There is something particularly ironic about watching a documentary on the 1968 Columbia protests in the sparkling new auditorium of Manhattanville’s Lenfest Center for the Arts. Sitting as a glistening reminder of Columbia’s gentrification of Morningside Heights and Harlem, Manhattanville is the modern version of the Morningside Park gymnasium plans, one of the sparks of the ’68 protests.
“Columbia Revolt,” a documentary film of the protests made by Newsreel, was shown on Tuesday to an audience that was sparse in students but filled with people that remembered the protests themselves. The event was hosted by Columbia Professor of film Jane M. Gaines and concluded with a panel that included Norman Fruchter and Shawn Walker, two former Newsreel employees that helped film and distribute the documentary.
During the panel discussion after the film, Fruchter and Walker spoke of how difficult it was to smuggle film in and out of the besieged buildings during the protests and how they had to use an abundant number of stills to cover for their lack of moving film. Surprisingly, they also revealed that all except one of the original copies of the film are lost.
Two members of the audience who were students at the City College of New York during the Columbia protests recalled their own experiences as the protests spread from Columbia to their own campus. After the film was distributed to campuses across the country, many other campuses followed suit with protests, according to Walker.
Prior to the screening, Professor Gaines introduced the historical and technical aspects of the film. Newsreel, now Third World Newsreel, was the production company that sent in cameras to film the protests from the perspective of the protestors themselves. At the time, it was described as the anti-Hollywood. Its films, including “Columbia Revolt,” were shot on cheap film and had little fanfare.
But the film captured the energy and emotions of the protests perfectly. Part of the accuracy of the film stemmed from the involvement that the filmmakers themselves had in the protests’ causes. Two of the filmmakers, who remained in one of the student occupied buildings during the protests, were married in that time and allowed their wedding to be caught on tape.
The film follows the protests from the beginning to the end. All of the narration, according to the panelists, was by people who actually took part in the protests and were not hired narrators. It began by outlining the subjects of the protests, which were a proposed construction of a private Columbia gymnasium on public Morningside Park property and the affiliation between the University and the Institute of Defense Analyses. The IDA worked closely with the U.S. Government, particularly on scientific and technological expertise, during the Vietnam War. After the protests at Columbia and a few other universities in 1968, university oversight of the IDA ended.
Notable moments from the film include the police beating protesters as they were dragged from the Mathematics building and the ending of the film, which followed two graduation ceremonies. The official ceremony was protested by many students, and the unofficial one, attended by the graduates and a few faculty members, was held on the streets around the campus.
Now, as graduate students at Columbia are on the verge of a massive strike, the film seems particularly appropriate. Half a century after 1968, the campus may be on the verge of more turmoil.