A propaganda film is a film that involves some form of propaganda. Propaganda films may be packaged in numerous ways, but are most often documentary-style productions or fictional screenplays, that are produced to convince the viewer on a specific political point or influence the opinions or behavior of the viewer, often by providing subjective content that may be deliberately misleading.
Propaganda can be defined as the ability "to produce and spread fertile messages that, once sown, will germinate in large human cultures.” However, in the 20th century, a “new” propaganda emerged, which revolved around political organizations and their need to communicate messages that would “sway relevant groups of people in order to accommodate their agendas”. First developed by the Lumiere brothers in 1896, film provided a unique means of accessing large audiences at once. Film was the first universal mass medium in that it could simultaneously influence viewers as individuals and members of a crowd, which led to it quickly becoming a tool for governments and non-state organizations to project a desired ideological message. As Nancy Snow stated in her book, Information War: American Propaganda, Free Speech and Opinion Control Since 9-11, propaganda "begins where critical thinking ends." 
Film as a propaganda tool
Film is a unique medium in that it reproduces images, movement, and sound in a lifelike manner as it fuses meaning with evolvement as time passes in the story depicted. Unlike many other art forms, film produces a sense of immediacy. Film’s ability to create the illusion of life and reality, opening up new, unknown perspectives on the world, is why films, especially those of unknown cultures or places, are taken to be accurate depictions of life.
Some film academics have noted film’s great illusory abilities. Dziga Vertov claimed in his 1924 manifesto, “The Birth of Kino-Eye” that “the cinema-eye is cinema-truth.” To paraphrase Hilmar Hoffman, this means that in film, only what the camera ‘sees’ exists, and the viewer, lacking alternative perspectives, conventionally takes the image for reality.
Films are effective propaganda tools because they establish visual icons of historical reality and consciousness, define public attitudes of the time they’re depicting or that at which they were filmed, mobilize people for a common cause, or bring attention to an unknown cause. Political and historical films represent, influence, and create historical consciousness and are able to distort events making it a persuasive and possibly untrustworthy medium.
At the turn of the 20th century, films emerged as the new cultural agents, depicting events and showing foreign images to mass audiences in European and American cities. Politics and film began to intertwine with the reconstruction of the Boer War for a film audience and recordings of war in the Balkans. The new medium proved very useful for political and military interests when it came to reaching a broad segment of the population and creating consent or encouraging rejection of the real or imagined enemy. They also provided a forceful voice for independent critics of contemporary events.
The earliest known propaganda film was a series of short silent films made during the Spanish–American War in 1898 created by Vitagraph Studios.
At an epic 120 min running time, the 1912 Romanian Independenţa României is the first fictional film in the world with a deliberate propagandistic message. Filmed with a budget that will not be reached by a Romanian movie until 1970 (Michael the Brave, supported by the Romanian communist regime also for propagandistic purposes), the movie was meant to shift the perception of the Romanian public towards an acceptance of Romanian involvement into an expected Balkan conflict (the First Balkan War).
Another of the early fictional films to be used for propaganda was The Birth of a Nation (1915), although it was not produced for the purposes of indoctrination.
World War I
Film was still relatively new to urban audiences with the outbreak of hostilities in 1914. Governments’ use of film as propaganda reflected this. The British and Americans’ initial struggles in the official use of film led to eventual success in their use of the medium. The Germans were off to a faster start in recognizing film’s value as a tool of perpetuating pro-German sentiment in the US through The American Correspondent Film Company as well as on the front lines with their mobile cinemas, which showed feature films and newsreels.
Though the Allied governments were slow to use film as a medium for conveying a desired position and set of beliefs, individuals, such as Charlie Chaplin were considerably more successful with The Bond and Zepped.
In the years following the October Revolution of 1917, the Soviet government sponsored the Russian film industry with the purpose of making propaganda films. The development of Russian cinema in the 1920s by such filmmakers as Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein saw considerable progress in the use of the motion picture as a propaganda tool, yet it also served to develop the art of moviemaking. Eisenstein's films, in particular 1925's The Battleship Potemkin, are seen as masterworks of the cinema, even as they glorify Eisenstein's Communist ideals. In depicting the 1905 Russian Revolution Potemkin sought to create a new history for Russia, one led and triumphed over by the formerly oppressed masses. Eisenstein was heavily influenced by the ideology of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, which results in it providing better insight into the mindset of the later revolution than that which it depicted. Its dual purpose beyond forging a national Russian identity was to bring its revolutionary Communist message to the West. Its influence was feared in Germany to the extent that the government banned the film when it was released in the late 1920s. Another of Eisenstein's films, 1927's October, depicted the Bolshevik perspective on the October Revolution, culminating in the storming of the Winter Palace which provided Soviet viewers with the victory that the workers and peasants lacked in Battleship Potemkin, ending with Lenin (as played by an unknown worker) declaring that the government is overthrown. Because no documentary material existed of the storming of the palace, Eistenstein's re-creation of the event has become the source material for historians and filmmakers, giving it further legitimacy as the accepted historical record, which illustrates its success as a propaganda film.
