My children who are, for the most part in their teens, are heavy New Media users. In their world Netflix, YouTube, podcasts, and social media have taken over from TV channels, radio, and newspapers. That said, whilst they may not be “old media” consumers per se, they certainly know their way around it: they are well aware of what a radio is, and the type of content one might find in a newspaper, however; when I asked them what “newsreels” were, I was met with eyes so positively stumped, you would think I had just challenged them to figure out how to work Thomas Edison’s phonograph.
The above scenario is hardly a given. How many of us who are still around, have ever actually listened to music on a phonograph? Not many, I should think. Newsreels on the other hand – those bite-sized news bulletins they used to show in Israeli cinemas between the 1930s and ‘70s just ahead of the night’s main film presentation – were anything but a niche cultural phenomenon. Quite the opposite. According to one estimate, in 1965 alone, upwards of 44 million Israeli filmgoers were watching newsreels in cinemas. Now, seeing as Israel at the time only had a population of 2.5 million, what this meant was that every Israeli that year watched an average of nearly 18 newsreels.
In their heyday, newsreels were an integral part of all members of the Israeli public’s lives. Therefore, what was it that ultimately relegated them to the footnotes of history, consigned to be forgotten? To answer this question, a bit of time travel back to the early 20th century is called for where we explore the cultural and technological landscape in which newsreels had evolved.
The “newsreel” format was the brainchild of business and film pioneer Charles Pathé. Born in France in 1863, Pathé in his youth had a go at several crafts and business ventures: he sold industrial washing machines, tried dealing exotic parrots, and even ran the family bistro – however, none of his entrepreneurial efforts seemed to take off. Then in 1894, on the cusp of his forties, he found himself working as a Junior Clerk at a law firm.
That same year, Pathé also first came across Thomas Edison’s invention – the phonograph; the same device that with time, would evolve into the record player we all know. He was instantly besotted with this novelty and though his clerk wages were paltry – he nonetheless saved up his pennies until he could finally afford to buy himself the same type of phonograph. The following year, Pathé returned to the same fair where he had originally purchased his phonograph, only this time he was selling tickets to other fairgoers who were eager to find out what music coming from an electric device sounded like. And indeed, people bought tickets by the hundreds and Pathé went home with a handsome sun of 200 Francs in his pocket.
Pathé recognised the business opportunity he had in his hands and along with three of his siblings, started Société Pathé Fères (Pathé Brothers Company) which specialised in marketing phonographs. Shortly thereafter, he was exposed to yet another novel medium – film – through the pioneering work of the Lumière Brothers. The Pathé Brothers Company promptly branched out into the field of film equipment, and it wasn’t long before they began making their own films. Indeed, the film business turned out to be a most successful bet: in just a few years, this small family enterprise grew into the world’s biggest film corporation and was the driving force behind the opening of over 200 cinemas in dozens of countries worldwide. One would not be remiss to say that Pathé was the man who turned filmmaking from an otherwise niche artform into a global, powerhouse industry.
Charles Pathé was an avid fan of all things novel. Under his vision, the company introduced a great many technological innovations into the world of filmmaking such as colour and sound on film, small amateur video cameras, and so on. Newsreels too were one such novelty: Pathé Fères by now had branches in many countries – including the US and the UK – and their staff were indeed capturing some of the period’s highest-profile events such as Queen Victoria’s funeral, King Edward VII’s coronation, and the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
Pathé started showing this footage as short news video recaps – each, just a few minutes long – ahead of the cinema’s main film presentation. And with that, ‘the newsreel’ was born. The public responded with gusto and indeed, audiences were soon flocking to cinemas not only for the films but also, the newsreels. We should remember that in those days, the cinema was the only place where the general public could behold the spectacle of “moving images.” And whilst the daily papers may have had all the latest stories (newsreels were usually updated only on a weekly basis) – there is a fundamental difference between a textual recap or still image from a sports competition for instance, and a video of the same event. That difference became that much more prominent when newsreels started bringing in an audio soundtrack and commentary.
Newsreels’ soaring popularity meant that before long, the Pathé Brothers started facing some competition: from small production companies with big dreams, to mega conglomerates such as US billionaire, William Randolph Hearst’s media empire.
In the 1920s, Charles Pathé stepped down from the company he had founded and with time, it began to lose its lustre, however; newsreels seemed to just keep going from strength to strength. Even earlier, during WWI, the effect that newsreels were having on public opinion in the West was becoming evident; the UK government for instance, commissioned a handful of propaganda films to be shown as part of the newsreels – films that, according to reports, were watched by over 20 million people. Later, in the 1930s, newsreels started covering a range of additional topics beyond their traditional scope of current affairs: joining the news updates was now bespoke content targeting women (stories about fashion and women’s sport for instance) and some more “classic” entertainment pieces about all kinds of quirky inventions, wild beasts and so on.
