Wormser was fortunate to be offered a job as a writer/
photographer by William Weist ’50, one of his former
Bucknell professors, who had become the editor of a weekly
newspaper in the central Pennsylvania coal town of Shamokin.
His subjects, says Wormser, “have always been people whose
voices were seldom heard in American society. In Shamokin,
I didn’t have a clue what it was like to be a coal miner until I
went down into the coal mines to write stories of the miners’
lives,” he says. “I drank beer with them and ate sausage with
Wormser later wrote a story on mentally disabled children
in a state institution. He eventually took a job there to learn
about the lives of the men, women and children inside. His
innate visual sense inspired him to create a documentary film
on the subject, and he found a film crew to work with him. And
so he began his life’s work. Hired by Bill Jersey, one of the
founders of modern documentary film, Wormser learned the
art and craft of both filmmaking and grant-proposal writing.
In the 1970s, Wormser accepted an assignment from a
book company to work as a still photographer in the Arab
world for a year. He lived in a Palestinian refugee camp, with
a Bedouin community in the desert, on a family farm in Egypt
and in the Golan Heights of Syria. His images captured stories
of the daily lives of a cross-section of Arab peoples, men and
women, young and old, political and nonpolitical, rural and
urban. Wormser also began writing young-adult books about
people whose lives most history textbooks generally omitted.
His most successful film before American Reds, he says, is
the Peabody Award-winning four-part documentary series
The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow, which appeared on PBS in 2002.
The injustice and racism Wormser saw during his civil-rights
activist days in the 1960s South inspired him to research
“American apartheid.” Wormser wanted to illuminate an
almost-forgotten time period in the African-American
struggle for freedom from the end of the Civil War to the
beginning of the civil-rights movement in the mid-1950s.
Vintage posters such as these provide
visuals in Wormser’s new documentary.
SUMMER 2016 BUCKNELL.EDU/BMAGAZINE 37
“ The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow was challenging because while
there was so much horrific violence against African-Americans,
I didn’t want to make a holocaust film in which blacks were
only shown as victims. I wanted to frame their struggle in a
dialectic. Yes, there was oppression, but there was the struggle
against oppression, and more oppression led to more struggle,
and more struggle led to more violence — until the civil-rights
movement finally erupted.”
The series continues to be distributed in schools, and
Wormser is pleased that the story is not consigned to “the
trash bin of history. Racism is tragically alive today. The film
uses the past as a means to illuminate the present.”
He feels American Reds will take the same road: examining
a piece of history that remains vital today. Wormser says
the radicals in the early days of the American Communist
Party envisioned a utopian future. However, under Stalin,
what transpired was not a utopia but a dystopian nightmare.
Yet the struggles of American Communists for a better
and more equitable world are the same struggles that racial
minorities, immigrants, women and the unemployed
continue to fight in America and elsewhere.
Wormser, 82, says he has projects in various stages of
thinking, grant writing and preproduction that should last
him at least another decade. He says he won’t retire “unless
I get a grant to do so. When not filmmaking, I try to teach
my students what I continue to learn from the great French
writer Paul Valéry: ‘If you want to realize your dreams, the
first thing you must do is wake up.’ ”
To watch a trailer of American Reds, download the Bucknell
Magazine app or go to bucknell.edu/bmagazine.