NY School Of Documentary Film Retrospective at Anthology Film Archives

New York City’s Anthology Film Archives is presenting a rare Retrospective of Depression era cutting edge news and feature documentaries that gave rise to nonfiction cinema as we know it today. The series, which runs March 10-19th, focuses on Frontier Films, the groundbreaking radical photojournalism of the Film And Photo League which set the template for television news, and The New York School of Documentary Film that thrived under the late, acclaimed director, Leo Hurwitz through the 1970s.

Selected programs will be introduced by Tom Hurwitz, the filmmaker’s son, and by Manfred Kirchheimer, who worked with Leo Hurwitz on many of his later films.

Anthology is thrilled to present a retrospective of the work of legendary documentarian Leo Hurwitz and the New York School of documentary film. An immensely important development in the history of the documentary film took place here in New York between the years 1931 and 1942. During that period, through the work of a large group of radical filmmakers, the modern documentary was born.

In the hands of the members of the Workers Film and Photo League, then Nykino, and later, Frontier Films, the social documentary grew to its first maturity. Among the members of that group of filmmakers, Leo Hurwitz stands out, both for his films and his leadership. His film Native Land, photographed by Paul Strand, is finally being recognized as the crowning work in the early period of the American documentary.

Along with other important documentary makers, such as Strand, Willard Van Dyke, Ralph Steiner, Sidney Meyers, and even Elia Kazan, Hurwitz pioneered the creation of a new documentary narrative form. These filmmakers – along with those they trained – prepared the way first for the television documentary and then for the rebirth of American non-fiction filmmaking in the 1960s and 70s. Ironically, due to their left-wing politics and the Red-Scare persecutions of the 1950s, the work of these artists and their important place in film has been virtually written out of most academic histories of the documentary.

Centering on the films of Leo Hurwitz, whose work was perhaps the most influential of this group of filmmakers, our retrospective will trace the production of the New York Documentary School from its beginnings in the early 1930s, through the flourishing of the political documentary in the early 1940s. It will continue with Hurwitz’s films during the drought of the repressive 1950s, his influence on the beginnings of cinema verite, and his profound, masterful, and always original later work.

Organized in conjunction with Tom Hurwitz; very special thanks to Manfred Kirchheimer; Anne Morra, Mary Keene & Kitty Cleary (MoMA); and Paul Cronin. Many of the film descriptions are adapted from the Museum of Modern Art’s Circulating Film Library Catalog.

To be screened:


The Film and Photo League was begun in New York in 1930 by a dedicated group of leftist and left-liberal photographers, filmmakers, and critics (including Leo Hurwitz). Branches opened in other cities as the Depression lengthened, with participants documenting the breadlines and Hoovervilles, hunger and unemployment marches, restless protests and labor disputes. Their films were shown directly to workers’ groups, in union halls or strike headquarters, or even outdoors at night. Workers often knew little of similar struggles occurring around the country or abroad, nor of the widespread results of economic crisis and class conflicts. The Film and Photo League films thus became solidifying agents in political education, aiming to inform, to build morale, to agitate. These programs present a selection of the League’s films.



HUNGER: THE NATIONAL HUNGER MARCH TO WASHINGTON 1932 (1932, 18 minutes, 16mm. Photographed by Leo Hurwitz and others.)

THE NATIONAL HUNGER MARCH 1931 (1931, 11 minutes, 16mm)

AMERICA TODAY AND THE WORLD IN REVIEW (1932-34, 11 minutes, 16mm)

BONUS MARCH 1932 (1932, 12 minutes, 16mm)

Total running time: ca. 70 minutes.

-Wednesday, March 10 at 7:00.


Jay Leyda A BRONX MORNING (1931, 11 minutes, 35mm. Preserved by The Museum of Modern Art with support from the National Endowment for the Arts and The Film Foundation.)

“The Bronx does business…and the Bronx lives…on the street.” So read the three intertitles in young Jay Leyda’s fond glimpse of the borough in the early 1930s. Unlike the Film and Photo League films, Leyda concentrates on the perseverance of daily life rather than its disruption by economic collapse.

