Robert Kramer and Jean-Luc Godard


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What I am interested in here is the relation of one generation to another, and the question of what to do with our different weights of experience. I am thinking about transmission.
                  —Robert Kramer(1)

[It’s] too early to tell.
                  —Jean-Pierre Gorin (when asked about the
                  legacy of the Dziga Vertov Group)(2)



In assessing the different modes and styles employed by Kramer and Godard and what aspects of them may be relevant to contemporary filmmaking practice, it’s first necessary to acknowledge the extent to which the approaches of both filmmakers are singular to a specific time and place. While both are explicitly oppositional to the dominant modes and practices of the period, their oppositional stances are in themselves localised rather than generalised responses to a set of circumstances.

This is perhaps most clear in the way both Newsreel and the Dziga Vertov Group were to some degree aware and engaged with their audiences. Newsreel was essentially  formed directly by and for the New Left movement; its choice of subjects reflected the range of concerns of this primary audience, and the radical nature of its production and distribution methods were in many ways an extension of the collectivist and anarchist models in which the Movement was functioning politically. DVG, while exterior to any actual political activism as such, was, if we are to take McBean’s statements at face value, acutely aware of the “actively committed Marxist-Leninist or Maoist militant”(3) whom they were addressing. It’s hard to know how well that audience was connected with, or how large or small it may have been, but the Marxist theory to which Godard and Gorin were committed and sought cinematic forms to express was no small force in France at the time. Godard’s move towards collectivism—albeit a largely symbolic one—can also be seen as a means of “changing” audiences by, as McBean says, making “it difficult for the old audience to co-opt his new films” and making “it difficult for any carry-overs from the old audience to relate to the new…films in the old idealist way”.(4)

One can also attribute some of the films’ stylistic elements to these reactive roots. On a basic formal level, Newsreel’s adoption of the documentary and the DVG’s preference for the essay film reflect the particular needs of their audiences and the perceived best means of opposing the dominant culture. The qualification of perceived best means is worth emphasising because, while the American New Left clearly had a desire of alternative news that the documentary form catered for and this was seen as a useful means of opposition, the more rigorous analytical approach of the DVG would undoubtedly have been useful in the US as well. The French situation isn’t quite analogous, as other collectives such as the Medvedkin Group were, in many ways, France’s answer to Newsreel; but the DVG obviously weakened itself somewhat by separating itself from French activist circles. Although there are indications the filmmakers maintained dialogue with political groups and had intermittent personal engagement with them, its focus on theory led to a broader, international scope of interests (most of the DVG films were not shot in France) and prevented them from planting any solid roots within radical communities.

A related question that ultimately effects our assessment of these films and their relevance is to what extent the collectives can be considered synonymous with the individual filmmakers. The auteur theory (which Godard, as a critic for Cahiers du Cinema, partly helped establish) is now so ubiquitous in film discourse that it is difficult to completely eradicate—yet the collectivist project is an explicit rejection of auteurism, and while it would be remiss to take these aspirations as fact, it would be just as remiss not to consider them as factors.

The case of Newsreel is particularly complex, largely by virtue of its success. While financial and decision-making realities may have considerably compromised its egalitarian aspirations, its claims of collective authorship were still far from disingenuous, and trying to attribute individual authorship to most of their early output is an impossible project. Assessing Robert Kramer’s position in Newsreel is therefore tricky: to what extent did the group’s policies, their modes and styles, really correspond with Kramer’s? Kramer’s 1968 statements have often become emblematic of the Newsreel ethos but, from the split over Ice and the comments made around the time of Milestones, it’s clear that, while Kramer’s perspective was in some ways synonymous with Newsreel’s (the politicisation of form, the plurality of perspectives), and was partly formed by his time in the collective, it also could not be contained within it for long. His interest in fictional or docu-fiction hybrid forms was ultimately not compatible with Newsreel’s alternative-media remit, and his choice of subject matter and themes could never stay aligned with one political philosophy, however loosely conceived.

