ROTHSTEIN’S FIRST ASSIGNMENT
Directed by Richard Knox Robinson
2011, 72 minutes
Purchase: $310 | Classroom rental: $125
In October of 1935, the FSA photographer Arthur Rothstein came to the mountains of Virginia for his first assignment as a professional photographer. He was sent to Virginia to photograph residents before they would be moved to make way for Shenandoah National Park. Rothstein was at the beginning of one of the most storied careers in American Photography. At the FSA with Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and others, he would produce the most important photographic record of the American Depression.
Director Richard Robinson (The Beekeepers) retraces Rothstein's steps by interviewing descendants of the mountain people and beautifully weaving them together with a 1964 audio interview of Rothstein, archival newsreel footage, and clips from the specious documentary "Hollow Folk."
During the course of his research, Robinson discovered evidence that Rothstein's images were not pure documentation. Instead, they were often staged for the camera. Digging beneath the official story, the film unearths an unsettling link between propaganda and documentary, and raises troubling questions about the photographer's complicity in the displacement of thousands of people for "progress."
Robinson's most chilling discovery, though, is the forced institutionalization and sterilization of mountain residents as part of a eugenics program where over 8,000 individuals were sterilized. This fascinating film challenges the viewer to consider the complexity behind images that are viewed as historical truth.
Subjects & Collections
Festivals & Awards* Official Selection, Seattle International Film Festival, 2011
Reviews“Director Richard Robinson’s thoughtful narration and hand-held camera footage combine with archival film clips and photos in a poignant documentary that exposes the dark side of a beautiful national park.” - Booklist
“A compelling examination of a dark period in our nation’s history.” - Rosemary Arneson, Univ. of Mary Washington Lib., Fredericksburg, VA Library Journal
“Rothstein’s First Assignment” tells an important, dark, and largely unknown story of the ‘modernizing’ and ‘civilizing’ of Americans by Americans. We might have thought that such colonial practices were restricted to Africa and Asia, but ‘primitives’ in our own midst got the same treatment. The film, as it intends, makes us think about the role of ‘honest journalists,’ including anthropologists, in the dispossession of land, culture, and identity". – Anthropology Review Database“Rothstein’s First Assignment is a fascinating and troubling film. It forces us to rethink what we know about Rothstein’s photographs and, by extension, the work of all the New Deal artists.” – Jeff L. Rosenheim, Curator, Dept. of Photographs, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
“This subtle but powerful film establishes an important link between the inhumane practices of the American eugenics movement and Depression-era documentary photography. Robinson traces a chilling tale of deceit, cynicism, and stolen property that ruined lives in the process.” – Carol Squiers, Curator, International Center of Photography
“Rothstein’s First Assignment peels back yet another layer in the history of eugenics, suggesting the confluence of governmental policies, private motives and a focus upon ‘problem families’ during the depression.” – Paul A. Lombardo, Author of “Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court and Buck v. Bell”
“Through an intriguingly impressionistic presentation grounded on impeccable research, Richard Robinson’s film teases the viewer along an ever darkening path towards a human tragedy behind the Shenandoah National Park, and shows how the young New Deal photographer Arthur Rothstein unwittingly collaborated in the outrage.” – Stephen Fender, Author of “Nature, Class and New Deal Literature: The Country Poor in the Great Depression”