In between his early forays into electoral politics and his eventual tenure as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, Bernie Sanders was still very politically active — but not as a politician. During the late ’70s, he was something of a filmmaker. A year after his last attempt to run for governor of Vermont as the Liberty Union Party candidate, he founded essentially an independent production company, the American People’s Historical Society. If he continues to hold on as the Democratic frontrunner for this year’s presidential election, Sanders just might end up being the US’s first Documentarian-In-Chief.
Out of his own home, Sanders produced simple filmstrips and slideshows intended for educational distribution and exhibition in the region’s schools, focusing on issues and individuals usually overlooked — or intentionally ignored — by the American education system. In a pamphlet from the time, Sanders described his outfit as “a newly formed nonprofit organization producing audio-visual from an alternative point of view.”
The Historical Society’s productions were rather rudimentary. There would be a slideshow of images related to the topic, with a recording to play along; a beep recorded from Sanders’s son’s walkie-talkie signaled when the teacher should move on to the next slide. Sanders voiced all the male roles, while artist Nancy Barnett, his neighbor, recorded the female parts. In a Mother Jones profile on Sanders’s Burlington years, Barnett describes Sanders’s frugal existence at the time as something like the life of a struggling independent filmmaker: “He was living in the back of an old brick building, and when he couldn’t pay the [electric bill], he would take extension cords and run down to the basement and plug them into the landlord’s outlet.” Sanders logged hundreds of miles schlepping across the state, visiting schools and attempting to convince educators to screen his materials.
The APHS made filmstrips on a variety of topics. Their largest-scale production was a half-hour documentary about Sanders’s lifelong political hero, socialist organizer and perennial presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs. Though the original slideshow hasn’t made it to the digital age, the audio recording is available on YouTube, accompanied by a slideshow related to the subject.
In addition to its run on the classroom circuit, Eugene V. Debs: Trade Unionist, Socialist, Revolutionary broadcast on WCAX-TV, Burlington’s CBS affiliate, and eventually on ETV, Vermont’s public television station. Sanders has long been a fierce critic of corporate television; in 1979, he authored an op-ed criticizing commercial television for “attempting to brainwash people into submission and helplessness.” But he also recognized the medium’s revolutionary capabilities: “The potential of television, democratically owned and controlled by the people, is literally beyond comprehension because it is such a relatively new medium and we have no experience with it under democratic control.” Ending corporate control of mass media has been a central tenet of his political platform for decades. In 1994, decades before Disney’s recent spate of cannibalistic acquisitions, he spoke before Congress about his fears concerning the “growing concentration of ownership of mass media.”
Eugene V. Debs is addressed to younger listeners for whom Debs would only be a footnote in a textbook, if that. It frames him as a lost prophet before explaining how he ended up where he did ideologically. It opens with Debs’s final presidential campaign, conducted in 1920 from prison. If a million people voted for this man while he was behind bars, if more people went to hear him speak than President Taft, then how could history have forgotten him? Sanders contextualizes Debs within the Industrial Revolution and Jim Crow era, explaining his socialism as a response to issues which still resonate today: the exploitation of working people, segregation and violent racism, voting rights, and the suppression of free speech and dissent during World War I.
Sanders had originally contracted Howard Da Silva — an accomplished Broadway star with a long history of playing historical figures onscreen, from Benjamin Franklin in the film version of 1776 to FDR in Larry Cohen’s The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover — to read for Debs, but the arrangement fell through. Instead, Sanders himself reads the words of Debs, reciting the Midwestern revolutionary’s speeches in his distinctive but anachronistic Brooklyn accent. That lack of star power might have hurt the documentary’s prospects at the time, but it’s more interesting in retrospect, given the momentum of the current movement behind Sanders. Aligning himself so literally with the labor movement’s past constructs a kind of solidarity across time and history.
Eugene V. Debs: Trade Unionist, Socialist, Revolutionary is very much an educational film, stuffed with information about its subject and overflowing with an impassioned perspective, though a little on the dry side. Even then, it clearly expresses what drew Sanders to the words and vision of Debs. It doesn’t just focus on Debs’s struggle, but also emphasizes the positivity and hopefulness of his worldview. For both Debs and Sanders, their vision of a better world is as much defined by good feeling — “beauty, joy, and cooperation” in a quote from Debs — as material necessity.