The DVG is a different matter entirely, partly because, well, it wasn’t really a collective: they had no offices, no meetings, no members and no official statements (unless you count that press release from Grove Press). The DVG label was, in the end, a label first and foremost; a way of presenting a body of work in a particular light and situating it within a particular context. At the same time, these were not Godard films in the traditional auteurist sense—they were clearly deeply collaborative, at least between Godard and Gorin—but they were significantly effected by “the Godard film”; that is, their brand of collective anonymity was clearly in reaction to and resistance against the auteurist figure Godard had become. This was as much Gorin’s doing as Godard’s (the Godardian references in Tout va Bien are, allegedly, all Gorin) but it does situate the DVG’s collectivism in very different terms to that of Newsreel, where all members (including Kramer) were relative unknowns and the gesture towards anonymity was more a rejection of hierarchy than it was a rejection of celebrity.

If auteurist criticism has a place in the analysis of these collective works, it is in emphasizing the essential part that individual personalities and histories played in their creation. These collectives are not just local to a particular social and political period and milieu; they’re local to particular personalities, whose motivations can never be considered in purely political terms. To take one example, in looking at Kramer’s involvement with Newsreel, it’s worth noting that this was one of several collective environments throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s: before Newsreel was the Newark Community Union Project and Blue Van Films; afterwards was the Vermont communes, and periods spent with political groups in Portugal, Angola, and the Native American Solidarity Committee. Kramer referred to these as his “major zones or territories of activity,” places that were both safe zones, points of refuge in turbulent times, and “battlegrounds” where the big issues were questioned, challenged and defended. Their attraction and their function went beyond political engagement, serving personal and social needs as well. They could also only be sustained for so long:

These “territories” can be characterized as communities, as almost closed-systems with their own rules and practises and a rather complete and largely shared description of the world. The communities were in evolution, each one, in a process of development in relation to things happening around them. But they were also self-sustaining, like a train roaring through the night, and at a certain point, if you didn’t want that trip, you just had to get off the train. …  You could argue all you wanted, but once you hit your limits … maybe the best thing was just to jump. (5)

Kramer’s train metaphor is a pointed one, and one which could also be extended to Godard’s situation: it suggests the collective project as a kind of cultural tool, a way of engaging with difficult times, but also, on a more base level, simply getting through those times (Gorin’s description of the DVG as a way of “coping” is perhaps more apt than he intended). One can also see in the metaphor an implication that the collective’s strength and power is also its limitation; it’s not easy for a train to change direction and at a certain point maybe the best thing is just to jump.

Kramer and Godard’s particular journeys were, of course, their particular journeys, but one needn’t ignore the inevitable disparities between their personal, political and cultural circumstances and those of contemporary filmmakers (in fact, it will help to acknowledge them) to also suggest that we may have something to learn from them, and that, in our current film culture today, we may be in need of a few trains of our own.



In accounting for the contextual differences between the time and places that Newsreel and the DVG emerged and our present-day First World situation, the key and obvious distinction is the nature of current Leftist activism. While there has been some talk in the last decade of a burgeoning anti-globalisation movement the reality is that, while there are countless individual campaigns and groups, there is nothing on the unified or engaged scale of the New Left movement or the May ’68 protests. This may seem a strange comparison given how one of the fundamental problems of ‘60s activism was, as we have seen, its lack of cohesion, but it was nonetheless capable of a considerable amount of co-ordinated action—both politically and culturally—even if the “negative unity” that held it together was not sustainable for long. The 21st century, however, has seen renewed surge in the strength of the powers the New Left opposed, and a world that is, despite being more deeply connected, also more effectively dispersed.

