Film Exposes Documentary Truths

| November 3, 2011
Thursday, November 3, 2011


Nethers post office as photographed by Arthur Rothstein in 1935.

Sweet Briar College will host Virginia photographer and filmmaker Richard Robinson for a talk and screening of his documentary film “Rothstein’s First Assignment: A Story About Documentary Truth” at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 9 in Pannell Gallery.

The film examines the work of Arthur Rothstein, a New Deal photographer sent to Madison County to photograph residents before they were removed from their mountain homes in the 1930s to make way for Shenandoah National Park. While researching the film, Robinson found that Rothstein’s images were often staged, raising questions about the link between propaganda and documentary.

“I originally sought to portray the film as a story about documentary truth, which is what it is,” Robinson said in an email. “A documentary about a documentary. What can we know from a photograph?”

But he also made another, even more disturbing, discovery that would become part of the narrative — one he says seemed to guide Rothstein’s work. It led Robinson to Virginia’s eugenic program. He wrote about it in Time magazine in August:

“Simply put, I found that many of the children Rothstein photographed would end up in an institution in Virginia known as ‘The Colony.’ An institution where many of them would be forcibly sterilized. Some of these children were committed just days after Rothstein photographed them. In contradiction to the government narrative and Rothstein’s own captions, few of the individuals Rothstein photographed were part of the Resettlement project. They were part of a different narrative that was unknown to me.”

Robinson will discuss his efforts to uncover the whole story, which is revealed in the film. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, call (434) 381-6105 or email pcritcher@sbc.edu.

Category: Film, Uncategorized