“The best ever documentaries” was a poll launched by “Sight and Sound,” the magazine of the British Film Institute in 2014. Almost one-third of the 340 participant experts coincided on the answer.
Because we live in a high-tech era of computer design, instant information, drones, special effects, you likely guessed that such a documentary must have been recent. You better guess again. Experts chose “Man with a Movie Camera,” a movie from the silent era made 91 years ago. [In another “Sight and Sound” poll in 2012, the same movie was chosen as the “eighth greatest movie ever”].
Your immediate question will be: Who was the filmmaker? What made that movie so special?
The filmmaker Denis Arkadyevich Kaufman (1896 – 1954) born in Bialystock – part of the Russian empire until it became Poland territory in 1918 – was “ahead of his time and a victim of his time,” according to film scholar Vlada Petric, cited by Richard Barsam’s “Non-fiction film: A critical history.”
Kaufman was a student of Medicine, Psychology and a poet who kept an “audio laboratory” at home. He adopted the pseudonym of Dziga Vertov, names that in Ukranian language denote turning, revolving, spinning top and perpetual motion, “the keynote of the following years and of his roles on them”- wrote Erik Barnouw (“Documentary. A history of the non-fiction Film”).
“The man with the movie camera,” made in five years, was released in 1929. For his project Vertov got help from his wife Elizaveta Syilovo (assistant editor) and his brother Michael Kaufman (cameraman). The movie does not follow modern canons. You will you not find a character, a plot or dialogue. There is no hero who at the peak critical moment brings resolution to the story.
What we see, in agreement with the title, is a man with a camera whose presence is interspersed throughout the movie. He is seen in rather unusual locations on a constant search for unique angles: shooting on the streets in various unorthodox positions, laying down on the railroad until the train gets dangerously close, climbing to the top of buildings, bridges and industrial chimneys, using different transportation means (cars, trains, motorcycles), hanging from an open box above a gigantic water barrage.
It is a dynamic view of one day, from sunrise to sunset, in the life of a city. In reality, the movie was shot in three cities: Moscow, Russia, Kiev, Ukraine and Riga, Latvia. The movie is a magnificent display of photography and great composition, beautiful dynamic images, accentuated by innovative techniques.
It captures the palpitating humanity of urban life: birth, marriage, divorce, death, mass transportation (carriages, cars, buses, trams, trains), beauty shops, grocery stores, working class operators oiling their machines, shoe shiners, dance studio, office workers.
Sports are also portrayed. The black and white photography and innovations enhance the beauty of the athletic bodies, pole vault jumping, hurdles running, hammer and disc throwing.
Everything translates zest for life. There is even a sociological view, showing for instance a woman of higher social strata getting a beauty treatment in a salon, contrasting with a sweaty woman from the working class smilingly performing her routine.
There are so many innovations in this movie. Besides portraying a city life, Vertov shows how the movie was made. Moreover, the movie presents scenes of a theater with the movie operator in action, where an enthusiastic crowd walks in to watch the movie itself.
Vertov’s novel techniques stir emotions by using juxtaposition (two actions occurring simultaneously, from which scenes are shown alternate), split-screen, extreme close-up, tilt angle (also called Dutch, canted or oblique angle) and movement techniques: fast motion (a multitude gathering in downtown’s main square) and slow motion (enhancing the dramatic effect), freeze-frame and stop-motion animation.
Vertov cannot be detached from his time. He was barely in his early twenties when he participated in the Russian revolution, aiming at a new, more just society for workers. In the early stages of the revolution, when Lenin was very powerful, Vertov worked in Moscow, editing hundreds of movies that would be seen by the workers in various regions of the union.
In the late 1920s, Stalin eclipsed Lenin’s impact. Vertov who had been so important in the early ‘20s was relegated to a secondary role in Ukraine. However, it was here that he produced “The man with the movie camera” and other important movies.
As to the content, for Vertov’s the human eye is easily distracted, making difficult to objectively focus on reality. Here is where the camera, “‘the second eye” helps. It records a scene as is and later the filmmaker can analyze objectively and proceed to put different scenes in context to tell a story.
He believed in the Kino-Eye theory, “life as is,” letting images talk by themselves thus detaching the filmmaking from literature, theater and music, which typically rely on drama. In his own words, “The history of Cinema-Eye has been a relentless struggle to modify the course of world cinema, to achieve in cinema a new emphasis on the unplayed film over the played film, to substitute the document for the ‘mis en scene’, to break out of the proscenium of the theater to enter the arena of life itself.” (“Documentary. A history of non-fiction film”).
That’s why he did not believe in actors and scripts. He aimed at a natural, spontaneous portrait. Because of the isolation of the Soviet Union, the work of Vertov was little known. Decades later, however, slowly he came to occupy the place he deserved. He ended up influencing documentary filmmaking trends in the United Kingdom, Canada and the U.S.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, Vertov still exerted influence, for example on the French “Cinema Verite’.” Jean-Luc Godard, the famous French director was part of the self-denominated “Dziga Vertov Group,” a radical filmmaking cooperative that operated in the late 1960s.
Cinema books are unanimous on the transcendence of Vertov. In fact, the classic book of Barnouw displays a picture of Michael Kaufman and camera on its cover. [A note of curiosity: years later Boris Kaufman – younger brother of Dziga and Michael, emigrated to the U.S. and was the cinematographer of Elia Kazan’s award winning “On the Waterfront.” Boris regarded Michael as his teacher].
Two final comments: first, a documentary without script and actors, a realistic approach did serve Vertov’s specific purpose. However, other movie genres (entertainment, adventure, science fiction, historical, etc.) cannot be conceived without a script, actors and a stage.
Second, the poll of the British Film Institute proved that great ideas and creativity are the key ingredients on the making of a great movie, not sophisticated technological advances “per se”.