filmmaker | writer | photographer


I didn't decide to become a filmmaker until what is now considered the relatively late age of 21. After studying comparative literature at Columbia University I'd gone to Yale to get a PhD in Romance Languages, but my ignorance of French proved to be an almost-insurmountable barrier. Fortunately, the department chairman offered to help me get a fellowship to study in France and since the Sorbonne seemed too mundane a choice, I asked if there was a film school in Paris. I'd developed a taste for foreign films but had never used a camera more complicated than a Kodak Brownie. Nevertheless, I was accepted at the Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinématographiques and sailed to Europe in the fall of 1962. It was a heady time to be a film student in Paris. The Algerian War had just ended and the New Wave was in full flower. I learned French quickly and adapted to student life in Paris even faster. Unfortunately, I'd neglected to get a student deferment back in the States, so I was drafted into the U.S. Army before I could finish film school. I went through basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, then spent 22 months in the Utah desert at the Dugway Proving Ground. When I got out of the Army I went back to New York, began working as a freelance camera assistant, and joined New York Newsreel, an activist, anti-war film collective.

I admired the militants of the Film and Photo League who had filmed strikes and demonstrations in the 1930s, as well as the French Leftists of May '68 who went into factories and joined workers' picket lines. I believed in the working class without having had much first-hand experience of what was generally accepted as "work". I put in long hours and carried heavy equipment around yet I never considered myself a worker. "Work" was something you did in a factory, not on a film set.

Then, in the early 1970s, I was hired as a freelance producer for a cable television show sponsored by the AFL-CIO and my first assignment was a story about a steel mill in Cleveland, Ohio. I'd never been in a factory before and the conditions in the mill were quite different from what I had imagined. The noise was so loud that you couldn't hear yourself think, let alone someone speaking five feet away. Workers communicated by hand signals and the only warning of imminent danger was the shriek of a siren. There were no telephones available to make or receive calls, no coffee breaks, and lunch time was limited to half an hour. If the foundrymen didn't want to eat in the dust-filled area where they worked they had to run three hundred yards to a small room on the other side of the mill, and even this was regarded as a privilege, since management had asked to eliminate the lunch period entirely in the last contract negotiation.

Most striking to me was the fact that none of the workers knew much about what anyone did outside of their specific area. Visiting another part of the mill was strictly forbidden, even on your own time. I, on the other hand, had always made it my business to ask questions wherever I worked and was rarely denied the opportunity to satisfy my innate curiosity. Here in the mill however, I'd gained a better overview of the steelmaking process in one day than men who had worked there for 20 years. Before this I took my life as a filmmaker for granted. I worked with my hands and my brain (or at least I tried to) and I could usually see a finished product that I knew I had a role in creating. I never really thought about how few people had that opportunity.

One of the first films I made on my own was "Clockwork", a short documentary about Frederick Winslow Taylor, the so-called father of scientific management, and his role in creating the modern work environment. I was familiar with Henry Ford and Karl Marx, but Taylor was completely unknown to me until I began researching the film. Labor history is rarely taught in American high schools and colleges and the history of management is absent entirely, so perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised at my ignorance. Since then, the subject of work has been one of my main interests. The idea of process—how things get put together—is something I try to incorporate in both my film work and my writing. I also look for ways to break down the barriers between work and creativity, which is the subject of my latest film, "The Last Pin Factory". Recently, I found a line in a book that put it quite well: "All labor is a form of art that is not yet recognized".

I think that documentary filmmakers have a special responsibility, to ourselves, and to society, because of the relative freedom we enjoy. Film has expanded our horizons, both the microcosm and the macrocosm, and while it's important to examine the world of the electron and the far reaches of the universe, it's no less essential to see what is happening right in front of us, in our schools, hospitals, offices, and factories. Understanding the role of work in our society is crucial to creating a better and more just world.

— September 2008
Eric Breitbart



Current work in 2010:

Video and Film Production (selected)
Cinépingle: la mémoire du geste (2008)
Robert Indiana: American Dreamer (2006)
Animal Tracks (2005)
Louis Stettner: Times Square (2005)
Under Bryant Park (2003)
Aby Warburg: The Archive of Memory (2003)
I Am the Cosmos (2002)
A World on Display (1994)
Diego Rivera: I Paint What I See (58 min. 1989)
Northern Stars (1988)
Clockwork (1980)
Wishes, Lies and Dreams (1972)

Writing: Books and book chapters
The Walls of Algiers Chapter 7: "Invisible Prison: the image of Algiers in cinema" (forthcoming from the University of Washington Press, 2009)
"Work in Progress": Kinematografien der Arbeit (b-books, Berlin 2007) translation of "Labor Power/Cinema Power" (see below)
A World on Display: Photographs of the Anthropology Exhibits at the 1904 World's Fair, (University of New Mexico Press), 1997
Presenting the Past: Essays on History and the Public, (Temple University Press), 1986, Chapter 6: "The Painted Mirror: Historical Re-creation from the Panorama to the Docudrama"

