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Red Reelers Reunion : 'Cine Manifest' Celebrates '70s Film Collective

By Bob Fisher

In 1972, Judy Irola was invited to join Cine Manifest, a Marxist film collective in San Francisco. The other members of the group were Gene Corr, Peter Gessner, John Hanson, Stephen Lighthill, Rob Nilsson and Steve Wax. The group was committed to pooling its talents and resources for the purpose of making films that reflected its idealistic social and political philosophies. The collective produced two long-form films before dissolving in 1978. Six of the seven members held a reunion on the 30th anniversary of the founding of Cine Manifest in 2002. There was another reunion in 2003 in North Dakota, where their second film, Northern Lights, premiered 25 years before.

In the wake of those emotional encounters, Irola decided to produce Cine Manifest, a documentary about the collective. Irola crafted the film from a mélange of some 40 hours of new interviews that are intercut with pieces of typed memos, snapshots and clips from their two movies.

"It sounds corny, but I learned that you can go home again," she says. "It was great getting reacquainted and friendly again with people who were an important part of my life. This film was a very emotional experience for everybody in the group. You could say it is a very personal film for all of us."

Irola was born and raised in central California's San Joaquin Valley, where her father and grandfather were shepherds of Basque decent. She joined the Peace Corps in 1966, and served in Niger, Africa for two years. When Irola returned to San Francisco, she found a nation racked by dissent about the war in Vietnam, and in the midst of convulsive changes effected by the civil rights movement and a burgeoning feminist movement.

Irola was hired as a secretary at KQED-TV, the PBS affiliate in San Francisco, but quickly decided that the people in the film department had more interesting jobs. She moonlighted with these filmmakers on the weekends and learned how to use a 16mm camera and Moviola flatbed. Pretty soon she was shooting news and documentaries-and was one of the few women cinematographers working in 1969.

"We wanted to make films that reflected our political and social beliefs," she reflects about joining Cine Manifest. "We wanted our films to appeal to large audiences. We were barely able to support ourselves, and we made two feature films about working-class people. But there was a personal toll; that is what my film is about."

The group's first film, Over-Under, Sideways-Down, revolved around a white factory worker who dreamed of playing professional baseball. His troubled marriage was complicated by a strike organized by Black co-workers. The film was produced with a $200,000 public broadcasting grant and aired on PBS-Visions Project in 1977. The script was co-authored by Gessner and Corr, who also shared the helm with Wax; Lighthill was the cinematographer. While the film was in early production, the other six members of Cine Manifest decided that it wasn't going to achieve its "aesthetic and political intentions" with Gessner co-directing. They voted to fire him, and subsequently changed the locks on the building--"a cruel act of youth, self-righteousness and political correctness," Irola admits.

The other Cine Manifest film, Northern Lights, was a fictionalized account of a group of Norweigan immigrant farmers in North Dakota who organized the Nonpartisan League in 1915 to resist the control of farm prices and interest rates by East Coast corporations. Hanson and Nilsson wrote, directed and produced Northern Lights, which was shot by Irola in black and white as an homage to movies from that period.

Northern Lights won the Camera d'Or Award at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival; Irola also earned accolades for her cinematography. A San Francisco Chronicle critic wrote, "As the camera moves from the vast wheat fields to the people, it evokes memories of the great photography studies of sharecroppers and migrant workers by Dorothea Lange in the 1930s."

But by then the collective had dissolved and Irola had moved to Manhattan, where she worked as a stringer for 20/20, NOVA, Canal +, the BBC and Channel 4. She also filmed shorts for Saturday Night Live and shot several independent features. Irola moved to Los Angeles in 1989 and joined the faculty at the USC School of Cinematic Arts (formerly USC School of Cinema-Television) in 1992. In 1993 her feature An Ambush of Ghosts garnered her the Cinematography Award in the Dramatic Competition at the Sundance Film Festival. In 1995, Irola became the third female member in the history of the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC).

