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Films that change lives

Paul Shannon is program associate for the Peace and Economic Security Program in Cambridge, Mass. Photo: AFSC

Many people have one—a film that caught you at the right moment in your life and changed everything.

Paul Shannon remembers seeing footage of children being napalmed in Vietnam, and of U.S. soldiers throwing away their medals. These films were his introduction to the antiwar movement in the 1970s; in the decades since, his life’s work has been teaching about and working with social change movements.

“Films make you feel a part of something,” says Paul. “You think you know something about an issue, and then you see a really well-made film, and realize there’s more than you ever dreamed of.”

Whether it’s exposing people to abuses of power or lifting up the stories of social movements, hundreds of documentary films and slide shows have introduced thousands of people like Paul to ideas and networks that led them to lifelong work for social change.

Many of those films are available through the film and video lending library that Paul has directed for a quarter of a century. It’s housed at AFSC’s office in Cambridge, Mass., and its 1,500 films, videos, and slide shows may well constitute the largest multimedia collection on peace and justice issues in the country, he says.

For decades, the library was the definitive place for teachers, organizers, and community groups to find multimedia resources on the social issues of the day.

Opened in the 1950s, it really took off during the Vietnam War. “The film library was really a key component of the peace movement,” says Paul, pointing out that the collection also kept up with social justice struggles: The library has at least 50 films on the Vietnam War, but one of its most popular films in the 70s was “Janie’s Janie,” the story of a single woman on welfare. This film “hit things at the right time,” he says—the combination of the anti-poverty struggle with the struggle of a woman to become liberated caught the attention of many people.

The late 70s and early 80s were the busiest years for the library’s collection. The war ended in 1975, and as the peace movement shifted its focus to apartheid in South Africa and nuclear weapons and power, the library acquired new films like “War Without Winners,” a 28-minute appeal to prevent increased arms spending, and “Last Grave at Dimbaza,” which for many people exposed apartheid’s horrors more than any previous film or photograph.

In the 80s, the library purchased dozens of films related to the conflicts in Central America; among them was the Academy Award-winning documentary that AFSC produced, “Witness to War: An American Doctor in El Salvador.” In the 1990s, films on globalization were most popular, and there was a renewed interest in the library’s programs on Iraq sanctions in 2003.

Howard Zinn, the ground-breaking historian, was among major supporters of the library, and he donated his own collection to AFSC.

As the manager of the library since 1977, Paul has witnessed not only the evolution of social change, but also the changing role of films within social movements. The advent of VHS and DVD technology meant a big shift to home viewership, but the Internet really changed things—for both organizers and film librarians—in the past decade.

“Most of the stuff we have is not available anywhere else, so we’re still a good archive for people doing historical research,” says Paul.

Paul notes that teachers are the main patrons today—they’re still using films about people and struggles of the past and today to open students’ worlds.

Special finds in the collection

Automated Battlefield (1971)
“It’s an AFSC slide show about the air war in Vietnam. You’d read the script while viewing the slide. It was a very effective means of education. It involved people a lot more than video.”

Three Thousand Years Plus Life (1972)
“We’re the only place where you can get the film on the Walpole, Mass. prison takeover”

Coming of Age (1982)
“I used to show it in class. It’s on gender stereotypes, with girls and boys, white kids and black kids. [Historically] it was important information but so out of date today.”