Dziga Vertov made black and white films extolling the now obsolete regime of Soviet Russia. His works celebrate heavy industry, employ cinematic techniques – such as rapid cutting – that have become conventions, and feature no heroes except Lenin, factory workers, and the movie camera. Yet he is one of the most dynamic directors in cinema history, and his writings and films remain a fountainhead of documentary.
Vertov’s major works retain the energy of an avid teen filmmaker’s, and the complexity of mixed media in our film and digital age. He worked with his brother, cameraman Mikhail Kaufman, and his wife, editor Elizaveta Svilova. This group declared documentary’s aesthetic and thematic potential and proved it in their work. They forecast the role of current documentarians and the kind of society documentaries can create.
The Kino-Eye Manifesto
“I am Kino-Eye,” Vertov wrote in 1925, coining a new term. Kino-Eye became Vertov’s name for a filmmaking movement and the emblem of two pairs. The phrase represented the union of the human and mechanical in filmmaking, and a documentary revolution in cinema with the new revolutionary society of the USSR. To Vertov, these two pairs were inextricable. However, he only gradually realized the formative power of documentary from his beginning in films in 1918.
The festival screenings illuminated Vertov’s progress from the newsreels Film-Week (1918-1919), Film-Truth (1922-1925), and State Film-Calendar (1923-1925), to the dynamism of his later works. Vertov’s first newsreels used found footage. The camera scarcely moves besides slow pans, and the montage maintains a predictable rhythm of inter-title, shot illustrating inter-title, and new title. Politicians, communes, steamers, soldiers, parades, horse races, pageants, trolleys, tanks, trials, fires, crashes, all sorts of factories, and converted palaces appear in static scenes.
Vertov compared his accumulation of newsreel footage to the growth of a documentary ‘factory of facts’. As his career progressed, he began to perceive the construction of his film factory as synonymous with the rebuilding of Soviet Russia from the devastation of World War One, the Russian Revolution and Civil War. Vertov came to see that he could do more than reflect the new society; he could create it through documentary. The growth of his filmmaking conception paralleled the increasing sophistication of his film style. A sequence from the thirteenth edition of Kino-Pravda in 1922 contains a series of shots that combine funerals of different Revolutionary martyrs from various cities. This sequence turns many events into one action, and charges separate episodes with shared social meaning.
A Golden Age of Freedom
Vertov had been making documentaries for ten years before The Man with the Movie Camera. His career was curtailed, with the socialist ideals he espoused, by Stalin’s dictatorship. Counting Kino-Eye: Life Caught Off-Guard (1924) as the first major work his group shot and directed, Vertov produced only six silent features. Yet these films encapsulate a range of documentary forms. Kino-Eye serves as an initial manifesto, revealing and connecting people caught off guard by the camera. The next two works transcend political commissions to make sweeping portraits of the historical transformations and geographic extent of the USSR (respectively, Stride, Soviet! and A Sixth Part of the World, both 1926). Fired from Moscow, Vertov’s next film turns an examination of an environment—the site of a new hydroelectric power station along the Dneiper River—into an ode to industrialization (The Eleventh Year, 1928). His most experimental work integrates the process of documentary filmmaking into daily life (The Man with a Movie Camera, 1929). Vertov concluded his silent period with a film based on a theme and variations of an event, the death of Lenin (Three Songs About Lenin, 1935). These works’ thematic variety, photographic composition and invention, and editing rhythms and associations, make up a school of documentary.
Producing newsreel after newsreel fused the work of Vertov’s collaborators with the society they portrayed. In The Man with a Movie Camera, social unity becomes a function of filmmaking. In his notes for the picture, Vertov wrote: “The unity of all our acting personae is thus reached through the screen.” The Man with a Movie Camera mixes footage from three Russian cities, these scenes being watched by an audience in a theatre, and the images being shot by the cameraman and manipulated by the editor. We see through the cameraman’s eyes, and then view him shooting, for example, on the ground between the legs of cart-pullers. The film freezes frames of women and children, to display shots of them on the editor’s shelves and her cutting bench. Vertov sought to familiarize spectators with the making of a documentary. He wanted the audience to identify with the filmmakers, and with filmmaking as an industrial labour that ennobles the work of a whole society.
Vertov’s career is both a school and inspiration to current documentarians. As members of society endowed with the Kino-Eye’s combined strengths of both a human being and machine, the filmmaker has a special role in shaping social relationships. Vertov’s idealism, formed as Bolshevik ideology, applies equally to today’s democracies that face a monolithic mass media. The Man with a Movie Camera suggests how the modern democratization of visual technologies, from film and digital video to the Web and Internet, can create new communities of communication. Non-fiction pictures can recuperate political options, such as Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, probe habits and institutions of mainstream culture, like Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me, and uncover hidden social processes, such as the fate of unclaimed corpses in Grover Babcock and Blue Hadaegh’s A Certain Kind of Death, all films from 2003.
Where fiction movies repeat conventions, Vertov’s writings and films embrace the ways documentaries can illuminate and unite audiences. Documentary is now in a golden age as it displays the freedom of subject and style Vertov and his collaborators claimed for it in their work. In 1938, when he made Three Songs About Lenin, Dziga Vertov turned forty-two. He lived for sixteen more years, frustrated by rejected treatments and unproduced scripts. But if ever a filmmaker’s vision endures, it is Vertov’s, as every maker of documentaries follows his demand for a deeper striving into life.
Gabriel M. Paletz holds the first PhD from the University of Southern California’s Cinema School in both film history and production. He is currently directing a documentary on a historic mining town in Nevada and completing a book that rewrites the career of Orson Welles.