Propaganda is easy to identify in hindsight, says James Forsher. The hard part is spotting it in the present tense. He should know. The Cal State Hayward assistant professor and filmmaker has been collecting propaganda films since the ’80s, in connection with cable TV documentaries he’s produced for A&E, as well for his own academic interest. Recently Forsher, who teaches broadcast production at the Hayward campus, was asked to start a certification program in nonfiction film at CSUH Contra Costa, and he’s been bringing his archive to the Concord campus. On July 25 he presented a “Banned Movie Night”; this Friday evening’s offering is a clips show titled “Propaganda Film Night” (7 p.m. at the Oak Room of the Library Building on the CSUH-CC campus, 4700 Ygnacio Valley Rd., Concord, 510-602-6772).
For the ninety-minute illustrated talk, Forsher dug into his vaults and made a tape of about a dozen historical examples of blatant propaganda, from the 1896 The Sinking of the Maine, America’s first propaganda film, to Department of Defense military indoctrination films about Vietnam from the early ’60s. In between are Hollywood patriotic efforts from the Great Depression, WWII Japanese films depicting Western decadence, the outrageous Nazi German hate film The Eternal Jew, and such laughable oddities as Jack Webb’s anticommunist reels from the ’50s (“All you need is one good atom bomb … “).
Forsher admits to a fascination with these often-clumsy attempts to politically influence audiences. The 1950s commie-scare stuff, for instance, “shows a naive culture,” he says. “These films need to be seen in context. Propaganda today is harder to interpret.” Perhaps because every time al-Jazeera or CNN airs a piece of tape, it’s been subjected to maximum spin, á la Wag the Dog. Audiences today are much more sophisticated about media manipulation than earlier generations, presumably because they’ve seen it all before. Familiarity doesn’t always lead to skepticism, though. What does “propaganda” mean to college students in 2002? “I don’t think they have a clue,” opines Forsher. “They’ve been bombarded with advertising all their lives. But it’s always worthy of discussion.”