Pull Focus: Connie Field

By Barbara Abrash, Director of Public Programs, Center for Media, Culture and History, New York University.

Connie Field is a pioneering social documentary filmmaker whose works include Freedom on My Mind (1994), a history of the civil rights movement in Mississippi, which was nominated for an Academy Award; and The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter” (1981), which is listed in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.   Most recently, she produced and directed Have You Heard from Johannesburg, a seven-part history of the international anti-apartheid movement.

In September 2010, NYU’s Center for Media, Culture and History screened   From Selma to Soweto, an episode from the series.  Earlier in the day, she sat down with Barbara Abrash for an interview.

In honor of MLK Day, CSM is hosting a screening of From Selma to Soweto at American University, Tuesday, January 18, 2011.

field_headshot2How did you begin your career as an independent filmmaker concerned with social justice?

Connie: In the late 60’s, in Boston, I became an organizer for the anti-Vietnam War movement and for the women’s movement.  I actually supported myself for seven years doing movement work, albeit for $25 per week, but you could live on $25 per week then.  During that time I also worked at Newsreel, which made films about social issues that concerned us at that time and the Vietnam War. My interest in film came through working with Newsreel, though I mostly worked on the distribution of our films.

In the 70’s, I was able to find film jobs in New York. I worked for Leo Hurwitz, who was one of founding members of the Film and Photo League of the 1930’s and was chair of the NYU’s Graduate Institute of Film and Television.  I also got assistant film editing jobs. Then I moved to San Francisco to join Cine Manifest, a group that wanted to make political feature films, which I thought I wanted to do. One of the members of the group, Gene Corr, had read about a Rosie the Riveter reunion [of women who worked in factories during World War II] in Oakland, California, and passed the information on to me.  He said, “This would make an interesting film,” and I realized that I could apply my strong background in the women’s movement and women’s history to this subject.  That’s how The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter began.

I was not the only one in a group of young filmmakers to come out of the New Left that turned their attention to untold histories.  When we got involved in the political movements of the time, we became acquainted with histories we never knew about. In school, history was taught as the achievements of great men.  We learned that there was a different way to look at what happened.  We learned, for instance, that it was really the social movements in the ‘30s, calling for more economic equality that caused FDR to eventually institute reforms such as   Social Security and unemployment insurance.  We learned about how these movements that preceded us worked politically, which gave us confidence in what we were doing. And during that time everybody was discovering untold histories – women, African-Americans, Latinos – the histories of people you were never told about when you were in school.  Also, it was an era where both Studs Terkel, and Howard Zinn, were championing history as told by the ordinary person and their experiences. Those things influenced me a lot and led me to using oral history as a key storytelling mechanism.

When I focus on a history, I try to find one that will have a political relevance to current conditions.  For Rosie, the issues faced by working women in the 40’s and 50’s were still the same issues many women in the late 70’s and early 80’s faced.  I think that is why the film was so popular.  It had very strong current day relevance — plus it was fun and campy.

I also choose to focus on the international anti-apartheid movement in Have You Heard From Johannesburg because it was a global human rights story and about global strategies, which is so important for today’s struggles.  Everyone knows we live in a globalized world, and working as activists on this level, global and local, is crucial.  But getting venues that can show the whole series has been a bit difficult and the strength of the story is really in the impact of the whole.  We were able to show all seven episodes of the story in New York City at the Film Forum and got a great reception from the press, who watched it all and got the whole story!

Your filmmaking is very strategic.  Rosie offers not only a different perspective on history, but also a different view of who working women are and what their situation is.  It also points to larger issues and to how things change over time. Was that embedded in your political work?

Connie: Yes it was.  You remember the phrase “the personal is political”?  So from the intimate stories of individual experiences can come a picture of a larger societal issue.  And when you’re doing political work you’re very strategic. I like to layer films so they operate on many different levels.  I try to make my points very clear and have them made by the way the film is structured and not by a narrator.  I never use journalists, and I don’t use scholars. The story is told from the perspective of those who participated.

Did you start by seeing Have You Heard from Johannesburg as an overarching story when you went into editing, or as discrete stories that you then began to put together?

Connie: I always work with a broad concept to begin with. For example, with Rosie the broad concept was myth versus reality – the myth of how society defined who women were as exemplified by the newsreels of the day, versus who the women really were, as told by my interviewees. This becomes the overarching framework for the whole story.  Usually, I’ve been able to make my films character driven. In order to make a story character driven, you have to be very clear on what the history is, and pick the characters that can exemplify that and through them tell a larger story. In Rosie, we interviewed 700 women — first we tape recorded them over the phone, then we recorded 250 women on audio cassette, then videotaped 40 women and I chose 5. I was interested in finding characters that you fall in love with, and many of the women in the film affect audiences just that way.  I call it the biggest casting job in history (laughter).

