In the eighties, when Channel 4 was a proper television station, there was a series of films by de Antonio, the American documentary maker. I was transfixed because these were an example of committed, socialist films that not only challenged the American power machine but did so in an incredibly effective way.
I think I detect a bit of a revival of interest in New York documentaries particularly the Maysle brothers’ work some of which has recently been aired on British television but nothing from de Antonio. I have nothing against either ‘Grey Gardens’ or ‘Salesmen’ which, in their own way, are great films but they don’t really challenge the established order in the way that de Antonio did. My favourite film is ‘Rush to Judgement’ which challenges the findings of the Warren Commission on Kennedy’s assassination. It does this by focusing primarily on eye-witnesses who either heard or saw a gunman behind the legendary picket fence. One of the pivotal moments for me is the account of one witness who was absolutely sure of what he had seen/heard until he read Warren’s report and then decided that he was mistaken because they were the ‘experts’.
I’m not a great fan of conspiracy theories and have always believed that Oswald acted alone but watching ‘Rush to Judgement’ has caused me to question that belief and to re-consider the lengths that any state will go to in order to create the majority view.
On the Internet Archive there’s a series of four television programmes featuring discussion with the great man and excerpts from his work. He talks about wanting to make documentary as art (he was immersed in the New York art scene of the fifties and sixties) and how he felt that it was really important to get away from the film maker-as-god conceit and to avoid the authorial ‘I’ (shades of Prynne). You will note that this is in total contrast to the work of Michael Moore and Nick Broomfield, both of whom seem to take enormous delight in flinging themselves into the frame.
All of de Antonio’s work is political in the best sense of the word with the exception of ‘Painters Painting’ which consist of a series of artists talking about their work in particular and the New York art scene in general. This is especially illuminating for those of us who are fans of the period.
In summary, Emile de Antonio is the greatest American documentary film maker and everyone should try to see his work and learn from it.