Between the Great Wars American films celebrated the bravery of the American soldiers while depicting war as an existential nightmare. Films such as The Big Parade depicted the horrors of trench warfare, the brutal destruction of villages, and the lack of provisions.
Meanwhile, Nazi filmmakers produced highly emotional films about the suffering of the German minority in Czechoslovakia and Poland, which were crucial towards creating popular support for occupying the Sudetenland and attacking Poland. Films like the 1941 Heimkehr (Homecoming) depicted the plight of homesick ethnic Germans in Poland longing to return to the Reich which in turn set the psychological conditions for the real attack and acceptance of the German policy, Lebensraum (living space).
Cannabis and hemp
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In the 1930s, anti-drug propaganda was exampled in such films as Reefer Madness (1936), originally financed by a church group under the title Tell Your Children, was intended to be shown to parents as a morality tale attempting to teach them about the dangers of cannabis use, and Assassin of Youth (1937) about the supposed ill-effects of cannabis. Hemp for Victory (1942) promoted the benefits of hemp and encouraged farmers to grow as much as possible for the war effort.
World War II
The 1930s and 1940s, which saw the rise of totalitarian states and the Second World War, are arguably the "Golden Age of Propaganda". Nazi control of the German film industry is the most extreme example of the use of film in the service of a fascist national program and, in 1933, Hitler created the Reich Ministry for People's Enlightenment and Propaganda and appointed the youthful Joseph Goebbels as its head. Fritz Hippler, producer of one of the most powerful propaganda films of the time, 1940's The Eternal Jew (Der ewige Jude), ran the film department under Goebbels. The Eternal Jew purported to be a documentary depicting the Jewish world, insinuating that the Jewish population consisted of avaricious barbarians putting on a front for civilized European society, remaining indifferent and unaffected by the war. During this time Leni Riefenstahl, a filmmaker working in Nazi Germany, created one of the best-known propaganda movies, Triumph of the Will, a film commissioned by Hitler to chronicle the 1934 Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg. Despite its controversial subject, the film is still recognized for its revolutionary approach to using music and cinematography. Another of Riefenstahl’s films, 1938’s Olympia, was meant to prove that the Reich was a democratic and open society under Nazi rule. It had the perfect venue, the 1936 Berlin Olympics in which to showcase Adolf Hitler’s Aryan ideals and prowess. One of the most notable shots in the film is Hitler congratulating the African American Jesse Owens on his four gold medals, whose successes spoiled Hitler’s wish to depict those of African descent as racially inferior. The film won a number of prestigious film awards but fell from grace, particularly in the United States when, in November 1938, the world learned of the pogrom against the Jews. Riefenstahl’s cinematic masterpiece, though temporarily effective propaganda, was unable to mitigate the growing awareness of the political realities in Nazi Germany.
In the United States during World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized that the direct style of propaganda would not win over the American public. He assigned Lowell Mellett to the post of coordinator of government film. Although he had no jurisdiction over Hollywood films, he pressured the industry into helping the war effort. On 13 January 1945 Mellett stated in then-confidential testimony that he was assigned to persuade the movie industry to "insert morale-building and citizenry arousing themes in its films by all means possible." Luckily, many directors recognized the necessity (and likely the commercial success they would reap) of supporting the battle against fascism as public opinion lay with the war effort. One such filmmaker, Frank Capra, created a seven-part U.S. government-sponsored series of films to support the war effort entitled Why We Fight (1942-5). This series is considered a highlight of the propaganda film genre. Other propaganda movies, such as Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) and Casablanca (1942), have become so well loved by film viewers that they can stand on their own as dramatic films, apart from their original role as propaganda vehicles. Charlie Chaplin once again joined the U.S. war effort, creating The Great Dictator (1940), in which he played the Hitler-like character of 'Adenoid Hynkel' — this was preceded by some nine months by the short subject starring The Three Stooges, You Nazty Spy!, as Moe Howard was the first American actor (as "Moe Hailstone") to spoof Hitler in film.