I wasn’t able to do that with Have You Heard From Johannesburg. The story had never been told before in any medium so the process was like “historical discovery” and it was too important to have certain people in it.  I had to find out what the history was by capturing the stories of those who lived through it, so I filmed over 130 people and gathered over a thousand hours of archival footage, as well as newspaper articles and stills. It was in the process of editing all that I had gathered that the story emerged and found its form. But I still started with an overarching concept: how the internal struggles inside South Africa built what happened outside – the interrelationship of internal movement with the international one.

The first level of gathering the story was to get people in all these various countries  — some of them were journalists, some were the activists themselves — to write up a history of the movement in their country for me. For, except in rare instances, there were no books to read (though over the ten year period it took us to make this, many books have been written).  I put the story together first country by country— New Zealand, Australia, Sweden, the US, etc.   I also had those people do preliminary audiotaped interviews with activists for me.

I then filmed the elders first because I thought they might die before I figured out the story, and indeed, more than 30 people that I interviewed have since died. I shot all my interviews first and gathered all my archival footage.  When I went to Australia to shoot, for example, I would also go to the archives to get the footage.  I did this all over the world.  This was before stock footage archives were on the Internet.  Now it’s a lot easier.

Then we spent a couple of years, with many young people data-basing all of the footage.  We have over 7,000 photos and probably 1,500 hours of archival footage. I’m very well organized, so everything is transcribed and logged, every piece of footage is described.  When we start a scene, we can pull up everything that relates to that scene.  The hardest thing in the entire creative process was how to put together this story. I had Eyes on the Prize in the back of my mind, and I did try to put it together chronologically with vignettes of stories. It just didn’t sail.  A story would begin in one episode and not end until another episode. So we decided to make it more thematic.  It was a very difficult structuring job.  We did have little stories, and the question was how and where to put them together, and it kept changing.

We basically have a hybrid of a thematic and a chronological structure — inside an episode it’ll go chronologically, but each episode has a theme.  I made complete stories out of the major campaigns in the outside world, such as the sports boycott and the story of getting companies to pull out of South Africa, because the main focus of the series was on what the international community did. This is not the definitive story of how South Africans got their liberation — not by a long shot.  It’s how they built support in the international world. I picked only the events that happened in South Africa that actually had an impact on what the international community did.

The most frustrating thing has been the fact that this is an untold story and   academics haven’t even gotten to the global picture yet.  I understand why this hasn’t been done.   I think that when enough books have been written that detail particular histories from all over the world, someone will then write a history from a global perspective.  I did a number of these stories as stand-alones  — features such as the sports boycott, Fair Play, but they don’t have a strong enough resonance because the wider story isn’t known.  When Eyes on the Prize was done people knew the importance of the civil rights movement.  Nobody knows this story, or thinks it’s as important, which it is.

Your interviews reveal many points of view, including those who supported apartheid.     

Connie: Yes they do.  I interviewed people who held important positions in the apartheid government as well as CEO’s of major corporations who were under pressure to pull out of South Africa. I think this makes for a more dynamic telling of the story. Many people have asked me how did I get these people to speak to me. For this project, I did not have problems, I think, because I conducted the interviews so early on – beginning just two years after Mandela had been elected. Also, when I interview people, I’m only trying to get their part of the story. I don’t challenge them.  I don’t present my point of view.  I allow the person to tell me what went on from their point of view.  I also interview each person for two hours or more.  I filmed the Apartheid government’s Minister of Finance, Barend du Plessis, in 1997.  That was early enough so that that people weren’t as suspicious.  For example, around 2003, the BBC was going to put some money into my sports episode, so I went back to South Africa to do more research and expand the story.  It was much tougher to get any of the Springboks to talk to me, as I had years earlier.  Enough had gone on that people were just not quite as open.

An interesting sidelight was that it was an incredible time to be in South Africa in 1996 and to meet people who were now in the government who had been major fighters in the liberation campaign and were now ministers.  The South African apartheid government had a British constitution– they actually had a democracy for the whites. So it’s a system like England’s, and certain government employees remain no matter who is in power. So the new administration comes in, but the civil servants stay the same.  So here were ministers, members of the ANC, whose support staff were Afrikaners who had worked for the Apartheid government.  It was pretty amazing.  I wanted to make a film on that, but it was impossible to get most of those Afrikaners who were working for their ANC bosses to talk to me.  So not everything was possible even that early.  Someone should make a feature film on that dynamic some day.

Your story is about personal commitment, and also about the ANC as a strategic organization.  That resonates with your background in community organizing. 

Connie: Yes it does.  It is important for people working today who wish to change the world and work towards a more equitable social system to know about this previously untold history– it is one of our major victories. The story is about a movement that changed an entire political system: about human beings who made a life-long commitment to this cause; and about a liberation movement, the ANC, that led the most successful international social justice movement of the 20th century.  People struggling today for their rights under repressive regimes can learn a lot from what the ANC did to gain support all over the world, and strategic support that really helped them win their magnificent victory.  Those who are committing their lives to helping people in other places in the world need to know that their work is valuable and often very effective.  And aside from all of this, it is just a great dramatic story!

How will the film be distributed? 