In a way, the ‘60s Left saw the beginning of problems that have become more pronounced in more recent years. As Nichols writes, out of the many catalysts for radicalisation among ‘60s middle-class youth, direct experience of the issues they were opposed to was rarely one of them. Indeed, “The vicarious relationship between the student-radicals and most of the sources of their radicalisation set the stage for [their] instability as a political force.”(6) Unlike the Left of the ‘30s and early ‘40s

that centered around the point of production and the economic demands that exploitation provokes, the New Left centered around the nexus of consumption and invested choices of lifestyle, states of consciousness, and personal relationship with political relevance. (7)

As the Western middle-classes today have become even more disconnected on a daily basis from major political issues such as poverty, exploitation and environmental destruction, this instability has become pandemic. The effect on political filmmaking has been one of similar dispersion, but also significantly, absorption. The dangers of co-optation that Godard faced in his early subversive efforts have today become ever more sophisticated. As Naomi Klein has explored in detail in her book No Logo(8), many attempts to subvert or critique brand-name companies have been co-opted into those companies’ actual ad campaigns.

The ever-increasing reach of commercial media is counterbalanced by the increasing affordability of media technology. I would suggest, however, that the reason this has not resulted in radical collective Newsreel-style projects is because while virtual connectivity is now at a premium, real-world social and community connections are increasingly frayed, and the ‘60s collectives were largely formed face-to-face on the basis of shared, social and communal realities, and needs. The internet is obviously a key factor here, and is indeed, as the most unfettered and far-reaching form of communication, the one most employed by politically radical groups (and independent filmmakers) today. But its incredible freedom and equality is, in a way, also disempowering in that it encourages individual engagement to an extent that discourages any kind of co-ordinated action. As Clive Hamilton argues, “By giving the illusion of individual power to desk-bound revolutionaries, the internet has in fact only hastened the erosion of real democratic participation.”(9)

One can see the implications of all this in the kinds of political filmmaking that do exist today. One particularly revealing example is that of Newsreel itself. After the upheavals in policy and personnel that occurred in the mid ‘70s, Third World Newsreel, as it was called from then on, began to settle itself as a financially viable organisation—partly as a way to economically support its members (and thereby secure more diverse membership) but also simply to assure its continuing existence. In order to do so, however, it has had to rely heavily on successfully awarded grants and on commissions from and distribution through TV networks.(10) This has inevitably required compromise, especially in formal terms, and left little space for the kind of spirited rejection of “revolutionary content” that Kramer espoused in the opening quote of this thesis.

It would, however, be equally unlikely to hear Kramer’s statement, in the more independent alternative media of the internet. Though there are many independent internet news organisation, both word- and video-based ( is perhaps the most well-known and widespread) that fulfill a similar function as Newsreel did in the ‘60s in providing alternative perspectives on current events, these efforts are almost all disconnected from politicised ideas of form and aesthetics, focused instead on straightforward reportage and argument. They have very much fallen into the trap which Newsreel consciously loomed over: recycling the mainstream’s methods “in reconstructed form … to serve radical aims.”(11) The same could be said about the recent surge in popular political documentaries, a market proved viable by Michael Moore— viable, that is, as long as you adhere to a few formal and narrative conventions.

The idea of the film movement itself has emerged as a strikingly marketable phenomenon. Dogme 95 proved that a movement “brand” was a very effective way to market low-budget avant-garde films, and the offering of Dogme certificates to filmmakers from all around the world for a small fee has made it perhaps the first cultural movement in history which has a membership fee. The recent “Mumblecore” movement in the US—in actuality, a media-perpetuated description of a loosely connected bunch of low-budget (and strikingly de-politicised) films, resisted by some of the filmmakers and used by others as a marketing tool—proved that, in commercial terms, the concept still has legs.(12)

All of this may make the prospect of the emergence of an effective, politically radical cinema, in social, economic and cultural terms, seem all but impossible—but there are a few counter-indications that there may still be hope. Naomi Klein has argued that the dispersed, plural and diverse nature of oppositional groups today is in fact an asset. Quoting the Zapatista slogan of building a movement of “one ‘no’ and many ‘yeses’”, she positively re-assesses the kind of negative unity that made the New Left so problematic.