Ralph Steiner PIE IN THE SKY (1935, 16 minutes, 16mm)

Made with the participation of Irving Lerner, and Group Theatre members Elia Kazan, Ellman Koolish, Molly Day Thatcher & Russell Collins.

This off-hand satire about the dichotomy between the illusory promises of religion and the stark prospects of an actual life of poverty introduced the work of Nykino, a group dedicated to creating a new agit-prop cinema. The result is a bit of light-hearted political humor, featuring Elia “Gadget” Kazan and Ellman Koolish as a couple of knuckle-headed down-and-outs clowning around in a Long Island dump.

Paul Strand & Fred Zinnemann THE WAVE (1936, 60 minutes, 35mm)

The great photographer Strand had worked periodically with film during the 1920s, but in the politicized Depression era he took a predominant interest in the medium and joined in founding Frontier Films. In the early 30s, he also developed a fascination with Mexico. An invitation from the Mexican government led to the production of this film, a dramatized documentary recounting a fishermen’s strike against an exploitative merchant in a fishing village on the Gulf of Veracruz. Strand’s exceptional photography is comparable to that of Eisenstein’s QUE VIVA MEXICO! in the heroic strength of its compositions.

Total running time: ca. 90 minutes.

-Wednesday, March 10 at 8:45.


Pare Lorentz THE PLOW THAT BROKE THE PLAINS (1936, 28 minutes, 35mm)

Lorentz enlisted Paul Strand, Ralph Steiner, and Leo Hurwitz, who contributed images to rival the Farm Security Administration photographs of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and others. The film’s subject, the tragedy of the Dust Bowl – productive land lost through ruinous management for short-term gain – is reviewed while subtly and poetically advertising the conservation policies of the New Deal’s farm program.

Ralph Steiner & Willard Van Dyke THE CITY (1939, 43 minutes, 16mm)

Spurred by personal and political differences and hungry for artistic autonomy, Steiner and Van Dyke had left Frontier Films in 1938 to start their own film unit, American Documentary Films, Inc. The one fruit of this brief collaboration is THE CITY, a film whose attitude towards urban development reflects the writing of the outstanding architectural critic Lewis Mumford, who contributed the film’s narration. But the heart of the film lies in its lively (and somewhat antithetical) celebration of contemporary Manhattan life.

Willard Van Dyke VALLEY TOWN (1940, 35 minutes, 16mm)

This film, made immediately after THE CITY, provides a remarkable picture of urban poverty in the Great Depression, and today stands as one of the most powerful portrayals of that period. A study of the effects of unemployment on a steelworker’s family when the father is thrown out of work by a new automated steel strip mill, it was made with the steelworkers and their families playing themselves.

Total running time: ca. 110 minutes.

-Thursday, March 11 at 6:45.


HEART OF SPAIN (1937, 30 minutes, 16mm)

Photographed by Geza Karpathi & Herbert Kline; edited and directed by Paul Strand & Leo Hurwitz; commentary written by Ben Maddow & Herbert Kline.

The first production from Frontier Films, HEART OF SPAIN focuses on the Spanish Civil War, a conflict that became a touchstone of its era for progressive opposition to the rising threat of fascism. Begun by Geza Karpathi and Herbert Kline, who ultimately turned their footage over to Paul Strand, Leo Hurwitz, and Ben Maddow, it is compelling both for its shrewd formal aesthetics and as a sympathetic human document of the war.

CHINA STRIKES BACK (1937, 23 minutes, 16mm)

Supervised by Leo Hurwitz & Paul Strand; written and edited by Sidney Meyers, Irving Lerner, Ben Maddow & Jay Leyda (credited under pseudonyms); with music by Alex North.

