"With Babies and Banners," which had its premier Thursday night in the Kennedy Center's AFI theater, will be shown this weekend and next at the Key Theater. Showings are Saturdays and Sundays at 1 and 3 p.m. If you want private showings or your own print, contact New Day Films, 201/891-8240.

Snapping shut the last sprocket, the projectionist glances down from his booth and signals to the people below. As the lights slowly dim in the small preview room at the American Film Institute, the movie flickers to life with a woman's voice-over and the opening title: "With Babies and Banners - Story of the Women's Emergency Brigade."

For the next 45 minutes, a small group of elderly women meeting again after 40 years relive their involvement with the major sitdown strike against General Motors in Flint, Michigari, during the winter of 1937. Cutting between past and present, the movie illustrates the women's story with historical photographs, newsreel footage and labor-movement anthems.

A few of the images are startling in their violence: Mounted police firing into crowds of unarmed picketers. Women frantically smashing factory windows to let the tear gas out.

A few are moving in their emotion: A street celebration after the GM capitulation. The final freeze frame on the clenched-fist salute of the women's leader as she shouts from a podium, "Solidarity forever!"

Sometime later, I discover "solidarity forever" can be against the press well.

Crowded around a small coffee-shop table, the movie's director sips her cappuccinoo, the editor shifts in her chair, and both flash nervous smiles. Lorraine Gray and Melanie Maholick are decidedly uncomfortable. After investing thousands of hours and dollars in their film, the two women are now naturally anxious over who reads what about their work, and they don't particularly trust their interviewer.

Gray is especially wary.Wanting publicity and control at the same time, she tends to use phrases like, "What you should write is . . ." Often we can discuss a topic only if the details are all off the record: problems with an old distributing company, exact numbers of films sold, hints about labs sabotaging student projects.

Instead Gray prefers corralling discussion around the film's message. "It was really important to met not to make a nostalgia film," she says, changing the subject after skillfully parrying a pointed financial question. "We saw the Flint strike as a microcosm, a case study in the problems women face even today when they try to organize."

Warming to the idea, she continues: "What fascinates me is the growth in these women from being anti-union, to an involvement with its activities and finally to the cutting edge of the strike. A real change went on there . . ."

Since women and the working class are the twin concerns of the filmmakers' work past and present, we eventually work around to their own backgrounds. Though both are of the middle class, each quickly points out working-class family origins: railroad and chemical workers in Alabama for Gray, immigrant coal miners in Pennsylvania for Maholick. Each is more interested in the hard conditions of two generations back than in the social progress of their parents' generation.

"My father ran around coal town when he was a kid," says Maholick. "But he doesn't like to talk about it now because he climbed out of that background." She pauses for a moment and adds glumly, "Then he became a Republican."

Gray and Maholick are not Republicans.

Like many fellow students out of the late '60s, they stand a bit further left in their political convictions. And they don't like apathy. "You see injustice," asserts Gray matter-of-factly, "and you want to call it, you want to shake people, you want to shout."

Only later, protected by miles of phone lines, does Gray offer a tentative peek behind that initially formidable facade of a calling, shaking, shouting social crusader. She explains that after enduring poor pay and conditions as a photographer in a non-union newspaper chain in Virginia, she decided she could shout louder through the mass media than by herself. "It's strange," she muses! "I'd be making better wages and working fewer hours back at the newspaper, but now I'm operating under my own terms, doing what I want, and helping people at the same time."

Though Gray may see film as first of all a means to social change, her "own terms" represent an end in themselves as well. Few people have the chance to so fully embody a personal philosophy into a self-controlled, everyday working life. Few people have the chance to indulge in the artistic desire to express, the need to communicate in some way:

"I can't articulate myself as a writer, but I can through film. At the Detroit premiere, it was a thrill to watch 600 people move with the film, to realize that you had really communicated what you wanted to."

And since the life of an artist sometimes smacks of ego-gratification more than than altruism, it's not surprising that in moments of weakness Gray even confess humanity along with the rest of us:

"No one's going around with a halo," she admits. "Of course I occasionally want to drop everything, get a $400-a-week job and go out to a nice place to eat. But to do that, I'd have to go out into the rat race and claw my way to the top like everyone else. It's like we tell our sponsors: We'll take your money, but with no strings attached. If I chose that kind of a life-style, I'd have too many strings attached. I'd have too many compromises. I'd sacrifice too much."

Earlier, at the coffee shop, Gray was pressing on about the overall design for the movie. "Since our primary audience is working women, we wanted the story told by real people the working class could see and relate with, people explaining their problems themselves."

"It was a type of dialetic," adds Maholick. "As we got to know these women in Flint, we'd present our ideas and preconceptions, they'd correct us with the way they remembered things, and then we'd translate this process onto film."

"Dialectic" is a word Maholick and Gray use often. It illustrates their feeling that the final "message" of a film is never an unquestioned, simple statement, but the balanced result of numerous conflicting people, ideas and perspectives. The simple statement is "propaganda." The conflict and balance make it an artistically mature expression of "point of view."

"Dialectic" is also not a bad way to describe the back-and-forth struggle with the day-to-day production problems behind this or any movie. For instance, in researching for "Babies and Banners," Gray and her co-producers Lyn Goldfarb and Anne Bohlen had to face the problem that records of women's achievements have often not been kept.

