Exploring cinematic reflections of crisis: documentary on the march

CINEMA / More prescient than ever, Doclisboa's «Documentary on the March» retrospective provide a blueprint for today's documentaries for social change.

The Great Depression was a time of profound upheaval and social change in the United States. As the economic crisis deepened, millions of Americans found themselves unemployed and struggling to survive. In response, the federal government launched a series of programs known as the New Deal, which aimed to provide relief to the unemployed, stimulate the economy, and reform the financial system.

The New Deal also had a significant impact on the development of documentary filmmaking. In the early 1930s, a group of radical filmmakers emerged who were committed to using cinema to document the social and economic struggles of the American people and to promote social change. These filmmakers, who included Joris Ivens, Leo Hurwitz, Herbert Kline, Irving Lerner, Pare Lorentz, Ralph Steiner, Paul Strand, Willard Van Dyke, and revolutionary collectives Worker’s Film and Photo League, Frontier Films, produced a body of work that came to be known as social documentary.

The Plow That Broke the Plains Pare Lorentz
The Plow That Broke the Plains, a film by Pare Lorentz (1936)

Social Documentary Films in New Deal America

Social documentary films of the New Deal era were characterised by their realism, their social engagement, and their innovative filmmaking techniques. Born from the «aesthetic revolt» of the prior decade, filmmakers often used newsreel footage, interviews with ordinary people, and staged scenes to create films that were both informative and emotionally resonant. Filmmakers like Leo Hurwitz and Sam Brody were at the forefront, wrestling with filmmaking’s trajectory. Hurwitz proposed merging documentary and drama to reach beyond core supporters, whereas Brody championed straightforward reporting as the epitome of revolutionary filmmaking, establishing the foundations for contemporary documentary film.

Some of the most notable social documentary films of the New Deal era include:

  • The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) by Pare Lorentz: This film documents the devastating impact of the Dust Bowl on American farmers.
  • The River (1938) by Pare Lorentz: This film examines the Mississippi River and its importance to American life. It also criticizes the government’s failure to protect the river from pollution and overexploitation.
  • The City (1939) by Willard Van Dyke and Ralph Steiner: This film explores the lives of ordinary people in New York City. It highlights the challenges of living in a crowded and impoverished urban environment.
  • Power and the Land (1940) by Joris Ivens: This film examines the plight of tenant farmers in the South. It criticizes the exploitative practices of landlords and the government’s failure to protect tenant farmers’ rights.

Impact of Social Documentary Films

Social documentary films of the New Deal era had a significant impact on American society. They helped to raise awareness of the social and economic problems caused by the Great Depression and to mobilise public support for New Deal programmes. From the Workers Film and Photo League’s newsreels to the dramatic reenactments of Frontier Films, they also played a role in shaping American national identity by celebrating the country’s diversity and resilience.

In the early 1930s, a group of radical filmmakers emerged who were committed to using cinema to document the social and economic struggles of the American people and to promote social change.

Doclisboa’s «Documentary on the March» Retrospective

For its 2023 festival, Doclisboa presented a retrospective titled «Documentary on the March: The Turbulent 30s in New Deal America.» Co-curated by Justin Jaeckle and Cinemateca Portuguesa, the retrospective featured a selection of social documentary films from the New Deal era, as well as contemporary films that explore the legacy of this important period in American history.

In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in social documentary filmmaking. This is likely since the world is facing several challenges, including economic inequality, climate change, and political instability. Social documentary films can be important in raising awareness of these challenges and mobilising public support for change.

«Documentary on the March» presents an erudite reflection on 1930s America, spotlighting the nascent form of indigenous non-fiction film that confronted the era’s tumultuous socio-political landscape, shadowed by the rise of fascism, populism, and pre-war tensions. This retrospective paints a historical vista where film was envisaged as a beacon of progressive change, weaving together cinematographic artistry with potent social commentary, and challenges viewers to evaluate the socio-political influence and boundaries of cinema—where the artistic intersects with propaganda and documentaries navigate the interstice between reality and ideology. The program spans a variety of expressions, from countercultural Workers Newsreels to ecologically charged musical documentaries, and from independent labour dramas to avant-garde films championing social justice.

Today Esfir Shub
Today, a film by Esfir Shub (1929)

Soviet Influence

The Soviet Union’s pioneering efforts in social documentary filmmaking were instrumental during this period. Filmmakers such as Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein revolutionised the medium, using it to portray the societal and economic transformations post-Russian Revolution vividly. Their inventive use of cinematic techniques like montage transformed documentary filmmaking into a powerful tool for emotional and intellectual engagement.

