If your interest in film extends beyond the multiplex, you have no doubt heard of, and probably seen at least a clip from, Dziga Vertov’s 1929 documentary The Man With the Movie Camera.. If you are a student of film, you’ve probably pored over it in the context of other early Soviet films, perhaps comparing and contrasting Vertov’s approach with that of Sergei Eisenstein. According to Sight & Sound it's not only the best documentary of all time, but also the eighth best film in any genre. That’s a lot for a film to live up to, and yet The Man With the Movie Camera never disappoints, even after repeated viewings.
It’s not easy to describe what makes this film so captivating. In fact, it’s not easy to describe it at all, because the director had a lot more to say about what this film is not than what it is. Vertov, a Ukranian Jew working in the Soviet system (his birth name was David Abelevich Kaufman; cinematographer Mikhail Kaufman was his brother), wanted to create a distinct form of cinema that would not echo the conventions of the theatre but would use the technical means unique to film to create a new art form. Vertov, who joined the Communist movement in 1918, also wanted to avoid what he believed to be the bourgeois form and content of commercial Western films and instead to focus on the everyday lives of workers and other ordinary people.
Vertov also believed that the camera could function as an extension of the human eye, and that the “technical eye” of the camera lens could see and record a truth that the ordinary human eye would miss. He posited this “Kino-Eye” approach in distinct opposition to conventional narrative films of the time, which he called “Kino-Drama”, and believed the latter hid the truth rather than revealing it.
Normally, I look for the door when anyone starts talking about revealing truth through a constructed art form, but fortunately, you don’t have to believe in any of Vertov’s theories, or even be aware of them, to appreciate The Man With the Movie Camera. It chronicles daily life in several Ukranian cities (Odessa, Kiev, and Kharkiv) over the course of a day, from people waking up in the morning to going to bed at night. While Vertov’s sympathies were clearly with the working class, all strata of society get their time in front of the camera, including some people who had clearly spent the previous night without a roof over their heads.
The progression throughout a single day gives The Man With the Movie Camera a feeling of forward movement, and some individual segments are clearly organized around a theme, whether it's contrasting the routines of the rich and the poor or simply focusing on different round objects. The only constant is the regular appearance of the titular cameraman, although he's more a presence than a developed character and, like the other people who appear on screen, remains anonymous and reveals nothing about himself beyond what we can observe. Because it lacks a narrative in the conventional sense, and because the segments do add up to a collective portrait of life in the cities featured, The Man With the Movie Camera bears more resemblance to contemporary “city symphonies” like the 1927 Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt than to any conventional Hollywood film of the period.
The Man With the Movie Camera was edited by Vertov’s wife, Elizaveta Svilova, and her excellent work is crucial to the film’s success. One specific editing technique the film uses over and over again is that of montage in the Soviet sense, meaning the juxtaposition of images so they appear to comment on each other. Sometimes this juxtaposition carries a political meaning—for example, shots of rich women riding in carriages are juxtaposed with shots of women working in factories—while in others the effect is more of a verbal rhyme, like a shot of a woman washing her face juxtaposed with that of a window being cleaned.
My bottom line for a film is that the experience of watching it must be sufficiently rewarding to justify the time spent, and The Man With the Movie Camera more than passes that test. Setting all theories aside, it’s just fun to watch. Vertov had a fantastic visual imagination, and there’s never a dull moment on screen, due in part to a relatively short average shot length of 2.3 seconds (the average for film released in 1929 was 11.2 seconds). Vertov was also the master of special effects, and used techniques like double exposures, altered film speeds, and unusual camera angles and positions to add visual interest to this film. He also had an eye for framing interesting shots, and a sense of humor revealed in, for instance, shots of theatre seats apparently flipping down as if by magic.
The Flicker Alley release of The Man With the Movie Camera features a restored version of the film, based on a print from the archives of the EYE Film Institute in Amsterdam. It looks beautiful, and the soundtrack, based on notes left by Vertov, greatly complements the film’s visuals. This release also comes with an informative booklet including several illustrated essays on Vertov and his films, and four other Vertov works: the films Kino-Eye (1924), Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass (1931), and Three Songs About Lenin (1931), and the 21st edition of Vertov’s Kino-Pravda newsreel series (1925), marking the first anniversary of Lenin’s death. None of these works are the equal of The Man With the Movie Camera, but they are all interesting as historical documents and for the light they shed on how Vertov’s cinematic style developed and changed over time.
The Man with the Movie CameraDirector: Dziga Vertov
Cast: Mikhail Kaufman
Distributor: Flicker Alley
Release Date: 2015-06
The French French program was curated by Thierry Garrel. Read his essay below and learn more about the screenings and events here.
CLAIRE SIMON — THE (FRENCH) WOMAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA
“Un documentaire est la plupart du temps la recherche ef frénée, passionnelle, d’une histoire qu’on ne connaît pas et qui menace de ne pas apparaître to ut au long du film. Tout film documentaire se situe par rapport à ce manque, l’histoire y est l’objet du désir, du cinéaste comme du spectateur.”