"There was no compiled information [on the women's role in the strike], so we were writing history from primary sources like news reports, court affidavits. . ." They also contacted archives and news departments across the country looking for live footage of the demonstrations. "Often what news people threw away was more interesting than what they kept. We had to look on the cutting-room floor, because that's where women have been left."

Another major point of opposition was the enormous cost of filmmaking versus the limited amount of financing available. A few of the film's expenses included 16 hours of sound mixing at $160 an hour, eight month's rental on an editing room at $500 a month (which was a bargain), and at least $700 for each internegative, good for making maybe 150 prints. Though once again reluctant to discuss exact totals, Gray figures that after borrowing and scrimping, the color documentary still cost around $1,500 a minute.

Like thousands of other filmmakers across the country, Gray sought initial backing from film-oriented arts organizations and private foundations across the country, including the American Film Institute. Jan Haag, head of AFI's Independent Filmmakers Program, received 1,528 such proposals last year for 32 AFI grants, ranging from $500 to $10,000 each and totaling around $300,000. This year her budget is up $40,000, but applicants are up as well.

Even though more private groups like the Rockefeller Foundation are now channeling money into film, Haag feels it's not fast enough to keep up with the growing need. This money crunch is in part the result of the recent trend in colleges to offer film studies majors. "Twenty years ago we had maybe two or three graduate schools," recalls Haag. "Now there're 60,000 film students out there. The industry just can't accommodate them."

Despite the competiion, "Babies and Banners" did obtain several grants, sometimes after employing a little psychological warfare to sell the issue to an all-male reviewing board. Maholick details that strategy: "We'd always make sure the secretaries at each foundation saw our first film and heard the proposal." The idea is to have the females arguing for if the males were against. "A catalyst for discussion," Gray calls it.

Ironically enough, the Ford Foundation is listed at the top of the movie's corporate acknowledgements, even though Gray disapproves of the way Henry got his original money.

The rest of the funding came from personal savings, royalties from past films, and loans. Such deficit financing requires a creative repayment scheme. "We have so many bills now," admits Gray, "when a check does come in we have to stop and think how to divide it: Who's going to have her phone turned off? Whose rent is due? Which lab to pay?. . ."

Jobs on the side helped as well, and some times paid off with more than just money.While employed at a local restaurant, one of the co-producers drew on what she'd learned from her work and organized a strike among fellow waitresses over the "hideous" wages.

Fortunately, Gray and Maholick are not new to the problems facing independent artists. Five years ago the launched into their first film, an overview of the economic, cultural and sexual barriers facing females yesterday and today, entitled "The Emerging Woman." "We went ahead blind," says Maholick."If we'd known what we faced, we might not have done it at all."

Director Helena Soldberg-Ladd kept them out of total darkness through her own expertise gained from filming two documentaries in her native Brazil. Her introduction to film had come in 1964 after the military shut down the National Student Union newspaper, on which she and her friends worked: "One of us got hold of a camera and said, 'I'm going to make a film.' We saw he could do it and we all got interested."

Soldberg-Ladd went on to work in the forefront of a burgeoning, politically aware "Cinema Novo" in South America, a cinema interested in film as a tool for social change and not just entertainment. "A cinema where we'd take the camera out into the streets and show exactly what was happening there."

Perhaps the biggest lesson the two women learned on "The Emerging Woman" was the difficulty in presenting the finished product to the people who should see it. The usual route for an independent filmmaker is to sell exclusive rights to a commercial distributor in return for 25 percent of the sale and rental fees. On the plus side, these 16-mm houses have a national network of mailings and catalogs and save the producers the trouble of finding their own customers. On the negative side, a new film is offered with hundreds of others, rarely receiving the individual attention it might need to succeed in a crowded field.

"It's a matter of priorities," suggests Maholick. "With these companies, a film gets pushed or not pushed depending on how much money it'll make.On the other hand, our priorities are on getting the idea out to the right people. And, unlike them, we plow any profits back into more film."

Hoping to avoid these commercial pitfalls, Gray and company are distributing "B and B" themselves. The task is not quite so Herculean now, thanks to New Day Films, a small cooperative of independent artists helping one another advertise their films by sharing mailing and printing costs. Founded in 1971, New Day is one of a growing number of self-distribution groups offering filmmakers greater control over their work and an access to the right audience.

In the case of "B and B," the target audiences are labor unions, civil-rights groups, government agencies, colleges, public libraries and so forth. A more public exposure is possible through movie-house bookings and even international film competitions. The movie is entered in festivals in West Germany, Edinburgh and New York. In April there's always the Academy Awards.

A skeptic might wonder what Europe and Oscar have to do with films about the proletariat, but Gray dismisses such questions with a utilitarian answer: more publicity means more films sold and more exposure for labor problems.

With "exposure" the key word, television has become the key medium, though it's difficult if not impossible to book. The public stations occasionally buy films, but pay little more than a stipend for the rights. And up until now, commercial networks haven't touched outside work. The only light at the end of the tunnel comes from ABC. Pam Hill, executive producer/director of documentaries, confirms that she and news president Roone Arledge are toying with the idea of new regular programing featuring independent documentaries. But Gray is not too hopeful about anyone's following suit: "These films just aren't 'Charlie's Angels.'" What lies beyond for Gray and Maholick? "Sure, we're going to stay with film," Gray responds enthusiastically enough. "We even have another movie we're working on. But it's just in the planning stage," she adds with a frown. "I can't talk about it now.