Silent witness

Since the 1930s, documentary film-making has been a powerful platform for political activists. But y

Lenin once said: "For us, the most important of all the arts is the cinema." Archivists at the British Film Institute would agree. Among the miles of dusty shelves that house its collection is a corridor devoted to "non- fiction". The BFI's archivists have been hoarding industrial and educational films, documentaries and travelogues since cinema began. More recently, they have identified a category of factual film-making that has been largely overlooked in British filmography. These films, never before shown in a cinema, are being screened together at the National Film Theatre under the title "In Fact: what the newsreel does not show (film and video activism 1930-2003)".

When socialist film societies in the 1920s applied to municipal boroughs for permission to show Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin to their members, they were stonewalled. Realising it was impossible to distribute politically motivated foreign films in the UK, they set up their own distribution networks. Films were projected on to factory walls and screens set up in church halls. But the members of these militant left-wing groups were also barred from airing their views in the mainstream media. Frustrated by this enforced silence, the societies clubbed together to buy the equipment to make their own films. This was the beginning of the "alternative newsreel".

Workers' Topical News No 1 is the earliest example of the films in the BFI's collection. It was shot, edited and premiered all on the same day, 6 March 1930 (International Unemployment Day), and shows a demonstration organised by the National Unemployed Workers' Movement in London. The Tower of London looms as an ominous reminder of the fate of social agitators, as thousands of marchers gather in its shadow, dressed in their Sunday best. A soup kitchen provides sustenance. The demonstrators smile self-consciously for the cameras, clutching their mugs of broth, before organising themselves into dignified ranks. Tom Mann, the greatest labour agitator and orator of his time, addresses the crowd. Although this is a silent film, and we cannot hear what he is saying, we see the ripples of applause run through his audience, creating an electrifying effect.

With the first "alternative newsreels" of the 1930s, a generation of film-makers on the left took up the fight against unemployment, poverty and fascism. They were following the example of Russian film-makers of the 1920s who developed the documentary as a means of raising awareness and sent camera operators to the far corners of Soviet Russia. As cheap, non-flammable 16mm film stock became generally available in England, members of the Workers' Film and Photo League began documenting the everyday lives of Britain's industrial and agricultural labourers. On the whole, artistry was not an issue - the aim was to inspire debate and express the views of the community.

However, artistic flair in propaganda is always helpful. Advance Democracy! (1938), commissioned by the London Co-operative Societies, made by the Realist Film Unit and directed by Ralph Bond (a central figure in the socialist film-making movement), boasts music by Benjamin Britten, sung by the Norbury Co-op Choral Society. The film explores the imaginative world of its protagonist, Bert, a disaffected London dock worker, and charts his journey from apathy to activism. His wife, May, is a member of the Co-operative Women's Guild, where she buys sausages for Bert's tea. Shots of Bert hauling cargo destined for expensive stores are set against scenes of a committee meeting of Roch- dale weavers in 1844. And when he listens on the wireless to a Co-operative MP extolling the Tolpuddle Martyrs as the original trade unionists, Bert imagines himself as an 18th-century agricultural worker in the dock being sentenced to transportation. The point is clear: he is part of a larger tradition of honest working men provoked into righteous revolt and civil action.

In 1939, Ivor Montague, who had worked with Eisenstein and Alfred Hitchcock, made Peace and Plenty for the British Communist Party. It opens with a series of statistics and charts showing that, despite the election promises the Tories made in 1935, Neville Chamberlain's government had made no improvements to nutrition, housing, education, agriculture or industry. It is almost like an item from Newsnight, but such reporting would not have been found in the newsreels of that time. After highlighting the links between various ministers and big business, the film becomes an attack on Chamberlain and his colleagues, their indifference towards social services and their mistakes in foreign policy. It was considered "one of the most bitter and ironical documentary films ever produced in this country". Critics noted the "deplorable and revolting" scenes (rat runs in tenement blocks, slum-dwellers' insanitary domestic arrangements), which were contrasted with portraits of the cabinet ministers responsible for housing and health. A dancing puppet (pre-empting satirical programmes such as Spitting Image) is used to depict Chamberlain, implying that he was acting on behalf of vested interests. Meanwhile, Montague shows us children in playgrounds, their legs crippled by rickets (seven out of eight children of working-class parents had rickets) and their mouths containing only stumpy gums (20 out of 21 children had rotten teeth).

After a screening at the House of Commons, Montague recalled: "The place was absolutely packed . . . Afterwards, it was very entertaining to hear the MPs as they went away saying to one another, 'Now that's the thing we ought to have for our Party.' They didn't seem to realise that the content had something to do with the force of the film, and not every party could make such a bitter, acid film."

The influence of film-makers such as Montague and Bond waned until the 1960s, when the next wave of politically motivated film workshops and co-operatives emerged. Deadly the Harvest (1960), made by the Quakers for the Nuclear Disarmament Newsreel Committee, documents the Aldermaston march of that year organised by CND. Common themes unite these reels: marching, community and the ordinary person's call for, as one banner puts it, "Peace, Freedom, Democracy".

In the 1980s, video camcorders gave agitprop film-makers greater freedom to record the experiences and opinions of those most often silenced or ignored. The Lie Machine: miners' campaign videotape no 5 (1984) was filmed on VHS. Part of a series of six videos, this presents both the miners' case and the media coverage of the strike. The attack on Fleet Street is savage but effective, showing inconsistencies that weakened the press's arguments and made explicit the link between industry, press barons and the government. The newspapers did not show mounted police provoking miners. The video does. "Lies, damned lies and Sun editorials" is the film's most memorable slogan. The Labour MP Dennis Skinner, in a typical display of demagogic flair, asks: "Are the BBC going to put forward the case of miners with Maggie poking her nose in?" He then lists the editors knighted by Margaret Thatcher during her premiership.

Finally, digital technology has unleashed the latest wave of alternative newsreel. Undercurrents - a video magazine formed in 1993 - is prominent in the field. "Politics has moved on, journalism hasn't" is its motto. These are single-issue films made by anti-globalisation activists, road protesters, Wombles, ethnic minorities and gay and lesbian groups. If the politics has moved on, the need for self-expression hasn't. These films present a past that is still very much alive.

"In Fact: what the newsreel does not show (film and video activism 1930-2003)" is at the National Film Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 (020 7928 3232) until 30 September

Lilian Pizzichini is the author of Dead Men's Wages (Picador)