AN 85-year-old film made at the cusp of the transition from the silent to the sound era—itself technically soundless, but then what we see exudes the compelling sensation of the aural and really obviates the soundtrack—has just been accorded peer recognition as the greatest documentary ever made. A poll, conducted by the iconic magazine Sight and Sound , of over 300 serious international film-makers and critics and covering hundreds of landmark non-fiction films over the last century has given Dziga Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera (1929) this unrivalled status.
This outcome is, of course, hardly surprising because the work has long been hailed as a film-makers’ film, something that approximates to pure cinema, and has, in turn, influenced other pioneers, explorers and experimenters of cinematic form, both fiction and non-fiction, down the decades.
The heady rush of what are organic images, as distinct from neutered visuals, exemplifying a strange restless order within disorder, a freewheeling parade rather than a rambunctious carnival, momentarily seeming to add up here and there to something, then letting go and lapsing back into seeming randomness, the criss-crossing of train and tram tracks and lines of communication, of work and leisure, of fleeting individual moments of relish, mirth or grief against the larger and recurrent beehive-like activity of impersonal diligent industrialism… all of this is mediatised relentlessly by the camera and the man with it, setting it up, carrying it, cranking it, on land, on the sea, in cramped mines under the earth, atop bridges, or riding a motor vehicle abreast of and filming a horse-drawn carriage with its passengers conscious of the camera filming them but not unduly self-conscious because of it, increasingly itself aware of itself, self-referential, ascending towards the end onto a series of top-angle shots that draw attention to the gargantuan act of filming almost as if in contrast to the smallness of that which is filmed, whether of cityscape or of people helter-skelter miniaturised by distance, itself becoming in mild self-mockery the performative instrument before the audience of a concert hall, and culminating in an apotheosis of convergence of the seeing human iris and the recording camera lens.
Vertov arrived at his distinctive idiom of “cinema verite” that marks Man with the Movie Camera not via an exclusive avant-garde route, but from his routine work of making journalistic newsreels for the state in the Soviet Union of the 1920s. The central concept he deployed in his Cine Pravda series of these reels was what he called zhizu vrasplokh , which translates as life caught off guard or captured unawares. He resorted, variously, to the hidden camera and the camera as a familiar prop or presence so as not to get the subjects being filmed self-conscious about it or performing for it. In some respects he anticipated by several decades the “sting” camera in widespread use in television news these days, except that the purpose then was to get a slice of life as it was and not to dig up incriminating material as now.
The news camera today has also become a device which triggers, almost like a reflex action, a complaint mode of response especially when the reaction of people is sought in times of difficulty or natural disasters, so much so that the truth sometimes tends to get buried in the exaggerated expression of grievance.Capturing workers’ lives
Reporters working with cameras in the field are familiar with these situations. A natural disaster, say a flood (as in Jammu and Kashmir now) or an earthquake, has occurred and agencies of the state and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have moved in to provide relief. Reporters who arrive at the scene may find, in preliminary chats off camera with their respondents from among the affected local people, that some succour, quantified in terms of emergency aid or food or medicine, has been provided. But the same respondents, once they are put on camera, may sing a different tune—of neglect and of denial of any aid. There is a clear non-naive understanding of the news camera as a means of getting the powers-that-be to act, to intervene more effectively, on their behalf. Some economy with truth as a closet virtue is part of the game. Of course, far more often, the opposite is actually true—that the state has really not done anything or anywhere near anything to mitigate the circumstances the people find themselves in, and the people cannot complain enough.
Truth in such instances is tempered by justice and is not a sterile value. The camera in search of truth is in search of a truth with justice for the people and speaks and acts on their behalf.
Vertov’s Cine Pravda series too captured the truth of the lives of the working class and, in the process, was naturally slanted against its rival class. If he took liberties in planting or interpolating footage portraying the bourgeoisie lifestyle as antisocial, it was to delineate better the truth-cum-justice of the cause of the working class. And it helped that pravda in Russian is the root term for both “truth” and “justice”.
