Visible Evidence 2021

‘It Can’t Happen Here’: US Documentary and Latin America (1939-1945)

David Wood
Sonia García López
Molly Geidel
Olivier Keller
Respondent: Catherine L. Benamou
Fri, Dec 17
90 Min
Mousonturm (Theatre), Online
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South of US: Transnational itineraries of anti-fascism in Herbert Kline’s unmade Latin American Project (1939)

In March 1939, Popular Front filmmaker Herbert Kline (Heart of Spain, 1937; Return to Life, 1938; Crisis, 1939) devised a documentary project to be filmed in Latin America. With Franco’s imminent victory in Spain and Nazi Germany advancing in Europe, Kline turned to Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Central America: the first time US Popular Front filmmakers focused on the region. Drawing on archival research, this paper firstly examines the political and aesthetic background of Kline and his collaborators, rooted in Popular Front ideas of documentary as a tool of progress, democracy and citizenship, and bringing an anti-Fascist agenda to mass audiences. Secondly, our analysis of the original film treatment and related documents will show how Kline drew on preconceptions of Latin America in US popular culture, emphasising documentary authenticity against stereotypical Hollywood depictions of the “Latin”.

Kline planned to use rhetorical and cinematic devices typical of Popular Front films, such as internationalism; documentary dramatisation; and the introduction of a leading character to humanise an abstract story, acting here as an intercultural mediator. Kline’s narrative and audiovisual strategies had a double purpose: to offer US audiences a realistic depiction of daily life in Latin America under the threat of Nazism, and to establish parallels between Brazilian and US societies to persuade the US government and citizens (particularly isolationists) of the need for Hemispheric solidarity. We will finally show how traces of these strategies remained in Kline’s subsequent Mexican projects, including The Forgotten Village (1941) and Five Were Chosen (1943).

David Wood

David Wood is Researcher at the Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City and has held visiting scholarships and fellowships at the universities of Cambridge, Tübingen and Bielefeld. He is the author of El espectador pensante: el cine de Jorge Sanjinés y el Grupo Ukamau (2017) and co-editor of Latin American Cultural Studies: A Reader (2017), as well as numerous journal articles on diverse aspects of Latin American documentary and experimental film. He is currently writing a monograph on film archives and archive-films in Mexico.

Sonia García López

Sonia García López is a Lecturer in Film, Television and Media at the University Carlos III of Madrid and has held visiting scholarships at New York University and Paris-Sorbonne Université. Her research interests include Film and History, Documentary, Avant-Garde film, and the Archive. She is the author of Spain is US. La guerra civil española en el cine del Popular Front (1936-1939) and co-editor of Piedra, papel y tijera: el collage en el cine documental and Contraculturas y subculturas en el cine latinoamericano (1975-2015). She is currently researching female filmmaking students at the Spanish Official Film School (1947-1976).

From the Popular Front to the Modernization Mission: Development films in the 1940s

This paper argues that films made in Latin America during World War II to cement hemispheric solidarity, particularly those by US Popular Front filmmakers, helped galvanize a transition from the leftism and ambivalence about ‘progress’ that characterized much New Deal-era thought to the urgently melodramatic modernization discourses that came to dominate the postwar world. Modernization theory, mainly formulated in US universities and think tanks in the 1950s, proffered its new, urgent insistence upon the rapid destruction of tradition by adopting a melodramatic framework for development. This melodramatic mode eschewed the complexity with which New Deal social policy had addressed both poverty and tradition, newly casting the impoverished masses of the Third World as victims of their own superstition and lethargy; only with help from modernizing interventions could they be freed to pursue a life of productive work and self-improvement.

Popular Front filmmakers who turned their cameras on Latin America for the World War II effort made this new modernization mission legible to global audiences, extending the martial language of antifascist war onto struggles for increased extraction and production. Their films pioneered a Manichean melodramatic imaginary of modernization that solidified in the later development films of the 1950s and 1960s. Here I focus on three films—The Forgotten Village (dir. Herbert Kline, 1941), Silent War (dir. Willard Van Dyke, 1943) and The Bridge (dir. Van Dyke, 1944)—in order to demonstrate how the language and urgency of the antifascist struggle was transposed onto the newly pressing task of throwing over tradition.

Molly Geidel

Molly Geidel is a Lecturer in American Studies at the University of Manchester. She is the author of Peace Corps Fantasies: How Development Shaped the Global Sixties (University of Minnesota Press, 2015). She is working on two books, one on documentary film and development in the Americas, and the other on the figure of the girl in global counterinsurgency culture and doctrine. You can find her recent work the development film in American Quarterly and European Journal of American Studies.

Health, literacy and Pan-Americanism. Walt Disney’s educational films for the Office of Inter-American Affairs

During World War II, Walt Disney Productions produced a total of 30 animated movies for the Office of Inter-American Affairs (OIAA). These cartoons served the purpose of fighting Axis-propaganda in Latin America and promoting the U.S. and Pan-Americanism in accordance with the Good Neighbor Policy. While some of the movies were propagandistic entertainment films, most were considered “educational films”. These nonfiction films were dedicated to topics such as health, agriculture or literacy, and ostensibly served the development of the Latin American countries. The intention was to win the hearts and minds of Latin Americans by offering them education combined with entertainment.

Through the OIAA’s mobile projector program, a huge Latin American audience could be reached with Disney’s educational films. Additionally, some of those movies were also purchased by Latin American governments and distributed through their own channels. In general, Disney’s educational films were considered a great success by those involved. However, there was some controversy over Disney’s literacy films, which were openly criticized for being inadequate in content and the insufficient integration of Latin American experts in the production process.

By discussing Disney’s educational films, it can be examined how cinematic expressions of hemispheric solidarity were combined with pedagogical uses of animated nonfiction film. Further interesting is the collaboration of US and Latin American actors in the production and distribution processes. Finally, it is worth analyzing how Disney’s educational films did not fail to convey their Pan-American message despite their often paternalistic, racist and sexist content.

Olivier Keller

Olivier Keller is a PhD candidate at the University of Zurich. He holds an MA in History of the Contemporary World and Latin American Studies, which he completed with a Master Thesis on the wartime cooperation between the Office of Inter-American Affairs and the Walt Disney Productions, aimed at propagating Hemisphere solidarity in the Americas through animated movies. Currently, he is researching the US Railway Mission to Mexico, one of the closest cooperation projects between Mexico and the USA during World War II.

Respondent: Catherine L. Benamou

Catherine L. Benamou is Associate Professor of Film and Media Studies and Chicano-Latino Studies at the University of California-Irvine, where she also participates on the faculty of Latin American Studies, Visual Studies, and Gender and Sexuality Studies. She is the author of It’s All True: Orson Welles’s Pan-American Odyssey (2007), as well as numerous articles, including on Latin American documentary, women’s cinema and media, and the films of Raúl Ruiz. She is currently completing a book, Transnational Television and its Diasporic Latinx Audiences: Abrazos Electrónicos.