The average newsreel was around 7-10min long and included up to eight different stories. In the US alone, newsreels in the 1930s were watched by at least 40 million people on a weekly basis. By the early in 1950s, at the height of newsreels’ popularity, they were being watched by an average of 210 million people, weekly – roughly a tenth of the world’s then-population.
With success on such a vast, global scale, it was only a matter of time before newsreels also hit British Mandatory Palestine’s shores. The man who brought them over here was Nathan Axelrod – a Russian-born filmmaker who immigrated to Palestine in 1926 and soon began making short films commissioned by the British Mandatory government and the Jewish Agency. Axelrod was heavily influenced by Soviet film pioneers such as Sergei Eisenstein and as such, he ventured to make local narrative films of only the highest quality – however, (even) back then, the desolate and impoverished Palestine was hardly the ideal setting for one to erect a Middle Eastern Hollywood offshoot.
Axelrod’s first attempt at a feature-length fiction film was a spectacular failure. The film, The Pioneer (‘ha’chalutz’), set out to follow the trials and tribulations of a new immigrant who had come to the land, eager to become a Jewish pioneer – however, the production was plagued with behind the scenes friction between crew members which ultimately, was this ambitious project’s undoing. Following The Pioneer’s commercial flop, Axelrod decided it was time to rechart his course. Along with wife, Leah who was his editing and production partner, he started a company called Moledet Productions that specialised in newsreels and adverts. Moledet was later replaced by Carmel Films – a company Axelrod set up in 1935 and which over time, also branched out to feature-length filmmaking.
The newsreels were as huge a success locally as they were, internationally. Axelrod took his camera everywhere around the country, filming high-profile individuals and milestone moments in the land’s and people’s history that otherwise were hardly getting any media coverage – from footage of tree-planting and land ploughing in kibbutzim in the Galilee and Negev regions, to festivals in a nascent Tel Aviv – the vast majority of which is available to you here, at this archive. Several of Axelrod’s films indeed captured history in the making, e.g. the cornerstone laying for the Netanya colony; the inaugural Maccabiah Games and of course, the declaration of independence at Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff House; an event from which, lamentably, just one minute’s worth footage has survived the perils of time.
Local filmgoers took to the newsreels with the same levels of enthusiasm as their international peers – and soon, Nathan Axelrod found himself facing some competition of his own. The first of whom was choreographer, dancer, and painter Baruch Agadati, who also produced the country’s first ever animated film. Agadati (who got his Hebrew name when poet, Jacob Fichman introduced him to poet laureate, Haim Nahman Bialik as “the legendary Baruch” [‘Agadati’ is Hebrew for ‘legendary]) started the AGA newsreel that operated between 1931-1934. As one would expect of the country’s then miniscule Jewish community, competition was very much a relative concept: just to illustrate, when Leah and Nathan Axelrod were married, the man holding the camera at their wedding was Agadati himself. Later, upon the launch of Geva Newsreels, Axelrod would discover the true meaning of “stiff competition.” The manner in which those events had transpired is quite telling of the period in question.
Film production has always been a craft of dubious financial feasibility. And whilst Nathan Axelrod was producing a slew of promotional and educational films for the British authorities and the JNF and later, even brought adverts into his newsreels – his take-home at the end of the day was paltry, at best. As a result, following the establishing of the State of Israel, filmmakers had no choice but to depend on government support and funding. In return, the newsreels were expected to include propaganda films that portrayed the state and its institutions in a favourable light. The majority of funding came from the Home Office, however in the early 1950s, a series of political shifts resulted in the government’s religious parties seizing control of the ministry. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, who was not about to just hand over his propaganda vehicle over to the Orthodox politicians, called for the commissioning of a new reel – one that would answer to his party.
Geva Films were founded in 1952 by two Israeli film pioneers: Mordecai Navon and Yitzhak Agadati (Baruch Agadati’s brother.) Having then teamed up with a cooperative by the name of Colon, together they produced the Colon-Geva Newsreel whose big screen debut was in April 1951. The Geva Newsreels secured their government subsidy through the Ministry of Industry and Commerce and as such, made sure that the reels always featured some form of star-studded ministry event. After two years of collaborating, the Colon Cooperative called it a day thereby surrendering full newsreel production rights over to Geva Films.