Like HEART OF SPAIN, CHINA STRIKES BACK came to Frontier Films in the form of raw footage (in this case shot by young photographer Harry Dunham) which the group’s writers and editors found contained extraordinary, never-before-seen images of Mao Tse-Tung in his base in Yenan, and of the Chinese Communist Eighth Root Army. They went to work shaping a film from a huge quantity of relatively random images. Along with its powerful historical photography, CHINA STRIKES BACK exemplifies the well-crafted, dialectical structure that was one of Frontier Films’ great contributions to the development of the documentary.

PEOPLE OF THE CUMBERLAND (1938, 20 minutes, 16mm)

Directed by Sidney Meyers & Jay Leyda; photographed by Ralph Steiner; assistance provided by Elia Kazan & William Watts.

After alerting viewers to the importance of political struggles abroad through the previous two films, Frontier Films redirected its attention to crucial issues at home, particularly to the need for unionization. PEOPLE OF THE CUMBERLAND publicized the efforts of Miles Horton’s Highlander Folk School to provide practical and political education among the poor Cumberland mountaineers of southern Tennessee.

Total running time: ca. 75 minutes.

-Thursday, March 11 at 9:15 and Tuesday, March 16 at 7:15.


Leo Hurwitz & Paul Strand


1942, 88 minutes, 16mm. Photographed by Paul Strand; written by Ben Maddow, Leo Hurwitz & Paul Strand; music by Marc Blitzstein.

The epitome of Frontier Films’ style, which successfully combined fictional scenes with documentary information, NATIVE LAND focuses on the fascist forces existing within the U.S. democratic structure. Based on the U.S. Senate’s LaFollette Committee findings concerning union busting and the tactics of massive corporate labor spying, it is a significant pro-labor statement which begins by declaring, “The American people have had to fight for their freedom in every generation.” With forceful and moving commentary spoken by Paul Robeson, it reveals the web of conspiracy that comprised the anti-labor movement, emphasizing the public’s ignorance of these events. It remains one of the finest examples of the radical social documentary.

-Friday, March 12 at 6:45 and Tuesday, March 16 at 9:15.


Willard Van Dyke & Ben Maddow THE BRIDGE (1944, 30 minutes, 16mm)

Made for the Foreign Policy Association, THE BRIDGE is an assessment of the effects of WWII on the trade and transportation problems of South America, and ultimately a portrait of how Americans viewed this continent during the war.


Leo Hurwitz


1948, 75 minutes, 16mm. Produced by Barney Rosset.

When Frontier Films was dissolved after the production of NATIVE LAND, Hurwitz and Barney Rosset (soon to start Grove Press) formed Target Films. Their only production, STRANGE VICTORY is a strong statement on racism. Amidst the high hopes of the postwar frenzy and baby boom, it represented a provocative questioning of the discrepancies between the ideals of the allied victory and the lingering aspects of fascism in U.S. society. In a cyclical style, Hurwitz juxtaposes scenes of the war’s destruction with the complacency of postwar America.

Total running time: ca. 110 minutes.

-Friday, March 12 at 9:00 and Thursday, March 18 at 6:45.


Leo Hurwitz & Fons Iannelli EMERGENCY WARD (1952, 15 minutes, 16mm)

In 1951, entrepreneurial LIFE MAGAZINE still photographer Fons Iannelli approached Hurwitz with a new idea. Iannelli had developed a prototype of portable, sync-sound filming equipment. Why not try to make documentary films with the same kind of immediacy as the best photojournalism – real events, real people, real sound? Deciding to make a promotional film to interest producers in this new form, he and Hurwitz filmed in the crucible of an urban emergency room. In doing so, they were probably the first to realize the growing ambition of a generation of filmmakers to move toward greater and greater immediacy, creating direct cinema or cinema verite. With this film in hand, Iannelli approached Robert Saudek, producer of the CBS OMNIBUS magazine show, who agreed to make at least one film using the new technique. In 1953, Hurwitz was firmly blacklisted. Unable to work for any broadcast entity under his own name, he worked for CBS with severe restrictions, using Iannelli as his ‘Front’.