Animation became popular, especially for winning over youthful audiences. Walt Disney and Looney Tunes were among those that actively aided the U.S. war effort through their cartoons which provided training and instructions for viewers as well as a political commentary on the times. One of the most popular, Der Fuehrer's Face (1942) was a means of relieving the aggression against Hitler by making him a somewhat comical figure while showcasing the freedom America offered. Disney's Food Will Win the War (1942) attempts to make US citizens feel good by using US agriculture as a means of power. Also popular in the Soviet Union, the government produced such animated shorts as What Hitler Wants, which depicts a devilish Hitler giving Russian factories to capitalists, enslaving and riding once-free Soviet citizens, but shows that the U.S.S.R. will be prepared to fight, paying the Germans back in triplicate, ready to beat the 'fascist pirates.'
Many of the dramatic war films in the early 1940s in the United States were designed to create a patriotic mindset and convince viewers that sacrifices needed to be made to defeat "the enemy." Despite fears that too much propaganda could diminish Hollywood’s entertainment appeal, reducing its targeted audience and decreasing profits, military enlistment increased and morale was considered to be higher, in part attributed to America's innovative propaganda. One of the conventions of the genre was to depict a racial and socioeconomic cross-section of the United States, either a platoon on the front lines or soldiers training on a base, which come together to fight for the good of the country. In Italy, at the same time, film directors like Roberto Rossellini produced propaganda films for similar purposes.
Similar to Nazi Germany, the U.S.S.R. prepared its citizens for war by releasing dramas, such as Sergei Eisenstein's iconic Alexander Nevsky. The U.S.S.R also screened films depicting partisan activity and the suffering inflicted by the Nazis, such as Girl No. 217, which showed a Russian girl enslaved by an inhumane German family. Films were shown on propaganda trains while newsreels were screened in subway stations to reach those who were unable to pay to see films in the theater.
When describing life in Communist countries, western propaganda sought to depict an image of a brainwashed citizenry which was then held captive by their government. The CIA's Office of Policy Coordination adapted George Orwell's Animal Farm into an animated movie in 1954 that was released in England as production costs were considerably lower.
During the 1960s, the United States produced propaganda films that cheerily instructed civilians how to build homemade fallout shelters, to protect themselves in the event of nuclear war.
Red Dawn (1984) depicts an alternate 1980s in which the United States is invaded by the Soviet Union, Cuba, Nicaragua, and other Latin American allies of the U.S.S.R. and a group of small-town high school students engage in guerrilla warfare in their resistance of the occupation, eventually beating the communists. It has been considered by some to be right-wing propaganda.
Pork Chop Hill (1959) was the most notable 1950s American anti-war propaganda piece about the Korean war. Milestone was known for his previous anti-war films, including 1930's All Quiet on the Western Front and Shangganling (The Battle of Sangkumryung Ridge or Triangle Hill; 1956), which was the most influential film on the Chinese in that era. Both Pork Chop Hill and Shangganling depict a single battle in which a small dedicated unit defends a small holdout with very little hope of reprieve. Like all propaganda the importance of the film is not the battle itself but the outstanding characteristics of such individuals who would commit such acts of patriotism for their home and country.
Over 100 years since its creation, film continues to resonate with viewers and helps influence or reinforce a particular viewpoint. Following the 9/11 attacks, many Americans were split on the success of the government’s response and the ensuing war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Similar to the Vietnam War, filmmakers expressed their view of the attacks and feelings about the war through films, most notably, Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004). The film sparked debate across the country, presenting mixed assessments on the role of the U.S. government and its response along with the controversy that normally arises when depicting recent, traumatic events. Director Michael Moore omits footage of the planes striking the Twin Towers, cutting directly to the aftermath and destruction. Alan Petersen’s Fahrenhype 9/11 was released in response to Fahrenheit 9/11's success in theaters. Petersen called Fahrenheit 9/11 "the Road Runner of manipulation...removing all avenues of thought through over-determination...leaving no room for the viewer's own judgment." It received considerably less press and screentime than Moore's controversial piece.
Ayman al-Zawahiri stated that “We are in a media battle for the hearts and minds of our umma [community] of Muslims.” Towards winning the hearts and minds of the MENA region, Al-Qaeda and its affiliates have produced propaganda films and documentaries depicting jihadist attacks, last will and testament videos, training, and interviews, all meant to boost morale among supporters. Al-Qaeda established a Media Committee early in its inception to handle traditional Western and Arab media as well as create an online media presence, which was established through the multi-media company as-Sahab in 2001. The company, which produces documentary-like films and operational videos for Afghanistan is known for its technological sophistication, cinematic effects, and their efforts to reach the west with translations and subtitling. Its operational videos were serialized in Pyre for Americans in Khorasan [Afghanistan]. Other productions in North Africa include Apostate in Hell, a Somali film produced by al-Fajr Media Center includes interviews with Somali jihadists, training of fighters, preparation for an attack, and actual operations. It along with many other al-Qaeda videos is distributed by Arabic jihadist websites as that community relies on the Internet to a high degree to disseminate information to followers.