Yet another film pioneer was Margot Klausner who came from a wealthy Jewish-German family and was one of the most influential, high-profile figures in the early Israeli culture scene. In fact, she was the one who brought Israel’s national theatre, Habima to the country from Europe. In Israel, Klausner and her husband started a production company named Urim in 1933. Then, 16 years later in 1949, they started Israel Motion Pictures Herzliya Ltd. (now United Studios Israel) – which to this day, remains one of Israel’s top production houses.
Zvi Spielmann, a then-senior Herzliya Studios executive, met up with Nathan Axelrod one day and gave him a lift from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. That fateful journey led to a most unlikely collaboration. “[Nathan] was telling me how they were putting out six copies [of the newsreel] and that he had a team of three to four people, which keeps them busy for a fortnight,” Spielmann recalled. “I said to him, ‘In our lab, Nathan, you can do all that in just half a day.’ […] little did I know at the time that was already on the verge of bankruptcy. I talked him into it, he got on board, and we went and started the Carmel-Herzliya Newsreels that ran here from the late fifties all the way to 1968.”
The Carmel-Herzliya Newsreels proved quite the technological challenge for Herzliya Studios: what started out as a six-copy reel soon ballooned into 30 copies – far more than the studios’ existing production equipment could take on in the timeframe required. Fortunately, a senior studio technician found a way to double the film copying pace, and the studios were able to meet the demand after all.
Therefore – with public interest through the roof, and millions of Israelis making a point of turning up early at their local cinemas lest they miss their weekly news recap, why then did newsreels ended up a faded, forgotten memory?
Several reasons come to mind. The first one being the very nature of newsreels. As the famous adage goes, “the medium is the message,” and in this case, said medium happens to be film which, fundamentally is an entertainment-geared medium. As such, newsreels were never quite seen as an example of serious, hard-hitting journalism: they sought to entertain film ticketholders every bit as much as to inform them about this past week’s highlights. As a result, newsreels practically everywhere refrained from addressing more controversial topics and instead, opted for mostly lighthearted, entertaining content. It is on account of that that many historians will not consider newsreels a reliable source of historic documentation, lending instead that much more gravitas to other types of reported content, e.g. print newspaper stories.
In Israel, as illustrated, the newsreels’ historical reliability is exceedingly questionable, considering how dependent their producers were on the bodies funding them, and the latter’s consequent influence on the content. Before the state was established, local Jewish funding parties would use the newsreels as a vehicle for portraying “the best side” of pioneering Jewish communities in the historical Land of Israel – it is for that reason that this footage is mostly comprised of excited individuals who merrily go about building roads and ploughing the fields, as opposed to malnourished, malaria-riddled workers.
Following the establishing of Israel, this trend only escalated, to the extent it even earned itself the technical moniker, ‘Zionist Realism.’ Culture writer and journalist, Ariana Melamed shared her thoughts on Zionist Realism. “It was light years away from Israeli reality, and a coverup masterclass. It was devoid of any form of introspection: nothing was said in those newsreels about social struggles, corrupt bureaucracy, political parties ruling as tyrants, ethnic gaps. And in the incredibly pompous, overly gleeful, festive narration you would never hear so much as a critical word about the government.”
However, the main reason why newsreels were rubbed out of the public’s collective consciousness, I would argue has nothing to do with the way they were viewed by the public, or historians for that matter. The far likelier reason is the simple fact that contrary to newspapers, radio, and television – newsreels, quite literally vanished off the face of the Earth.
Television began taking off all over the world not long after the arrival of newsreels – but it was only towards the end of the 1940s that TV channels started to air news programming. Television had a distinct advantage over film: there was no need to be a ticketholder if you wanted to watch it, therefore it was possible to air news content that much more frequently – and certainly more often than just once or twice a week. As a result, the moment television’s popularity started increasing amongst the general public, newsreels’ hitherto rising star began its descent. Fewer and fewer viewers were following newsreels, funding was cut and from the 1960s, the axe started dropping on newsreels all over the world, one after the other.
The US’s Moviton newsreel went bust already in 1963. Another newsreel, Metro News of the Days hung on an additional four years before calling it a day. In the UK, British Moviton was able to survive all the way to 1979 – an extraordinary feat, by all accounts. Meanwhile in Israel, television arrived in the country fairly late in the game: Israeli television broadcasting only began in 1968 yet within two years, the Geva Newsreels were decommissioned. The Carmel-Herzliya Newsreels lasted just one more year before they too closed up shop.