Writing: Articles
"Urban Space in The Battle of Algiers", Cinemascope, June 2007
"The Burns Effect and the Cinema of Reassurance", New England Review, February 2007
"Labor Power/Cinema Power", Cinemascope, August 2006
"Call Me Melville", New England Review, June 2006
"Teaching Documentary in Journalism Schools", International Documentary Assoc. Journal, Summer 2004
"Film and History", Cineaste, Spring 2004
"Visible City: The Future of Sunset Park" (article and photographs), Metropolis, January 1990
"History of Housing in New York City", (pamphlet), Center for the Study of Social History, 1989
"Carl Dreyer's Joan of Arc Rises from the Ashes", Sightlines, June 1986
"Interview with Joris Ivens", Sightlines, April 1986
"Diego Rivera", Encyclopedia of the American Left, 1985
"Interview with Wallace Markfield", Shmate, Vol.1, #8, Summer 1983
"Early Jewish Film Stereotypes", Shmate, Summer 1983
"Al Schacht: The Clown Prince of Baseball", Shmate, Summer 1983
"How Four Young Filmmakers Made it in Hollywood…", American Film, February 1983
"Agit-Prop Rock: Music Videos Go Political", Sightlines, April 1983
"Twenty Years of Social Documentaries", Sightlines, May 1983
"The Raymond Tapes", American Film, March 1982
"Bad Boys: Public Television Looks at Juvenile Justice", Seven Days, February 23, 1979
"Scenes From an Unhappy Marriage" Television Quarterly, Summer 1980
"The Battle of Chile", Seven Days, January 1978
"Tourists of the Revolution: Four Films on Portugal", Seven Days, June 16, 1978 

"The New Fall TV Season: ABC Fiddles While NBC Burns", Seven Days, October 27, 1978
"The South Bronx Through the Eyes of the New Centurions", Seven Days, February 28, 1977
"For Two-Parent Families, the Work is Never Done", Seven Days, February 18, 1977
"Capitalism Comes Out of the Closet", Seven Days, May 9, 1977
"Showdown in the Sugar Bowl: Children's TV Advertising", Seven Days, April 28, 1976
"Interview with Jean-Pierre Melville", Film Culture, Winter 1964-65

Exhibition Design
EXPO 2000 (Hannover, Germany), Consultant for exhibits on Knowledge and The Future of Work.
Albuquerque Museum (New Mexico): script for installation video on the history of Albuquerque (1995-6)
Henry Ford Museum (Dearborn, Michigan): research, scriptwriting and production of videos for exhibits on the automobile's influence on American culture, and the history of manufacturing in the USA (1988-89)

Conference and Film Festival Presentations
Orphan Film Symposium, New York University, March 2007
"Filmer le travail" Conference, Aix-en-Provence, France, November 2007
Academy of Management, Annual meeting, Philadelphia, June 2007
Champ/Contrechamp Film Festival, Lasalle, France, May 2007 and 2008
Organization of American Historians, San Francisco, April 2005
Getty Center, Los Angeles, May 2004, "Walls of Algiers"
National Associationn of History Teachers, St. Louis, April 2004
National Film Board of Canada, Montreal, 2001, "French Language Documentary Production"
Center for the Study of Working Class Life, Youngstown State University, (Ohio), June 2000
Oberhausen Film Festival, Germany, March 2000
ZKM, Karlsruhe, Germany, December 1997: "Connected Intelligence: Man and Information Systems"
VIII Encontros Internacionais de Ciné Documental, Lisbon,"Scientific Cinema and the Study of Work"
Oberhausen Film Festival, Germany, 1995, "Scientific Management in Early Cinema"
Centre de la Villette, Paris, 1995, "Science at World's Fairs: 1893-1904"
Journées Cinématographiques de Carthage (Tunis) 1992 and 1994
Latin American Film Festival (Havana), 1983

Grants and Awards

California Humanities Council (1994)
Missouri Humanities Council (1992)
New York Humanities Council (1989)
National Endowment for the Arts (1989)
National Endowment for the Humanities (1989)

Teaching Experience
University of Notre Dame, South Bend, IN, 1996-7 (film history and video production)
Deep Springs College, Deep Springs, CA, 1995 (video production)
Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, N.Y. 1990-91 (video production for artists)

Columbia University, B.A. (magna cum laude) 1961
Yale University Graduate School (French Department) 1961-62
Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinématographiques, (Paris)1962-64

Military Service
US Army, 1964-66

Language Skills
Fluent in French

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