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To Tell the Truth: The Strategy of Truth

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The Strategy of Truth explores the role of film as propaganda during World War II, and the different forms it took in the US, the UK, and Germany. It also raises the central question of whether a film can be both documentary - reflecting the truth - and propaganda.

As the first major war was about to unfold on celluloid, documentarians around the globe were enlisted into the causes of their nations - causes that were not always easy to sell.

How would you convince Germans, for example, that 'the Jewish problem' requires a 'Final Solution'? Or bring class-bound Britons together as equal partners to endure and combat an unprecedented Blitz? And what would galvanize isolationist Americans - and Black soldiers faced with Jim Crow laws - to defend a patch of land thousands of miles from home?

In Germany, Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will not only promoted the Nazi ideals but was also posed to become a landmark of propaganda filmmaking (although Riefenstahl said that by definition it could not be propaganda, because it was a documentary). It was meant to stir an internal audience - Germans who were ambivalent about Hitler. Other Nazi propaganda took viewers right into battle, providing a terrifying image of German military power.

In the UK, the government first turned to newsreel directors to create propaganda, sidelining left-leaning anti-fascist filmmakers. One early result, 1939's The Lion Has Wings, was so laughable that it was reportedly screened as a comedy in Berlin. Eventually, the Crown Film Unit did call in established documentarians such as Harry Watt, Pat Jackson, and Humphrey Jennings. Their films cast the working person as hero, creatong a sense of collective heroism and shared purpose. In London Can Take It, they provided some of the most enduring images of Britons going about their business despite intense bombing.

Last into the war, the US launched perhaps the biggest and most sophisticated campaign. A mix of seasoned documentarians and Hollywood heavy-hitters such as Frank Capra discovered how to use Nazi propaganda against itself, in what one film historian calls a bit of cinematic jiu-jitsu. The resulting 'strategy of truth' was aimed at highlighting the American way of life while promoting democracy. Propaganda with a gentler face, if you will.

But one of the challenges facing Washington's new Office of War Information was that that face was completely white. Enter Carlton Moss, an African-American technical advisor who would become the mastermind behind the film The Negro Soldier. Recounting the history of black American soldiers, and portraying present-day recruits, the film was a milestone that was shown in theatres and schools across the country. 'It was a training film,' says projectionist Ivan Houston, but by showing what a world without segregation could look like 'it was training your mind.'

Featuring a wealth of archival footage from the British, German, and American propaganda effort, along with interviews with insightful film historians and veterans of the celluloid war effort, this film illuminates the complicated relationship between propaganda and documentary.

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