Corr, Hanson, Lighthill, Nilsson, Wax and Irola attended the 2002 Cine Manifest reunion in San Francisco. "We spent the weekend together, culminating in showing each other our work over the past 30 years," Irola recalls. "We cooked together and partied with our friends who had worked with us in Cine Manifest, and it seemed we still enjoyed each other's company. The weekend brought back many memories. We hadn't seen much of each other since 1979 or '80, except for Stephen Lighthill and I. We are both cinematographers, living in Los Angeles and teaching [Lighthill is Filmmaker in Residence at the American Film Institute, where he runs the cinematography department].

"We discovered at these reunions that we all have the same political beliefs that we shared when the collective was organized, though some of our idealism has been diluted by the realities of the world," Irola continues. "I started thinking there are parallels today with the war and many people feeling disenfranchised. My film students are also curious about our little social experiment. I decided after going back to North Dakota that I should make a documentary about our memories of Cine Manifest and what has become of the seven of us."

Her basic funding consisted of a $25,000 gift from the James H. Zumberge Research and Innovation Fund at USC. USC also loaned Irola camera and sound equipment. All of the former collective members agreed to participate in interviews, including Gessner, who had given up filmmaking and had become a private detective specializing in civil liberties cases.

"He was the person we harmed, and I hadn't seen him for 30 years," Irola notes. "I have no idea why he trusted me, but I told him I would bring my list of questions, and if he didn't like them he didn't have to do the interview. I felt very emotional when I saw him again, something I wasn't quite prepared for. In fact, they all wanted to talk about this time together, and I was surprised how honest and articulate they were with me. But it was after my interview with Peter that I knew I had a film."

A common thread that weaves through the film is the anguish many felt about the firing of Gessner. Those emotions still resonate today. It was a deep wound that affected them more than they admitted to at the time.

The USC faculty, staff and former students also provided support. Nels Bangerter, a former graduate student in production, was the editor and co-producer, for example. But the greatest gift is the music of the late David Schickele, given to her by his wife, Gail. Schickele was a close friend of everyone in the collective and an independent filmmaker in San Francisco; he was also the editor of Over-Under.

"Nels is a wonderful editor," Irola says. "I didn't quite know how to use the memos, but he read all of them and figured out how to cut them up, animate them and make them come to life. There are memos about everything--take out the trash, how much money everyone was--or wasn't-making, and how each of us needed to work on ourselves. Sometimes the criticisms were brutal and cruel, but that was part of our history.

"Nels did all the editing on an Avid system," Irola notes. "Once or twice a week, we would watch and talk about what he had done. I had a pretty clear vision about the film I wanted to make, though it kept evolving as he was editing. Our goal was to reflect the essence of the spirit of the collective. I set the tone that was slightly comedic, at least in the beginning, and Nels cut it in a rhythmic way. He studied David's music, so it works for the images and audio track. I loved the process of watching all the elements come to life. I had five screenings at my house, and invited commentaries from my good friends, editor Kate Amend and directors Mark Harris and Amanda Pope. I also previewed the film for a journalist, Michael Parrish. I loved being involved in the editing process, which was a new experience for me.

"The question everyone asks me is what it was like being the only woman," Irola reflects. "The six men took me into the collective because I was a woman. I wanted them to take me in because I was me, so that was an issue in the beginning. The first year I didn't bring in a dime, but they supported me financially and emotionally while I was learning my craft. I wouldn't have had much of a career if it hadn't been for them. The other question that people ask is how I had the courage to make this film. My answer is that you don't need courage. You just have to be stubborn and believe deeply in your material. Make the movie you want to make and it will make you happy."

Professor Irola has headed the cinematography department at the USC School of Cinematic Arts since 1999. She also holds the Conrad Hall Chair in Cinematography and Color Timing, endowed by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.

Note: Cine Manifest is currently making the rounds of the festival circuit and will be available on DVD in early 2007 via the website,

Bob Fisher has been writing about film preservation and cinematography for over 25 years.