Uprisings: California Newsreel celebrates the political past and future with Dawn Logsdon's "Faubourg TremŽ," which plays SFIFF51. (Photo courtesy California Newsreel)

SFIFF51: California Newsreel at 40

Erika Young April 21, 2008

What will you do on your 40th anniversary? If you’re California Newsreel, you’ll continue to do the same as you always have: producing and distributing film and video as a means of social change. Founded in 1968, the San Francisco-based Newsreel is the oldest nonprofit, social-issue documentary film center in the United States, with a library that includes Made in L.A. (Hecho en Los Angeles), which follows three Latina garment workers through a groundbreaking lawsuit and consumer boycott; This is Nollywood, an examination of the technical, economic, and social infrastructure of Nigeria’s booming film industry; and The Other Europe, which (among other stories) looks at the 2004 deaths within a group of illegal Chinese immigrants in Morecambe Bay, England — the worst industrial accident in Britain in 25 years.

How have audiences, and Newsreel itself, changed over the years? California Newsreel principal Cornelius Moore sat down with SF360 via email and gave his thoughts on the state of the company, film’s role as an instrument of social change, and Newsreel’s status on MySpace.

The 51st S.F. International Film Festival celebrates California Newsreel’s 40th with a panel on Bay Area political documentary May 3, and screens the CA Newsreel film Faubourg Tremé May 3, 6, and 7.

This week, SF360.org runs a special series of interviews with Bay Area filmmakers and institutions in the upcoming San Francisco International Film Festival. SFIFF51 runs April 24-May 8 at the Sundance Kabuki, Castro, Pacific Film Archive, Clay Theatre and other locations.

SF360: How was California Newsreel started? How did its name come about?

Cornelius Moore: There were other Newsreels in the late 1960s around the country which this organization was informally aligned with. The only other remaining one is Third World Newsreel in New York.

SF360: Why is the company based in San Francisco (as opposed to Oakland, Berkeley, San Jose, etc.)?

Moore: It started in San Francisco and the co-directors live in the city.

SF360: What was your original vision for Newsreel?

Moore: To provide film resources which encourage social change.

SF360: How have you achieved your mission so far?

Moore: We hold to this mission and still think it is important, especially in these conservative times in our country.

SF360: How do you market your films today as opposed to when you first started?

Moore: We still put together catalogues and brochures for direct mail and to send around to conferences. The difference now is that we also rely on our website and drive people to that. We are also doing Internet promotion.

SF360: How big is California Newsreel? Who do you receive your funding from?

Moore: There are currently eight full-time staffers mainly working in distribution. There are also a few part-timers assisting in promotion, and a number of staff currently working on the outreach and website for a broadcast series entitled Unnatural Causes. The series examines health disparities based on race and class. Distribution is funding mainly through generated revenue. Funding production comes from many sources.

SF360: Describe Newsreel’s audience when it first began. Who is your audience now? What’s the biggest change in your audience that you’ve seen over the years?

Moore: ¬The organization’s beginnings are tied to the political movements of the late 1960s, particularly the anti-Vietnam War and Black liberation movements. The audience and users then were political organizers. Now those who use our films are largely based on college campuses (college teachers, student affairs, etc.). To a lesser degree the films are shown by film festivals and media arts centers.

SF360: What are the biggest influences on your choices of films these days?

Moore: We acquire films to build collections in specific subject areas: African American history and race, globalization and corporate power, and Africa.

SF360: How does California Newsreel fit into the world market?

Moore: We focus our distribution in the United States and acquire only those rights.

SF360: What do you consider highlights of your overall catalogue?

Moore: There are too many to mention. Here are a few. We are the largest distributor of African cinema in North America. We distribute three works by Marlon Riggs, including his most successful and widely seen documentary, Ethnic Notions. We are very excited by our new globalization collection which include Black Gold (on fair trade coffee) and Maquilapolis (on women workers in maquiladoras, factories on the U.S.-Mexican border).

SF360: How do people use Newsreel’s films: for high school and university educational purposes? For diversity training? For personal use?

Moore: It’s overwhelmingly a college market, some public library and high school. We are also exploring marketing to home users.

SF360: How do you decide on the themes that you cover (Lusophone African Films, Globalization, Diversity Training & Multiculturalism, etc.)? Do Larry Daressa and Larry Adelman have themes or collections that they favor/champion?

Moore: Our various collections have grown out of our history, i.e., [the] African Cinema collection grew out of our years of distributing films on southern Africa and against apartheid. Ditto the African American perspectives collection as an outgrowth of anti-racist films.

We have also been distributing films on global economic issues and empire for many years, most prominently with a California Newsreel production, Controlling Interest: The Word of the Multinational Corporation. Therefore, the globalization collection is a natural.

SF360: Please talk a bit about the 2008 Library of African Cinema. Are there any films that you’d particularly like audiences to know about?

Moore: Yes, Ezra. It won the grand prize at the 2007 "FESPACO": http://www.fespaco.bf/index_en.html (Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou), the most important event for African films. It will be opening at New York’s Film Forum for two weeks on February 13 and will be at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival.

SF360: Where is each Newsreel founder from?

Moore: None of the current co-directors was around when California Newsreel was started in May 1968. So no ‘founders’ are with the organization. Larry Daressa started in 1974 and is originally from Utica, New York, and is 61, Larry Adelman started in 1976 and is originally from Long Island and is 55, [and I] started in 1981 and [am] originally from Chester, Pennsylvania, and am 53. (So I’m a junior member.)

SF360: What did Larry Daressa and Larry Adelman do before Newsreel?

Moore: Larry Daressa came to San Francisco after five years in England at Oxford, [and] Larry Adelman was a filmmaker (What the People Should Know — on the Pentagon Papers) and a pioneer in videomaking with the organization, Resolution. For six years beforehand, I was at the Neighborhood Film Project in Philadelphia, an exhibitor of international films and social issue documentaries that was also a film resource center for community organizations.

SF360: How was the change for you in moving from Philadelphia to S.F.? How did the film distribution scene in Philadelphia compare to San Francisco’s?

Moore: For one thing, I went from working with an exhibitor to working with a distributor. Also there is much more going on in the Bay Area, in regards to film, than in Philadelphia.

SF360: What is Newsreel’s plan for the future?

Moore: In the near future, we’re looking forward to the March broadcast of the Unnatural Causes series series on PBS and to the impact it will have on the urgent issue of health disparities. We are also releasing a new brochure featuring three new films on African American history: (Revolution ’67, Banished* and Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans (which will also be at the SFIFF). For the longer term, we’re immersing ourselves in the rapidly approaching shift in how films will be delivered, i.e., through digital means, video-on-demand and streaming.

SF360: One last question, which is about Newsreel’s MySpace page: Why ‘female?’ Why ’29 years old?’

Moore: Because it’s the personal profile of the staff person who got us the MySpace page. It’s all beyond me. Perhaps the person should be at least 40 years old!

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