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To Tell the Truth: Working for Change
Directed by Calvin Skaggs
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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

TO TELL THE TRUTH: 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. Police night-stick blows often added shakiness to their footage as they captured evictions, breadlines, and mass protests. 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 PAINS, 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 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 vast 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.

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.

More: To Tell the Truth: The Strategy of Truth

"For those doubting the power of documentaries to have a social impact, TO TELL THE TRUTH should give them an idea."—Andy Webster, NEW YORK TIMES "Week Ahead"

"A very important non-fiction series ... Fascinating ... Probing ... Two must-see documentary-on-documentary episodes."—Jennifer Merin, ABOUT.COM GUIDE TO DOCUMENTARIES

"What a great idea ... About nonfiction filmmaking, but that's just the through-line... This series is a new way of looking at history."—Tom Roston, DOC SOUP

"A unique intersection of art, reality, and social impact, Working for Change is an outstanding resource for courses in film history, social movements, and mass communication. It is also a great choice for academic and public libraries."—Educational Media Reviews Online

"I highly recommend WORKING FOR CHANGE (1929-1941). It not only belongs in academic and public library collections, but could also provide an excellent resource in the classroom, particularly in relation to film history, social movements, government, and mass communication."Leonardo Reviews

2015 Stranger Than Fiction, IFC Center NY
Official Selection, DOC NYC Festival at IFC Center, New York City

56 minutes / Color
Release: 2013
Copyright: 2012

For individual consumers (home video)

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This DVD is sold with a license for institutional use and Public Performance rights.

Subject areas:
Film History, Historiography, History (U.S.), History (World), Social Movements

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