Friday, April 8, 2011

Smile for the Camera, Then Move!

It was a documentary dork's dream documentary at the James River Film Festival's afternoon offering today.

"Rothstein's First Assignment" was based on New Deal photographer Arthur Rothstein, who was sent to document the people being displaced by the creation of Shenandoah National Park back in the 1930s.

As the sturdy young men of the Civilian Conservation Corps. established roads and cabins and the other necessities of a grand national park, naturally the local folk had to go. But first we were going to take their picture before destroying their way of life.

Director Richard Robinson  was at the screening and explained that the film was all about questioning the definition of documentary truth. "I call this my horror film," he said seriously; we soon found out why.

He'd initially begun the project to try to determine the degree to which Rothstein had manipulated his subjects for his assignment. And, of course, he had manipulated them.

After discovering that a photograph of a dust storm was posed and a tripod used to capture "candid" moments, Robinson dug deeper, talking to descendants of the displaced families and researching court records.

While some of the lucky ones were sent to a new development on cheerfully-named Resettlement Row, others were shipped to The Colony in Lynchburg where they were forcibly sterilized. In fact, Virginia forcibly sterilized something like 8300 people, the film said.

Granted, Arthur Rothstein was a young photographer when he was sent to document the Resettlement Administration's project in the mid-1930s, along with other notable photographers like Dorthea Lang and Walker Evans.

So perhaps he didn't know better and was just trying to create good pictures by arranging his subjects. Whether he knew of the Colony or not was not stated in the film; it's not like he could have done anything about it if he had known.

Robinson's quest to question the truth of Rothstein's photographs, though, is the the stuff that makes me a documentary dork in the first place. When I asked my seatmate at the screening why she was there, her answer could have been my own.

We find the New Deal era fascinating. The concept of putting out-of-work artists to work in difficult economic times makes perfect sense and yet seems inconceivable now. The WPA employed mural painters for libraries and post office and state guidebook writers, among other worthwhile uses of the creative but unemployed.

Writers were sent out to document local cooking and eating traditions, thus ensuring that important regional customs that were fast dying out were made part of our history for future generations. And photographers like Rothstein were sent out to record the faces and places of ordinary Americans.

And although we no longer have that sort of artistic push from the government, we are fortunate to have inquiring minds like Richard Robinson out there challenging the past and documenting the findings for us.

And as far as I'm concerned, truth is always more compelling than fiction. That's why I became a documentary dork in the first place.

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