Food, health, and beyond
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Elements of propaganda films can also be incorporated into films that have messages that seek to implement positive change within society. However, what one generation may see as positive, later generations may experience negative effects from.
As mentioned previously, Walt Disney's Food Will Win the War (1942) attempts to make US citizens feel good by using US agriculture as a means of power. In 1943, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) introduced its "Basic 7" nutrition guide (a precursor to the food pyramid). In the same year, the United States Office of War Information released Food for Fighters about the importance of nutrition in wartime. Between the 1940s and 1970s the Green Revolution increased agriculture production around the world which led to further increases in farm size and a reduction in the number of farms. Advances in fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, antibiotics, and growth hormones, reduced crop wastage due to weeds, insects, and diseases at the expense of health and safety from agricultural pollution. Good Eating Habits (1951) by Coronet Films is a drama focusing on gluttony and "hidden hunger," where well-nourished people eat poorly and malnourish themselves. Miracles From Agriculture (1960) from the USDA presents then supermarkets as the showplaces of agriculture, discussing methods of improvement in the growing, handling, processing, and shipping of food products and the cooperative assistance offered by agricultural and food-processing research centers; the film also hypothesizes that a nation grows according to the productivity of its agriculture.
Since the 1990s to the present, responses to mad-cow disease, genetically modified foods, flu epidemics in pigs and birds, and an increase in foodborne illness outbreaks, agricultural pollution, and Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) have led people to question where their food comes from and what is actually in it. The use of antibiotics and hormones in cattle and birds, artificial food additives like artificial colors/flavors, artificial sweeteners like high-fructose corn syrup and aspartame, artificial preservatives, etc., prompted "propaganda" films like Super Size Me (2004), King Corn (2007), Food, Inc. (2008), Forks Over Knives (2011), and others to promote food awareness, organic farming and eating local organic food, reducing and eliminating pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and synthetic fertilizers, and adopting a vegan and/or raw food diet.
Health and medical propaganda films include The Pace That Kills (1935, cocaine), The Terrible Truth (1951, Sid Davis, anti-marijuana/heroine), Case Study series by Lockheed Aircraft Corporation (1969, amphetamines, barbiturates, heroine, LSD), Hoxsey: Quacks Who Cure Cancer (1988) about the Hoxsey Therapy, The Beautiful Truth (2008) about the Gerson method for treating cancer, the anti-vaccine The Greater Good, Burzynski The Movie: Cancer Is Serious Business (2010), and Michael Moore's Sicko (2007) about the health care industry.
Other propaganda film topics include Cannabis and hemp, Are You Popular? (1947, Coronet Films, popularity), The Spirit of '43 (1943, Disney, income taxes) with Donald Duck, Boys Beware (1961, anti-homosexuality), Perversion for Profit (1965, anti-pornography), The Secret (2006), a self-help film about the metaphysical concept of the law of attraction, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (2008) about intelligent design, Silent Contest (2013) a military propaganda film produced by the People's Liberation Army.
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- Cohen, Karl. November 2011 "The cartoon that came in from the cold".. The film additionally has the distinction of being the first animated film produced in England. The entire movie is available through the Internet Movie Database at Animal Farm (1954).
- Miller, John J. November 2011 "The Best Conservative Movies".
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- Critical Analysis Part 1: Food, Inc., Jen James, WRH 315: Propaganda and You, 23 April 2010 (Retrieved 4 February 2012)
- Food for Fighters, Prelinger Archives at Archive.org (Retrieved 4 February 2012)
- Good Eating Habits, Prelinger Archives at Archive.org (Retrieved 4 February 2012)
- Miracles From Agriculture, Prelinger Archives at Archive.org (Retrieved 4 February 2012)
- Food Propaganda, Inc., Center for Consumer Freedom, 7 July 2009 (Retrieved 3 February 2012)
- The Five Most Misleading Propaganda Films from the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, Daniel Murphy, Esquire Blog, 7 November 2011 (Retrieved 4 February 2012)
- Lockheed Aircraft Corporation at the Internet Movie Database
- Medical Propaganda Films, Wallace Sampson, Science-Based Medicine, 2 April 2009 (Retrieved 3 February 2012)
- Anti-vaccine propaganda lands in New York City this weekend, David Gorski, Respectful Insolence (ScienceBlogs), 18 November 2011 (Retrieved 3 February 2012)
- Stanislaw Burzynski: Bad medicine, a bad movie, and bad P.R., David Gorski, Science-Based Medicine, 28 November 2011 (Retrieved 6 February 2012)
- Propaganda Filmmaker: Make Your Own Propaganda Film
- PropagandaCritic Video Gallery
- Empire-Hollywood: Chronicler of War, a look at the Pentagon's influence on the film industry (2 videos 15:53 from The Real News)