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Moving pictures

Humanitarian action and cinema

The earliest Red Cross films date back nearly 100 years. At the dawn of the last century, cinematography emerged as a powerful instrument of mass communication. The circumstances in which this technological revolution took place, and the repercussions it had on the Red Cross, are worthy of a closer look.

Mobile cinematographic team in Geneva, 1923. ©ICRCMOTION pictures first took off at the beginning of the 20th century, rapidly becoming a major phenomenon. Initially the preserve of amusement arcades and fairgrounds in the United States and Europe, the cinematographic experiences of the early years were simply a cheap form of entertainment. From 1910 onwards, new movie theatres packed with a disparate crowd were opening up daily. The new era of the media had arrived.

Still rooted in the cultural context of the 19th century, the most common genre of this early period was fictional drama. The evils of alcoholism, the dangers of vice for domestic harmony and man’s salvation through faith were the recurrent themes of the day. It was in this context that the Red Cross and cinema made their first acquaintance. Head of the biggest movie production company of the time, Thomas Edison produced a series of five films on tuberculosis for the American Red Cross between 1910 and 1914. Distributed in movie theatres, these films took the form of the then-fashionable melodrama, alerting audiences to the risks of the disease. As a result of this meeting of interests with the production studios, the American Red Cross acquired numerous fictional films during the pre-war years, which it then reused for public education purposes.

But the film industry rapidly tired of educational themes in favour of more sensational storylines. Moralistic dramas gradually gave way to detective stories and comedies. This thematic evolution coincided with the opening of the first big movie theatres accommodating hundreds of spectators. During the First World War, newsreels became common currency, and with them the practice of filming in the field. The distribution of films improved thanks to the creation of international distribution networks. Cinema became an art form — the seventh art — and attracted a growing number of devotees.


Propaganda and visibility

During the First World War, certain Red Cross Societies grew in size and stature, boosted by massive funding from their governments. With the advent of peace, the support dried up, even though significant resources were still needed to meet the new post-war challenges. In order to survive, the National Societies were obliged to step up their propaganda efforts — today we call it communication — and go into film production.

The American Red Cross was the first to set up, in 1917, a Bureau of Pictures, which produced film documentaries on its activities. The aim was to elicit public support by showing humanitarian work in action. The films were shown at conferences, which were the main means of promoting humanitarian action. Silent films were traditionally accompanied by the piano or commented by a speaker, who would then invite the audience to support the vital work by making a donation.

At about the same time, the first mobile film-propaganda services appeared. Film made it possible to go out to the people and show them, through the language of images, what hygiene measures to take to stop the spread of contagious diseases, which were rife at the time. Teams made up of a projectionist — who often also doubled as chauffeur — and one or two speakers took to the road in vans kitted out with portable equipment, stopping in towns and villages to give movie showings. Initiatives of this kind were organized in the United States and France, but also in Poland and Czechoslovakia after 1918.

Abandoned by the film industry, humanitarian cinema developed a parallel distribution network of its own. As one American Red Cross official put it in 1920, “In the United States, there are, in addition to the theatres, 14,000 venues, such as churches, schools, clubs, etc., where shows of this kind can be put on.”

From nitrate to DVD: preserving images from the past

For the 10th International Conference of the Red Cross, held in Geneva in spring 1921, the ICRC produced four films: the repatriation of prisoners of war, the fight against epidemics, care of children and aid to refugees, shot amidst the ruins of Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire.

Originally on nitrate-based film stock, the old footage has been transferred onto digital video and has just been released on a double DVD, Humanitarian Action and Cinema: ICRC films in the 1920s, directed by Jean-Blaise Junod and co-produced by the ICRC and Memoriav, the Association for the Preservation of the Audiovisual Heritage of Switzerland. The set can be ordered from Memoriav or the ICRC on their respective web sites: and

The Red Cross takes to cinema

By the 1920s, the idea of putting cinema at the service of the Red Cross was well advanced. It was generally agreed that “for public propaganda to be truly effective, it is not enough to make a convincing argument: you have to touch the emotions using persuasion bordering on suggestion. Only moving images can capture the audience’s interest in this way.”

From its creation in Geneva in 1919, the League of Red Cross Societies established its own film service. By 1921, it already had some 60 films, most of them originating in the United States. To encourage wider use of this medium, the secretariat made its films available to National Societies. Within a few years, all the sections of the League were employing film in their programmes. The League’s film library boasted more than 200 films on a range of themes, including protection of children, sexually transmitted diseases, infectious diseases, hygiene, disaster response and nursing activities.

In April 1921, all the National Societies met in Geneva for the first time since the end of hostilities. At the suggestion of the Italian Red Cross, an exhibition set up for the occasion included a film-projection room. Just before the conference, for which it was the organizer, the ICRC realized that it did not itself have a single film on offer. It therefore decided at the eleventh hour to produce four films portraying its new areas of activity: the repatriation of prisoners of war, the fight against epidemics, care of children and aid to refugees (see box). The American, British, Italian and Swedish Red Cross Societies also presented their productions, an indication of how widespread had become the use of film in the Red Cross Movement.

On 19 January 1922, there was a showing in London of two films brought back from Russia by the Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen, who was directing the international relief operation for victims of the famine. The films, depicting living conditions in the Volga region, had the effect of a bombshell. The following day, the Daily News reported: “No advertisements, articles, verbal or printed appeals could have produced such an overwhelming impression upon the audience as did the staggering realism of these pictures.” Produced in several languages, the documentaries were disseminated throughout Europe, the United States and Japan. Some of the images were relayed by the written press around the world in a matter of weeks.

For the first time, films unleashed an outpouring of international solidarity and led to a massive fund-raising success. As a result, some 10 million people were fed for two winters, saving them from a famine that nonetheless took the lives of nearly 5 million people. From that moment on, Red Cross films became a key tool to shape the perceptions of an ever growing public.

Relief for young Russian refugees in Istanbul. (Extract from an ICRC film, 1921) ©ICRC

Enrico Natale
Enrico Natale is a historian based in Geneva, Switzerland.


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