New York — JAMES Klein and Julia Reichert, a filmmaking team from Ohio, made an important decision when they started their fine new documentary, Seeing Red: Stories of American Communists.
In exploring the American Communist Party during its heyday in the 1930s and '40s, they decided to bypass the leaders, policymakers, and bigwigs who ran it. Instead, they went straight to the ordinary members - people who swelled the party's ranks, obeyed its orders, and followed its line.
This was a practical move, since it helped the directors organize their large and complicated subject. But more important, it helped focus attention on the aspect that fascinated them most: not Communist history or policy, but the human emotions, aspirations, and ideas that once led so many ''regular folks'' to involve themselves with the turbulent Communist cause.
The finished film, which has been nominated for an Oscar as best documentary, is by turns dramatic, informative, and remarkably funny. Relying mostly on present-day interviews, peppered with cleverly chosen archive material, it traces the ups and downs of American Communist activity from the large-scale marches and protests of the '30s to the party's collapse in the mid-'50s, when the ugliness of Stalinism became overwhelmingly apparent.
None other than Ronald Reagan introduces the show, in a clip from a grim-faced anticommunist movie made more than 20 years ago. Other personalities cover a broad spectrum from the right to the left - old films of J. Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon on one extreme, conversations with musician Pete Seeger and a variety of unsung activists on the other. It adds up to a vivid, often surprising guided tour through a byway of Americana that's been overdue for serious cinematic attention.
No movie can tell ''the whole truth'' about a subject, of course, and ''Seeing Red'' is no exception. Its makers freely acknowledge their subjectivity , and even underline it by showing director Reichert as an on-screen interviewer. They also grant that their attitude toward the film's ''characters'' is a generous one. But that doesn't mean they celebrate the Communist movement. They aim only to examine the phenomenon on its own terms - as a corrective to decades of one-dimensional treatment by standard movies and TV shows.
Thus the movie focuses on why people chose to join the left-wing movement, noting that some inflammatory Communist causes of the past (the eight-hour day, the right to unionize, and others) are taken for granted today. Many of the interviews point to idealism, not subversiveness, as a motivation for joining what movies have often shown as a wholly sinister enterprise.
With equal force, though, the movie zeroes in on the flaws and failings of the Communist movement, including many that seem self-evident today. Compassionately but relentlessly, the filmmakers expose deep contradictions in the party's fabric - how its patriotism faded into blind worship of the Soviet Union, for instance, and how its rhetoric about equality masked a rigid hierarchy. There's even a colorful interview with a woman who recalls how the local party bureaucrats didn't care much about females, but reluctantly allowed her to tag along with her brother. So much for feminism in the ''classless'' Communist community!
I talked with directors Reichert and Klein the other day at the Manhattan office of New Day Films, a respected cinema cooperative they helped found in the early '70s. No, they said right away, neither of them has ''old left'' connections. While they consider themselves ''political filmmakers,'' they made ''Seeing Red'' largely because they didn't know much about the subject in advance.
''I come from a real Republican family,'' says Reichert, ''and supported Barry Goldwater in college.'' Klein grew up faithfully watching the adventures of Herbert Philbrick on ''I Led Three Lives,'' a popular anticommunist TV series of the '50s. ''It was my favorite show!'' he recalls with a smile.
Although their views have changed since those early days, and their knowledge has widened, both filmmakers own that ''Seeing Red'' was the most challenging project they have tackled since teaming up almost 15 years ago. (They are also a team in private life, and have a 41/2-year-old daughter.)
Among the questions they faced: Would former or present Communist Party members ''go public'' in filmed interviews? And even if the movie could be completed, is the topic of communism so controversial that any approach to it would be instantly attacked from right, left, and center?
They learned the answers as they went along. Yes, many people refused to participate - one such rejection, via telephone, is in the movie - and other people were too timid, when it came to this touchy part of their lives, to be good interview subjects. Then, when shooting and editing were finally complete, distributors declined to release the picture, deeming the topic too chancy for commercial success.
Reichert and Klein are documentary veterans, however. They spoke with some 400 candidates before choosing the 15 who appear on screen. Then, after an arduous editing period - during which they settled on the movie's final structure - they decided to forgo the usual distribution network and release the movie themselves. While the jury is still out on its popular success, engagements are slated in several major cities, and it has already opened in New York and California. The filmmakers are also experts on the large nontheatrical market (libraries, universities, and the like) which has welcomed their earlier projects.
As filmmakers and as people, Reichert and Klein feel social issues really matter. Hence their commitment to a probing, nonfiction cinema dealing with both historical and current concerns. Of all their films, ''Seeing Red'' is the first they have consciously aimed at a broad, theatergoing audience. If it succeeds, they may move still further toward a popular, readily accessible style. But their basic outlook - with its good-humored intelligence and openness to new ideas - will likely stay the same, which is good news for the movie scene.