It is often said disparagingly that this movement lacks ideology, an overarching message, a master plan. This is absolutely true, and we should be extraordinarily thankful. At the moment, the anti-corporate street activists are ringed by would-be leaders, anxious for the opportunity to enlist them as foot soldiers. It is to this young movement’s credit that it has as yet fended off all of these agendas and has rejected everyone’s generously donated manifesto, holding out for an acceptably democratic, representative process to take its resistance to the next stage. … They are instead challenging systems of centralised power on principle, as critical of left-wing, one-size-fits-all state solutions as of right-wing market ones. (13)

If Klein is right, then the experiences of the ‘60s, for all their singularity, are of enormous relevance: as a way of understanding what worked, what didn’t work and why, what are the pitfalls to avoid and the strengths to utilise—and also the different and unequal ways that art, and particularly cinema, can play a part in this. Also, in some ways, the greater, and increasingly converging, problems the world faces today (to name but a few: climate change, peak oil, mass extinction and overconsumption) make possible a clearer and more fundamental critique of industrial capitalism than ever before (a point on which the New Left were often too vague and the French Marxists too dogmatic).

One can see traces of Newsreel and the DVG in some of the phenomenons mentioned above: the grass-roots media ethos of and its ilk; the policy of directorial anonymity for Dogme films (even if, like Godard, directors did not shirk from using their names in publicising the films) and the independent and informally collaborative working methods of many of the “Mumblecore” filmmakers (which have often managed, incidentally to avoid traditional hierarchical modes of production without rejecting the idea of directorial control per se). On a broader scale, one can see some of the same critiques of traditional filmmaking modes in emerging technological practises such as independent internet distribution. Finally, many of today’s best auteurist filmmakers, despite generally using traditional modes of financing and distribution, are experimenting with form in ways at least as critical and politicised as their anti-auteurist ‘60s counterparts (Gorin has even cited filmmakers as diverse as Lars Von Trier and Hou Hsiao-Hsien as effective heirs to the DVG’s critical approach[14]).

Yet in identifying these fragments of legacy, it’s striking just how fragmented they are, and how little dialogue exists between them—not least because there is no kind of critical discourse attempting to bring them together. Above all, what seems to be missing is the convergence of all these radical elements in one focused project. It would be hasty and unwise to attempt to sketch out such a project here, but suffice it to say that any such endeavour would have to pay close attention to the circumstances in which it was created, and the personalities, motivations and aspirations of the people involved.

If one “warning” can be heeded by the examples of the collectives discussed here, it may be to adopt a certain healthy scepticism about the collective ideal.  In one of the more extreme Newsreel statements quoted earlier, the question of the “assimilation of the individual into the collective” was discussed as imperative. But that passage also mentions the need to “develop new values, forms, new criteria for individual interaction”, and one needn’t dogmatically reject “the individuality of the artist” (as some factions of Newsreel seemed to have attempted, to their detriment), to see the value of developing new values, forms and criteria. Besides, as this thesis has shown, individuality was never something these collective projects came close to eliminating; in practical terms, there was always an ever-shifting dialectic between the individual and collective. But neither does this discredit collectivism; while a degree of realism about the inescapability (and indeed, desirability and utility) of individual personalities could allow for a healthier flexibility, the dialectic this conflict created was frequently more creatively challenging and rewarding than its absence.

As Kramer would later write, “these situations-contexts-communities were not necessarily comfortable.” In fact, “they functioned as such rich places of learning also because conditions were so difficult and demanding.”(15) 

Now more than ever, we need such uncomfortable places.

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1, Kramer, 1997,

2. Gorin interviewed in Almeida, p51.

3. McBean, 1972, p32.

4. McBean, 1972, p31.

5. Kramer, 1998,

6. Nichols, 1980, p23.

7. Nichols, 1980, p25.

8. Klein’s book also mentions, incidentally, that Godard directed a commercial for Nike in the late ‘70s—but I have been unable to find any other verification of this.

9. Hamilton, 2005,

10. Choy and Millner, 1982,

11. Renov, 1998, p111.

12. For more info, see Alice Van Couvering, “What I Meant to Say” in Filmmaker Magazine, 2007,

13. Klein, 2000, pp457-458.

14. Gorin interviewed in Almeida, p51.

15. Kramer, 1998,


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