“Most of the time, a documentary is the unbridled, passionate quest of an unknown story that throughout the film threatens not to appear. Every documentary film has to cope with this gap, the story is the object of desire of the filmmaker and of the viewer as well.” -Claire Simon
Last year during DOXA 2015, Vancouver cinephiles discove red Claire Simon’s Géographie humaine (Human Geography), a film composed of people and experiences taking place in Paris’s Gare du Nord , the biggest train station in Europe. In her astonishing, and invigorating masterclass, Ms. Simon also screened clips from some of her previous films. This year at DOXA, Vancouver audiences will have the opportunity to see seven of these documentaries in a retrospective of Claire Simon’s work.
It started 30 years ago, when Simon began making short fiction films. By chance, she attended one of the famous Varan Workshops, a movement inspired by master/précurseur Jean Rouch, ethnologist, cinéaste, and inventor of Cinéma Direct (a name he preferred to the ambiguous Cinéma Vérité). This hands-on approach to making films coincided with the advent of smaller cameras that allowed filmmakers to establish intimate co ntact with their subjects, to invite them to participate in a kind of game where real life becomes the flesh of a film.
In her debut feature documentary, Les Patients (The Patients), Simon followed a family doctor — her father’s best friend — visiting his patients for the last time before his retirement. Through the lens of her tiny V8 video camera, Simon catches precious, and at times hilarious glimpses of these elderly people, as well as the tenderness and care of a therapeutic relationship. Two years later, Simon made Récréations (Playtime). It was 1991 and the first Hi8 video broadcast cameras were coming into use. Simon spent days in the courtyard of a kindergarten with her small camera, capturing the raw, brutal, and occasionally tender games of children. Free of any adult control, these kids fashion epic stories of love and struggle. The result was a portrait of human socialization in its formative (molten) state.
Tenderness is at the core of Simon’s work. She takes aim at people with a respectful and benevolent camera that is fully inhabited by the spirit of amicalité (“friendliness”). It is the approach that the philosopher Kostas Axelos urged people to take up as the new mode for globalized mankind: “ Est-ce ainsi que les hommes vivent? ” How people ‘play’ themselves is part of Simon’s insatiable curiosity. Candid, but never intrusive or voyeuristic, provocative by its very presence, Simon’s approach engages empathy in the suffering, hope, and dignity of real people. Or, as she says, “To build the truth one has to understand what is really going on, because the spectator will see what I understand.”
Whether she is filming her friend in the streets and parks of Nice, France, to evoke intimate recollections (Mimi), or engaging in conversation with the eclectic and multiracial population that constitutes daily life in Vincennes Park (Le bois dont les rêves sont faits / The Woods Dreams Are Made Of) — her work collects stories and characters so vivid and unforgettable that fiction could never compete. Moments both large and small are given resonance and room to breathe. The gentle phone conversation between a doctor and his patient who is threatening to kill herself with a revolver, the ‘kidnapping’ of a little girl by of a gang of boys on a kindergarten playground, or the tears of a young woman seeking an abortion. Simon devoted one of her most moving films to a 15-year-old girl (her own daughter!) falling in love with a baker’s son in a small village in Provence, in 800 kilomètres de différence / Romance (800 kilometers of difference / Romance).
Although Simon’s work often broaches major themes like ‘Goodness’ (Le Bois...), or ‘Money’ (Coûte que coûte / At All Costs), a film that follows the thrilling ups and downs of a small catering business, she never theorizes abstractly about issues. Instead, she embodies and reveals complexity by exploring territories where characters are in the grip of life, uncovering truth, but at the same time preserving something of their transparent opacity.
Film after film, Claire Simon has built a consistent œuvre and become an influential and consummate auteur. She has always been interested in abolishing the line between documentary and fiction, crossing this border with intelligence and a profound dedication to the human spirit. In Les Bureaux de Dieu (God’s Offices), famous French actresses play écoutantes (“ listeners”) in partnership with non-professionals, who take on the role of visiting patients in an abortion clinic — the result is an astonishing blend of fiction and reality.
Whether it is teenagers, little children, old folks, or sex workers, Simon is able to establish her documentary pact with people of a different age, sexual orientation, religion, and race. In so doing, she dives deep into the human soul to reveal the universality of experience — be it shame, pride, desire, sorrow, or joy. What ultimately emerges is the thrilling experience of being human. Or, as the French documentarist Dominique Dubosc so perfectly stated: “Of rediscovering that there is but one human species and I belong to it.”
Thierry Garrel, a French Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, joined the Research Department of French Television (ORTF) at the age of twenty and went on to Head of the Documentary and Junior Authors Division at the Institut National de l’Audiovisuel (INA). From 1987 until 2008, he was the Head of the Documentary Film Department of La Sept and ARTE France, European cultural channels. While in this position, he developed many highly regarded programs and the renowned “GRAND FORMAT” collection which has co-produced and aired over 200 international award-winning feature length documentaries. Since 2009, he has worked as a consultant and is devoted to “experience feedback”, by tutoring international seminars and workshops focusing on young documentary creators and professionals.