Connie:  It has already been broadcast on TV in many countries –Japan, South Africa, Spain, Brazil, etc. — all over the world and will be presented on the BBC this winter and PBS next fall.  We have been working with a group, Steps International, who has handled this.  They have also been funded by the Ford Foundation to work on a web site with us, but that has still not materialized, so we are hoping this will be done in the near future.  We have so many wonderful stories that are not in the film that we wish to share with the world, and a web site is a great place to do that.  We are doing our own educational distribution and will have our DVDs ready by the beginning of 2011.  So people can get the series by contacting us directly at [email protected]. The DVDs will contain a lot of extra material.  Each feature length episode has a 52-minute version cut for international TV broadcast that we will include, as well as over 30 extra scenes. We are also offering the three stand-alone features as individual DVDs.

When you made Rosie and Freedom on my Mind, there were groups who used the films as a tool for education and social change. How does that work with the series?

Connie: The National Endowment for the Humanities funded me to do my own distribution for The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter and the Ford Foundation for Freedom on My Mind.  With this series, the Ford Foundation funded Active Voice [www.activevoice.net] to work with community groups to show various episodes of the story.  They have had 64 screenings of individual episodes in various countries.  They also worked with Facing History and Ourselves, which wrote a high school curriculum around one of the episodes, From Selma to Soweto. And the Auburn Theological Seminary wrote a study guide to be used by church groups, focusing on two of the episodes (Hell of a Job and The Bottom Line) that relate more specifically to the role of the church in this history. But much more needs to be done.

Many of the things that Active Voice does, I pioneered with Rosie back in 1982.   I got an NEH grant to hold screenings with community groups and to write a study guide.   We held over 50 screenings and worked with people all over the country from Appalachia to unions in Detroit.  In essence, these people became advisors for the study guide.  We actually wrote a whole book to go along with that film.

Everyone wants the series [Have You Heard from Johannesburg?] in the school system in South Africa.  Getting the series into the school system and creating a guide and curriculum would be great for high schools.  We want to do a pilot program.  Let’s say we work with six universities, both city and rural ones, using the whole series with an interdisciplinary faculty involvement, using the series as a backbone for curriculum.  At this point, we’ve got ideas and groups who want to work on it. It’s a matter of getting the funding into place.

You make clear that the pursuit of social justice takes a long time.  The ANC was so disciplined and strategic, enduring over so many years and knowing where allies were and how to hook into that. 

Connie: And it was not just members of the ANC who committed their whole lives to this struggle.  It was many individuals in the rest of the world.  For instance, the story that focuses on the campaign to get corporations to leave apartheid South Africa, people began marching in ’65, but the companies did not pull out until the mid to late 80’s.   As Tim Smith says so beautifully in the film, he learned that he had to have the patience of a long distance runner.

The movement had a lot of good people. Like here in the civil rights movement, when those struggles take place, incredible human beings emerge. Not only the major heroes, like Martin Luther King Jr. or Nelson Mandela, but also so many other extraordinary people.  The ANC in particular was blessed to have the talents of Oliver Tambo, who could function at both the micro and the macro level – effectively interacting with heads of state as well as ANC foot soldiers.   With the series, I tried to show how all of that worked together.  People would tell me when Tambo would have ANC grassroots meetings, someone would have a completely opposite viewpoint to Tambo’s, but by the time the meeting was over, they would be saying the same thing he had, as if they’d thought of it themselves.  Govan Mbeki told me, “Oliver comes from Pondoland,” and said it was part of the culture there.  They worked around a consensus process.  Tambo was just quite brilliant — everybody felt that they were listened to, that they were involved, that they were a part of it.  To keep an organization together that went through as much as the exiled ANC went through is just mind-boggling.

You acknowledged the ANC’s relationship with the Soviet Union and the Communist Party in a useful way.

Connie: The Communist Party in South Africa was the first integrated organization: white, Indian, black. The party was officially banned by the South African government in 1950. There were a lot of white supporters of democracy in South Africa, but they were the people who were really in the trenches with the ANC. The Soviet Union was on the “right side of history” as one says, in their support of the Africans who were fighting colonial oppression, and unfortunately, for the most part, our governments were not.  But all of southern Africa was brutalized by the Cold War, and the legacy of Soviet weapons in Africa scars that continent to this day.

You have assembled an important archive.  Will that be made available?

Connie: Yes, we have a phenomenal amount of original research, which, as I mentioned before, we are trying to share with the world through a web site that Steps International has been funded to make with us.  In addition, I’m trying to find a home for our archive in South Africa.  We also came up with a design for an interactive website that would be an activist hub, where the people in the film could mentor younger people today who are working in the same kinds of movements — around Chevron [anti-corporate environmental campaign in Ecuador], etc.  It would also break down the series into topic components, like north/south partnerships, violence and non-violence, and corporate responsibility, etc, with links to related stories. It is also a place for discussions and where people can upload their own stories.  It becomes a repository that can continue to grow. We have a prototype that we developed at the BAVC Producers Institute.   But it has yet to be funded.  As I said, there still is so much more to do.