In the same vein and towards the same end, his credo of zhizu vrasplokh, or capturing situations off-guard or unawares, notwithstanding, Vertov does not totally dispense with the performative element neither in his newsreels until 1925 nor in his later work. The best illustration of staged performance in the newsreel series is Cine Pravda No. 8 about the trial of some socialist revolutionaries.
In his book Dziga Vertov: Defining Documentary Film (2007), Jeremy Hicks gives a good account of the dramatisation. Vertov devises a scenario where two citizens, his brother and constant cameraman Mikhail Kaufman, and another cameraman who worked for him, Ivan Beliakov, are talking about the outcome of the trial and the possible punishment. The real footage of those taking part in the trial, of the judges retiring to decide the verdict, and people purchasing newspapers from the news stand to find out the decision, is interspersed with the staged footage of members of Vertov’s filming crew posing as people on the street; Vertov himself as well as Kaufman and Beliakov are passengers on the tram buying the paper from the vendors; Kaufman bets that those found guilty will be shot, Beliakov disagrees, and they wager a bet; the news, as it turns out, has both of them smiling: while the verdict is that the guilty should be shot, the sentence, in the cases of some, is suspended. This is a fairly elaborate and innovative way of covering a trial with the additional dimension built in of how it is received by the man on the street.
In a number of Vertov’s films, his brother, Kaufman, and his wife, Elizaveta Svilova, herself a film-maker, make appearances to emphasise, draw attention to, or configure a particular context or aspect. The eponymous “man” in Man with the Movie Camera is Kaufman, and Svilova too appears in it as both enunciation of gender and the occupational role of editor. As Hicks explains the approach, “like so much of Soviet journalism of the 1920s the resources of art and literature are trained upon the refashioning of factual material”. But Vertov was to push formalism to, what the Party and the state establishment considered, a fault and by 1924 with his Kino-Glaz (Cinema-Eye) he had shifted to the experimental trajectory that was to lead by 1929 to Man with the Movie Camera . If a dedicated band of his followers pursued the arcane credo of the Cine-Eye movement and it metamorphosed, later in the 20th century, to influence the Situationist International school of Guy Debord or the peculiar cinematic outlook of Jean Luc Godard, during his lifetime and for a good while after, all it brought Vertov was official disapprobation and peer revilement. Even Eisenstein and John Grierson (considered the father of the documentary in the Western world) thought Man with the Movie Camera was a bit over the top.
Vertov himself perhaps was not without a sense that the film was speaking more to posterity than to the present. “We felt,” he explains, “that we had an obligation not just to make films for wide consumption, but, from time to time, films that beget films as well. Films of this sort do not pass without leaving a trace for one’s self or for others. They are essential as a pledge of future victories.” But his impatience with critics who sought to evaluate his work based on their blinkered views or categorisations was stinging: “When a critic denounces a horse for its inability to miaow, he is saying something about himself, and not the horse.”Forerunner of modern media
There were novel ideas of journalistic approach incipient in Vertov’s cinematic praxis that Cine-Eyes represented which could not, however, be developed because the state and the Party were becoming more and more ossified and less and less open to face, let alone be course-corrected by, journalistic truths. For instance, Vertov’s worker-reporter (there is the semblance of an anticipation of the modern citizen journalist here) would have served as an independent journalistic conduit for the authorities to understand a developing situation on the ground outside of the Party system of reporting. Vertov’s vision was, in his words, to “create an army of cine-observers and cine-correspondents with the aim of moving away from the authorship of a single person to mass authorship, with the aim of organising a montage vision —not an accidental but a necessary and sufficient overview of the world every few hours”.
Hicks sees this plan as a forerunner of the current-day news media in operation: “…a collectively authored, interactive, 24-hour news channel perpetually delivering not just new stories but new perspectives on the world. Vertov’s aspirations for the [Cine-Eye] movement encompass the democratisation not just of technology but also of creativity, through a transcending of the distinction between art and work”. It would seem, then, that even early on, in the bright and beckoning morning of communism, the opportunity to integrate and harness journalism as a means to arrive at the living truths that mattered to society was present and possible with such theoretical maturity, artistic sensibility and sophistication of technique, but, alas, forfeited.