The work of Soviet filmmakers had a significant influence on social documentary filmmaking in the United States during the New Deal era. American filmmakers were inspired by the Soviet use of montage and other cinematic techniques to create films that were both informative and emotionally resonant. Films such as Esfir Shrub’s compilation film Today and Nikolai Ekk’s Road to Life played a pivotal role in shaping the American social documentary landscape.

Government Support

The federal government played a significant role in supporting the production of social documentary films during the New Deal era. The government created a number of agencies, such as the Resettlement Administration and the Farm Security Administration that produced and distributed social documentary films.

These films were designed to educate the public about New Deal programs and to promote support for the government’s efforts to address the economic crisis. Social documentary films also played a role in shaping American national identity during the New Deal era. These films celebrated the country’s diversity and resilience, and they helped to create a sense of shared purpose and community.

The Spanish Earth Joris Ivens
The Spanish Earth, a film by Joris Ivens

From the Spanish Front to China’s Resistance

During the 1930s, as articulated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the epoch was embroiled in a ‘crusade for the preservation of democracy. Newsreels, a burgeoning medium of that era, transformed cinematic spaces into pivotal forums for the propagation and rigorous debate of news. This program adeptly contrasts mainstream corporate newsreels and animations with the ‘counter-narratives’ offered by the Workers Film and Photo League (WFPL).

In an era marked by the ascendancy of autocratic regimes under leaders like Mussolini and Hitler, and critical events such as the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and Japan’s incursion into China in 1937, this cadre of visionaries directed their cinematic expertise toward the encroaching shadow of fascism. Their compassionate gaze upon the tribulations in Spain and China represented a cinematic internationalism of American origin. The Spanish Earth, a documentary extolling the Loyalist resistance in the Spanish Civil War, conceived by Joris Ivens and enriched by the literary contributions of Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos, stood as a landmark in this ideological struggle. Its success in both commercial and critical realms reinforced the leftist ideology’s conviction in documentary cinema as an influential vehicle for societal transformation. Subsequently, Ivens shifted his focus to China, documenting its pivotal role in the broader international struggle to uphold democratic ideals.

Ivens and Lorentz

Pare Lorentz and Joris Ivens profoundly influenced the genre of social documentary. Lorentz’s The Plow and The River, iconic in their portrayal of the Dust Bowl and Mississippi River’s exploitation, were potent narratives blending poetic visuals with stark human-environment narratives, often reflecting New Deal policies. Similarly, Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens, with his works Power and the Land and Song of the Rivers, brought an international perspective, especially highlighting rural electrification in the U.S.

Lorentz’s bold proposal for a film supporting the New Deal led to The Plow, a project undertaken with NYKino’s Steiner, Strand, and Hurwitz. Despite critical acclaim and wide viewership, it faced controversy, labeled New Deal propaganda by Hollywood. This period also saw King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread, an independently produced narrative aligning with Roosevelt’s policies, outside the studio system.

The River, Lorentz’s subsequent documentary, earned vast acclaim, focusing on America’s tumultuous relationship with its natural resources and the New Deal’s remedial actions. This narrative continuity offers a vivid tableau of America’s transformative era. In a contrasting yet parallel trajectory, Ivens, despite being blacklisted in the USA, crafted a grand compilation film as an epic, inter-continental communist response, Song of the Rivers. Funded by the World Federation of Trade Unions and featuring its 1953 congress, the film was enriched by Shostakovich’s music and Brecht’s lyrics. This allegorical documentary about global workers united them symbolically through six major world rivers: the Volga, Mississippi, Ganges, Nile, Amazon, and Yangtze. These works collectively underscore the fusion of artistic expression with political activism, shaping a legacy in documentary filmmaking that intricately ties environmental consciousness with the social and economic fabric of the era.

Oil: A Symphony in Motion ARTKINO
Oil: A Symphony in Motion, a film by ARTKINO (1933)


The social documentary films of the New Deal era have had a lasting legacy on contemporary documentary filmmaking. The work of New Deal filmmakers has influenced filmmakers such as Michael Moore, Errol Morris, and Ken Burns. The crises that besieged the 1930s, marked by rising populism, social divides, technological upheavals, political instability, environmental threats, and global conflict, find echoes in today’s world. The endeavor of contemporary cinema to engage with these crises can gain insight from past cinematic responses. By examining historical film archives, filmmakers and audiences alike can gain perspective, informing how we understand and address today’s complex challenges.

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Steve Rickinson
Steve Rickinson
Steve lives in Bucharest, Romania. He writes for some platforms and does some other things as well.

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