From the moment newsreels stopped being shown at cinemas, they essentially vanished without a trace from the Israeli cultural landscape. Contrary to radio which even the most diehard Spotify users will occasionally peruse whilst driving a car or, print newspapers that even the most devoted Twitter scrollers will leaf through at times when taking the train. when newsreels were decommissioned, you simply could not watch them anymore. No one had their own private film projector just lying around at home and beyond that, the most vulnerable film reels were all sent off into storage in dark, inaccessible basements anyway. As it stands, the old cliché, “out of sight, out of mind,” has seldom held truer than in the case of newsreels.
We will soon check back in with those dank basements and ancient film rolls but before we do, another look at the issue of newsreels’ historical significance is called for. Do they really not have any? I daresay they do, and in spades. Everyone is in agreement that newsreels should not be viewed as an accurate and reliable historic document – that being said, they were not without other, major strong suits. For one, newsreels are often the only surviving visual account of major historic events. Around the world, nobody could forget the dramatic footage from the Hindenburg Disaster caught on the newsreels’ cameras. In Israel, the newsreels’ value as a historical visual document is tenfold: these local newsreels are practically the sole surviving visual trace of Jewish communities and life in the land prior to the establishing of the State of Israel, and in the early decades of its existence. And whilst one could fill volumes and volumes of books describing pioneer life in the land – there is no substitute for actual video footage of Tel Hai kibbutz members working the fields in the sweltering heat.
The newsreels play another important role for anyone who wishes to better understand the spirit of the time in which they were made. Granted, the newsreels were not fully-fledged journalism content, however they did very much embody their viewers’ areas of interest. In a sense, they are somewhat reminiscent of today’s viral videos. Newsreel creators in Israel and around the world developed razor sharp instincts when it came to what the ticket-buying public would find interesting, be it the main events, competitions or prominent figures of the era that captured everyone’s imagination. In that sense, newsreels are a pretty solid metric of what viewers both cared and weren’t too fussed about – this, contrary to print media publications for instance, whose mission statement, in part included reporting on the important stories, however “low rated” those might be.
Finally, newsreels played an instrumental role – especially in a nascent Israel – in the rise of the local film industry. Geva Film Studios, for instance would funnel newsreel revenues towards funding the production of narrative feature films that have since become Israeli film milestones such as Eight Trailing One, Hole in the Moon, and The Flying Matchmaker to name but a few. Several of these films were in fact the debut offerings of trailblazing Israeli filmmakers such as Menahem Golan, Shaike Ophir, and Uri Zohar. What is more, many of those who went on to become leading Israeli filmmakers, took their first professional steps making newsreels. David Gurfinkel, who would go down as one of Israeli film’s greatest cinematographers described the reels he had shot for Geva Films as “one giant film school, seeing as the cinematographer did it all: producing, directing, writing, editing, and also filming […] the sharpness of it all, the speed in which one had to react, and the power to take swift, one-time decisions – all of that made these newsreels the greatest learning experience I would have ahead of my becoming a cinematographer.”
Now, it is time to come full circle. Newsreels, it turns out, are having an epic, historic comeback. The words you reading right now do not exist in a void. They are in fact part of the launch of the single largest archival database of Israeli newsreels – and it is no act of chance. The past 30 years’ digital revolution has led to a creative surge in visual media. Online video platforms – with YouTube leading the pack, make up a vast chunk of online users’ sum total of internet activities. In fact, YouTube itself is the second most popular search engine after Google.
Nowadays, every viewer has the luxury of curating their own content and for avid history buffs, there can be no content more gripping than authentic video footage from the twentieth century’s first few decades. At first, only handful of newsreels popped up on YouTube, appearing randomly and with seemingly no rhyme or reason. However, recent years have seen monumental efforts going towards converting the old and fast-disintegrating film rolls to digital formats. The result? A treasure trove of archives containing tens of thousands of newsreels from all periods and countries; the majority of which are available to the general public, free of charge – just like the online archive you are currently visiting. Newsreels’ increasing availability has made them all the more relevant in modern times as a growing number of people are made aware of their existence. So there you have it – the newsreels of yore, at last, back in the public eye.
To sum up, the advent of newsreels ushered in a pretty major novelty: making live, visual documentation of events from around the world accessible to viewers everywhere; an experience which, at the time was as unprecedented as it was revolutionary and indeed, audiences showed up by the droves. However, despite their meteoric success, the moment that newsreels disappeared from our screens – mostly over the rise of television – they also promptly vanished from our collective consciousness. Now, thanks to modern-day technology, a new generation of young, inquisitive audiences may benefit from a moving, intimate glimpse of the lives and culture of individuals who lived a whole century ago, if not longer. This film, it turns out, does have a happy ending after all.