Leo Hurwitz THE YOUNG FIGHTER (1953, ca. 30 minutes, 16mm)

Directed by Hurwitz for the OMNIBUS program, this moving portrait of a young boxer, facing key life decisions as he tries to balance his responsibilities to his family and to his sport, played an important role in the history of the documentary. It is the very first broadcast example of the technique that came to be known as cinema verite. Photographed by Iannelli with light-weight, sync-sound equipment of his own design, it was the most successful of OMNIBUS’s several forays into direct cinema. Several years later, THE YOUNG FIGHTER, along with a few other OMNIBUS segments, became the frame of reference for Robert Drew and D.A. Pennebaker at Time-Life Films as they began to experiment with the new form.

Ricky Leacock TOBY AND THE TALL CORN (1953, 30 minutes, 16mm)

“Made for OMNIBUS, TOBY is a heartwarming and entertaining portrait of one of the last traveling variety shows in the U.S. Leacock captures the heat of the summer night on the faces of the appreciative audiences, the thrill of the live performances, and the challenge of the set-up. … Its candid style caught the eye of filmmaker Robert Drew [with whom Leacock would make] PRIMARY, a film that launched the American verite movement.” -Shannon Abel, HOTDOCS

Roger Tilton JAZZ DANCE (1954, 20 minutes, 16mm. Shot by Ricky Leacock.)

“With camerawork and editing years ahead of its time, JAZZ DANCE captures the exuberance and kinetic beauty of a Lower Manhattan dance club. Leacock and the other cameramen could only shoot for 11 seconds at a time before having to change reels. But with inventive shooting by Leacock, who planted himself right in the middle of the action, you can almost smell the sweat and feel the beat.” -Shannon Abel, HOTDOCS

Total running time: ca. 100 minutes.

-Saturday, March 13 at 4:45 and Monday, March 15 at 9:00.


Leo Hurwitz


1956, 45 minutes, 16mm.

In 1955, Leo Hurwitz was approached to take over and complete a unique and hopelessly stalled project. Pan American Airways was trying to make its first travelogue to encourage travel from abroad to the U.S. Along with using live-action footage, Hurwitz pioneered the technique of graphic animation, moving a camera over historical drawings and photos in real-time (an effect that, four decades later, came to be associated with the name of another, younger documentarian). Using folk songs and Dvorak’s New World Symphony, Hurwitz, at the time prevented from traveling abroad by the State Department for his “un-American” ideas, succeeded in crafting a documentary that was at once light-hearted and profoundly in love with his country and its history.


Leo Hurwitz


1956, 60 minutes, 16mm.

The result of a commission from Film Polski to make a film on the concentration camps, this was made with access to the Film Polski archive, out of which Hurwitz integrated wartime footage with images of the reconstruction of Poland and various works of art. Centering on the museum of the concentration camps at Auschwitz, this study of the war, museums, and memory is one of Hurwitz’s most concise and powerful films.

Total running time: ca. 110 minutes.

-Saturday, March 13 at 7:00 and Thursday, March 18 at 9:15.


Leo Hurwitz


1964, 77 minutes, 16mm. Narrated by Helen Gahagen Douglas, Christopher Plummer & Morris Carnovsky; with James Broderick, Allen Markey & Jane Zecher. Photographed by Manfred Kirchheimer.

In 1964, National Educational Television (the precursor to PBS) decided to make a program as a memorial to the late President John F. Kennedy. Since he had been assassinated just a year before in events that would be replayed by all of commercial television, it seemed unnecessary to recite them again. Instead, Executive Producer and co-writer Brice Howard asked Hurwitz to direct a program that would explore death itself, and how knowledge of mortality encroaches on our lives. Hurwitz used actors, literature, and art to create this powerful evocation of the presence of death in life.

-Saturday, March 13 at 9:30.


Leo Hurwitz & Charles Pratt


1962, 60 minutes, 16mm.

A voyage of discovery among familiar things: the images and sounds of New York Harbor. The film explores the edge of the shoreline, where man and nature persistently confront one another. In the words of Fabion Bowers, “It is the most haunting film I have ever seen. The film’s poetry is utterly visual – such wonder at the ordinary, such mastery of the natural.”


