Orphan Film Symposium: The 1961 Folk Singer Protest in Washington Square Park, and Emile de Antonio's America

At the beginning of each Orphan Film Symposium, I like to scan the schedule and make note of the films I can't miss. The registered participants see all the films together as well as talk over organized lunches and dinners. The screenings start in the morning and continue through the evening, so the collective experience is intense. Though I take care of minor behind-the-scenes tasks, I like to attend most of the screenings.

I put today's early afternoon session at the top of my list – films that documented protests held in Washington Square Park in the 1960s, and a couple of presentations on maverick documentary filmmaker Emile de Antonio.

Dan Drasin was a burgeoning 18-year-old filmmaker when he took his cameras and some black and white film to document a protest by folk singers in Washington Square Park in 1961. Reacting to the passage of an ordinance that prohibited singing in the park (folk singers attract unsavory elements, don't you now?), the active folk music community brought guitars to the park and sang songs of freedom. After the singers dispersed, policemen beat up some of the spectators. Drasin's 17-minute film captures that gritty determination of New Yorkers at the beginning of the 1960s, and many consider Sunday to be the first protest film of the 1960s. You can view the film on Drasin's website.

Other films from the session included selections of footage shot in Washington Square Park from 1966 by Bob Parent, an artist known mostly as a still photographer, and an NYU surveillance film from 1968 of students protesting Dow Chemical's role in the Vietnam War. Ross Lipman (UCLA) presented a PowerPoint show on the restoration of Emile de Antonio's Point of Order (1963), focusing much on the usage of the word "spectacle."

Andrew Lampert of the Anthology Film Archives recently found a 1967 interview with de Antonio filmed in Leipzig, Germany. With Point of Order, his edited film of the 1954 Army-McCarthy televised hearings, De Antonio explains that he didn't set out to make a movie about his opposition to Sen. Joe McCarthy but to make a movie about the aspects of America that created the conditions for McCarthyism. De Antonio, by the way, promoted and distributed Drasin's Sunday protest film.

After sitting in the dark film theater and seeing the sights and hearing the sounds of Washington Square Park in the 1960s, walking back through the same park in the rain on my way home was a bittersweet experience. The fountain area is torn up now as part of an extensive multi-year renovation. The sincere voices and strumming that accompanied the well-preserved black-and-white moving images of protest seemed fresh, but the sounds of "This land is your land, This land is my land" grew faint as I looked around the park in it's current state of disruption. I am full of hope, however, that variations on these melodies will return one day back in full force.

Images: above, NYU surveillance film of Dow Chemical protesters; below: de Antonio.

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