless degree as in America?...Yes, my friends I say to you that a real willingness to work has never gone unrewarded (that is for long)…Fellow citizens the period of Depression is a thing of the past….The opportunity is here my friend. For those who have the courage to reach out and grab it. To seize it in their hands and drain from it the fine, full measure of sturdy American effort.

These lines, of course, ring hollow to the men sitting in the park, and again, merely affirm the establishment’s lack of sympathy for America’s unemployed. The film’s political stance in unmistakable.

Dejected further, our protagonist leaves the park. He soon finds himself standing idly outside a grocery store watching as bags are loaded into the car of wealthy shopper. A single apple falls out of a bag and roles to his feet. He considers taking it until he meets the glare of a uniformed police officer. The film fades to black.

Finally, the protagonist stumbles upon a “help wanted” sign—but picketers surround the hiring office. He pauses and contemplates. Will he become a much-maligned scab? Luckily, before he crosses over to the dark side, the union intervenes, welcoming him to their camp and offering him a meal. Now, finally part of a community, labor is given a voice, literalized as synchronized dialogue begins. The union leader stakes his plea for broader working class solidarity and its desire for basic human rights. “You and me,” he says:

“Millions of us who want three square and a job. Who want a chance to work so we can send our kids to school, so we can have a roof over our head. Millions of us getting together. That’s the answer! We want man-sized chunk of everything our hands of made. And just think buddy: that’s the whole cock-eyed country…Every rivet and bolt and brick rivet. You betcha! Your hands worked and scrapped. Who gets the gravy? Not you or me.”

The union man’s rationale converts the protagonist to the cause. He picks up a sign and joins the fight. Of the sequence, Charles Wolfe writes: “The final segment, the unemployed worker joins a union and his envisioned fantasies are replaced by lip-synchronized dialogue and his possession of a new collective, public voice.” This new collective is visualized in the film’s final image (featured above), footage of marching union men superimposed on a close-up of the protagonist’s face. This closing image encapsulates the power and solidarity of the working class mass.

Millions of Us: The protagonist finds solace with his working class brethren.

Upon completion, the film entered the nontheatrical labor screening circuit and the very act of showing the film became a deeply politicized, incendiary act. In Ohio, a planned CIO screening was blocked by state censors, as was an intended screening at an art house in Pittsburgh. These episodes prompted the film's distributor Garrison Films to contact Morris Ernst Leopold, a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Millions of Us is an intriguing early work in the history of American documentary and labor left filmmaking, and demonstrates the shared solidarity among artists and organized labor during the
Red Decade. Under Vorkapich’s deft hand, the film demonstrates traces of modernist impulse within the decade’s iconic social realist aesthetic. Its post-production life reveals the politicized nature of film distribution. At the very least, it is certainly a film worth a look for film and history buffs alike.

This guest post was written by Tanya Goldman, a PhD Candidate in Cinema Studies at New York University and IndieCollect’s inaugural Scholar-In-Residence during the 2016-17 academic year, and Spencer Nachman, a sophomore at NYU who interned at IndieCollect during the spring 2017 academic term.



Charles Wolfe, “Straight Shots and Crooked Plots: Social Documentary and the Avant-Garde in the 1930s,” in Lovers of Cinema: The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919–1945, ed. Jan-Christopher Horak. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996.
This essay is also reprinted in The Documentary Film Reader: History, Theory, Criticism, edited by Jonathan Kahana for Oxford University Press, 2016.

Millions of Us is held at the Library of Congress. You can stream the full film here