Leo Hurwitz THE SUN AND RICHARD LIPPOLD (1966, 28 minutes, 16mm)

Photographed by Manfred Kirchheimer.

An exploration of Richard Lippold’s great sculpture, THE SUN, at the Metropolitan Museum. Hurwitz contributes his own experiences of the sun and the play of light – in reality and in art – and explores the way experience of reality expresses itself as abstraction in art. An almost perfect film.

Total running time: ca. 95 minutes.

-Sunday, March 14 at 2:00.


Leo Hurwitz


1966, 90 minutes, 16mm.

Photographed by Manfred Kirchheimer. Produced and directed by Hurwitz for National Educational Television, this film finds Hurwitz and biographer John Unterecker looking for the poet, Hart Crane, in his work and in the memories of many of his contemporaries.


Manfred Kirchheimer & Leo Hurwitz HAIKU (1965, 30 minutes, 16mm)

This film showcases the modern dancer Jane Dudley, Hurwitz’s former wife, whose choreography is inspired by Japanese poetry.

Total running time: ca. 120 minutes.

-Sunday, March 14 at 4:00.


Leo Hurwitz


1980, 225 minutes, 16mm.

“Over an eight-year period in the 1970s, Hurwitz made this film tribute to his deceased wife and colleague, the film editor Peggy Lawson. His most personal work and his last major production, Hurwitz’s film is at once epic and lyrical; a portrait of an individual and chronicle of the times; an ode to the spirit of artistic collaboration and a testament to political idealism. The film contains documentary footage, reconstructions, and excerpts from a number of films; the voices of Paul Robeson and Alfred Drake; and music that ranges from Shostakovich to Mark Blitzstein.” -Harvard Film Archive

-Sunday, March 14 at 6:30 and Friday, March 19 at 7:15.


Leo Hurwitz & Peggy Lawson LIGHT AND THE CITY (1970, 16 minutes, 16mm)

Leo Hurwitz & Peggy Lawson JOURNEY INTO A PAINTING (1970, 20 minutes, 16mm) Photographed by Manfred Kirchheimer.

Following his focus on art, painting, and sculpture in his work of the previous decades, Hurwitz took on a project for the American Foundation of the Arts aimed at deepening and enriching, for art students, the way in which we see. Working with his young second wife, the editor Peggy Lawson, he made four short films comprising the series, THE ART OF SEEING. The films, made without words, are beautiful poems to the pleasure of sight. Two of the four will be screened here.

Leo Hurwitz & Peggy Lawson THIS ISLAND (1970, 31 minutes, 16mm) Photographed by Manfred Kirchheimer.

Hurwitz loved museums. In THIS ISLAND, made for the Detroit Institute of Art, he revisits the role of the museum, first explored to a different end in MUSEUM AND THE FURY. What is the purpose of an institution, holding one of the world’s great collections, located in the middle of a city like Detroit? What is the connection between a museum and its city in this age, with the great urban upheavals in the recent past?

Total running time: ca. 70 minutes.

-Monday, March 15 at 7:00.

About Anthology Film Archives: Founded in 1970, Anthology’s mission is to preserve, exhibit, and promote public and scholarly understanding of independent, classic, and avant-garde cinema. Anthology screens more than 900 film and video programs per year, publishes books and catalogs annually, and has preserved more than 800 films to date.

Directions: Anthology is at 32 Second Ave. at 2nd St. Subway: F or V to 2nd Ave; 6 to Bleecker.

Tickets: $9 general; $8 Essential Cinema (free for members); $7 for students, seniors, & children (12 & under); $6 AFA members.

Web: http://www.anthologyfilmarchives.org Twitter: @anthologyfilm

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Prairie Miller is a New York multimedia journalist online, in print and radio, who reviews movies and conducts in-depth interviews. She can also be heard on WBAI/Pacifica National Radio Network’s Arts Express.